NYC has a plan to clean its sewage-filled waterways. Does it go far enough

EveryEvery time it rains in New York, millions of gallons of sewage-laced stormwater flows into the city’s waterways. Instead of being diverted to a wastewater treatment plant, what goes down your toilet ends up floating along rivers, canals, beaches, and waterfront parks. All told, more than 20 billion gallons of feces-polluted water is flushed out onto the city’s coastline every year.

This deluge is the result of New York’s antiquated combined sewer overflow (CSO) system, which was first introduced in the 1800s. About 60 percent of the city is still hooked in to this system, which allows stormwater from the streets to be combined with raw sewage; whenever a rainstorm overwhelms the sewers, that gross mixture flows into waterways around the five boroughs. The coast of New York City is lined with 460 outfall locations, each one discharging millions of gallons of sewage into New York Harbor every year.

Also read: sewage cleanup in New York City

To help curb this problem, and to try and bring the city into compliance with the Clean Water Act, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been working since 2012 to create a series of 11 Long Term Control Plans (LTCP), which would impact sewage overflows around all five boroughs. Nine have already been approved and advanced, bringing more than $3 billion dollars of investment to badly polluted waterways like the Flushing Creek and Newtown Creek, where floating human waste is a common sight.

DEP held a public meeting to announce its recommendations for the last and largest of its plans, the Citywide/Open Waters LTCP. This was intended to improve the health of more than 100 miles of the city’s waterfront, stretching along the Harlem, Hudson, and East Rivers; the Long Island Sound, the New York Bay, the Kill van Kull, and the Arthur Kill. There are 314 CSO outfalls on the shores of these waterways, dumping out 11 billion gallons of polluted stormwater every year.

The DEP has been working since 2016 to determine how to minimize sewage overflows into these enormous bodies of water, utilizing a complicated cost-benefit analysis. The agency is now recommending five different measures as part of the Citywide/Open Waters plan, which would decrease CSO discharges by 241 million gallons a year, at a cost of $72 million. The plan would impact nine specific CSO outfall locations: three in Manhattan, three in Brooklyn, two in Queens, one in Staten Island, and none in the Bronx.

“We ended up looking at over 100,000 permutations of potential projects. So that’s a lot of alternatives that were looked at, compared to the five that were presented,” Mikelle Adgate, a senior advisor for strategic planning at the DEP, said during the January meeting. “It has been a massive undertaking for the agency.”

Despite the years of work that went into this plan, advocates who had gathered to hear the DEP announce its plan summary were not impressed. Representatives from Riverkeeper, the SWIM Coalition, the Billion Oyster Project, and many others have been following the LTCP process for years, providing feedback and insight into the waterways they represent. After hearing the limited scope of the city’s Citywide/Open Waters plan, many of the attendees stood up to publicly express their frustration and dismay.

“In terms of this plan and how we are looking forward, it feels to me like it’s barely a drop in the bucket,” said City Councilmember Brad Lander, whose district includes the Gowanus Canal and a section of the East River. “We are talking about something like more than 11 billion gallons of CSOs entering the open waters each year, and this plan—to reduce that by 241 million gallons—is not even a three percent reduction. And $72 million, when what is going in to Gowanus is going to be over a billion dollars, is not a serious effort on all our parts. We’ve got to do better.”

“I hate to be blunt about it, but there has been a lot of years building up to this, there’s been a lot of other plans, a lot of disagreements about other plans, but when you look at this plan, being for the largest portion of the city’s waterways, for half of the CSO volume in the city… it doesn’t add up,” said Lawrence Levine, the director of urban water infrastructure at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s hard to take it with a straight face, to be honest.”

The five recommended proposals from the Citywide/Open Waters plan would impact a disparate array of CSO outfall locations, including off-limits parts of the Brooklyn waterfront, a private beach in Queens, and a section of Manhattan’s Riverside Park that has relatively few overflow problems. Tracking these down is a bit like an toxic Easter egg hunt; every outfall in the city is supposedly marked by a bright green and yellow sign, warning the public to avoid using the water for fishing, swimming, or boating during rainstorms. In reality, many of these signs have gone missing or are hidden on remote coastlines.

It is difficult to understand how improving these four specific outfalls would provide a direct benefit to the city’s fishermen, boaters, and swimmers, as mandated by the Clean Water Act. There are many other outfall locations on the New York Bay—some of which are located inside busy waterfront areas, such as Bush Terminal Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park—but the plan does not suggest improving these. Overall, the DEP’s plan would reduce sewage overflows into the New York Bay by just 148 million gallons, which is only a 4.8 percent decrease from the estimated 3 billion gallons that flow into the waterway every year.