Climate Change Is Putting More Poop in New York’s Waters

Newtown Creek
Photo: Bryan Pocius / Getty Images

One scorching August morning at the Hunter’s Point South boat launch, Sanjay Shirke crouched down on the slippery rocks by the water’s edge and dipped a small transparent bottle into the mouth of Newtown Creek. . His feet slid slightly, but he quickly regained his balance. “I’ve been in it before,” he joked, pulling the bottle out of the stream. The lapping of the water at the boat launch seemed almost inviting, flowing serenely into the East River, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Then I remembered that the water that Shirke collected would be analyzed by a nonprofit testing lab to determine how much Enterococci it contained. And that, in essence, would indicate how much human poop was present.

Shirke, who volunteers with the non-profit boating organization HarborLAB, takes these samples to make sure the children he takes canoeing and kayaking don’t get sick from the water. This is something that many members of nautical organizations do. Unfortunately, the results of his sample that day showed levels of enterococci which he summed up as “everyone out of the water!” – put anyone who has capsized at risk of skin or eye infections and even more serious diseases such as hepatitis and meningitis.

The problem of raw sewage in New York City’s waterways is not new, but record precipitation this summer, the second wetter in the city’s history, has made it a sadly common presence along our 522 mile coastline. This is because about 60 percent New York City is still served by a combined sewer system, which carries wastewater and stormwater to a treatment plant in a single pipe. Having plumbing throughout the city was an upgrade in the late 19th century when the system was built, compared to dumping dependency content directly into the nearest body of water. But when it rains as little as a tenth of an inch per hour – about 30 to 45 minutes of light rain – the combined runoff of sewage and stormwater can exceed the capacity of the city’s 14 treatment plants and is discharged into waterways in so-called a combined sewer overflow. In an average year, about 21 billion gallons of polluted stormwater and raw sewage – enough to fill the Empire State Building 72 times, according to the environmental organization Riverkeeper – pour into the city’s waters. After decades of regulations aimed at reducing industrial pollution and illegal discharges that have helped make New York City’s waters the cleanest they have been in a century, climate change threatens this new benchmark. Local water quality advocates see this summer as a warning about what’s to come more extreme precipitation. After all, “the city’s waterways are still used as an open sewer,” says Mike Dulong, senior lawyer at Riverkeeper.

Wastewater flows into Newtown Creek.
Photo: Courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance

It was already shaping up to be a historic summer for precipitation when Tropical Storm Ida hit the city in early September, breaking the record for the wettest hour set by Tropical Storm Henri just 11 days earlier. After Ida, Newtown Creek, which has some of the city’s worst overflows, turned into a slimy brown wave of sewage and stormwater pouring into the dark blue waters of the East River. Even before the arrival of tropical storms, the summer precipitation had already disrupted events in the city. In July, the New York City Triathlon had to cancel the swim portion after bacteria levels in the Hudson River were found to be nine times higher than the safety threshold of the Ministry of Health. According to Willis Elkins, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance and a boathouse board member, the North Brooklyn Community Boathouse has had to postpone half of its summer public events in Newtown Creek due to enterococcal levels. dangerous.

Of course, summers are not only rainier, but also hotter, and that pushes more New Yorkers to local beaches, nautical clubs and events such as “paddle” movie nights. “There is a new generation of people using the harbor in a different way – getting on boats, swimming from the shore – and we want to understand what water quality looks like for humans near shore,” says Rob. Buchanan, who launched the Citizen’s water quality analysis program ten years ago, after a Harlem wastewater treatment plant fire sent millions of gallons of untreated sewage to the Hudson and Harlem rivers. Every Thursday from May to October, CWQT sends some 75 volunteers, often members of local yacht clubs like Shirke, to collect water samples for enterococci. “It has become this advocacy platform because the data is very compelling unlike the complaints,” Buchanan said. For example, in 2014, the group’s tests helped DEP discover that an apartment building in Astoria was discharging sewage directly into the East River. As the volunteers continue to pick up 2021 dataBuchanan is confident this season’s results will show a majority of weekly “red” scores that violate Department of Health standards for swimming.

The areas most affected by overflows are tributaries such as the Bronx River, Flushing Creek, Coney Island Creek, Newtown Creek, and the Gowanus Canal (site of the infamous 2010 “poonami”) because they are further inland, and although they are still technically tidal, they are not flushed with seawater as often as the East and Hudson rivers. In small tributaries like Newtown Creek, sewage contamination can last for a few days. “Sometimes it’s a river of sewage flowing out of one of the pipes,” Elkins explains. “Other times it’s a more subtle gray-brown water that slowly emanates from the streams. There will be things like wet wipes, poo bubbles and everything in between. “

A sign warns passers-by of a point of combined sewage overflow.
Photo: Courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance

Such upsetting scenes can occur even after the city has reduced overflows by 80% over the past 40 years. In the last phase of improvements, DEP implemented a series of plans mandated by the state to reduce overflows and meet EPA requirements for “peachable and swimmable” waters. It currently separates the combined sewer lines at Gowanus, College Point and Canarsie. The city has also spent billions of dollars to build CSO storage tanks – huge underground vessels where millions of gallons of sewage-contaminated water can be diverted during a storm and then pumped to a wastewater treatment plant. sewage once the weather is clear – in areas like the Paerdegat basin. , near Jamaica Bay and Alley Creek in Queens. Plans are currently underway for two storage tanks for the Gowanus Canal and a 39 million gallon storage tunnel at Newtown Creek. Further up the watershed, DEP has also built thousands of street-side rain gardens filled with native, water-loving plants that can absorb stormwater from the street that would otherwise flow into the water system. ‘combined sewers. He even tried a SMS notification program, sending reminders to New Yorkers to conserve water during thunderstorms by delaying dishes, laundry or even flushing the toilet.

However, water quality advocates are not convinced recent plans go far enough. On the one hand, all new infrastructure is based on 2008 as an average rainfall year, when 46 inches fell at JFK – but as recently as 2018, a particularly rainy year, 57 inches fell. That year there was a combined sewer overflow once every three days. According to the DEP, 2008 was chosen because it was one of the rainiest years before the city submitted its plans for state approval in 2012. “They are not looking forward to the additional rain that we are going to see with climate change,” Dulong said. A bigger problem, he adds, is that many of the sewage treatment plants and outfalls are in low-lying areas, “so sea level rise has the potential to damage. ‘have an impact on their functioning’.

A few weeks after I met Shirke in August, he took his regular Thursday sample in what he calls “oogy water” the day after Ida. His site, as well as most of Newtown Creek, showed that enterococci levels were above 24,000 colonies per 100 milliliters of water – anything over 104 is sufficient to close a range. Levels were equally high in Flushing Bay and the Wallabout Channel, but CWQT doesn’t have the exact numbers – the bacteria levels exceeded what the testing system could even read.

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