On Tuesday, January 17th, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced the installation of two inflatable dams in existing Brooklyn sewer lines to help control sewer overflow (a mix of stormwater and wastewater) from storms. The rubber devices, one of which will mitigate overflow from the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (the other’s in Red Hook), will store over four million gallons of runoff and wastewater for treatment after every rain.
“If the treatment plants are full, the combined sewer overflow goes into the Lower East River,” said Deputy Commissioner Vincent Sapienza of the DEP’s Bureau of Wastewater treatment. Sewer networks funnel runoff into water treatment plants to be purified before being released into the harbor. However, the plants can only accommodate a limited amount of drainage at one time: 1.3 billion gallons per day from all 14 facilities in Brooklyn. The rest flows directly to the rivers: garbage, contaminants, and all.
“Over the last couple years we’ve had several pilot programs,” said Sapienza. “We considered holding tanks like in Flushing Bay, but they are very expensive. These dams were the best option.”
Implementation of the $15.7 million project took place over the past several months. “There were a lot of adjustments,” said Mercedes Padilla of the DEP. “But finally, last week, the rain allowed for a final test.” Deemed fully functional, the dams were hooked to the spouts of the sewer pipes in Williamsburg and Red Hook. Automated sensors cause the dams to inflate during a storm, serving as a holding tank, and the retained water is filtered at the nearby treatment plants.
The dams are only one small component of the City’s $2.4 billion NYC Green Infrastructure Plan which aims to clean up New York City’s waterways over the next 20 years. “These measures are most effective,” Commissioner Sapienza said about green infrastructure. “The water never gets to the sewers in the first place. Less stormwater lowers the amount of sewage that goes into the harbor.”
Few places would benefit from such renovations more than Greenpoint. “This helps a little bit,” countered Assemblyman Joe Lentol. “But I suspect it doesn’t help a great deal. We still have an ancient sewer system in Greenpoint.”
Lentol called the dams only a “stopgap measure” and elaborated on how sewage inadequacies are especially precarious for the neighborhood. “We’re in particularly dangerous spot here,” said Lentol. “We sit on Newtown Creek.” The tributaries bordering Greenpoint make the area susceptible rising water levels, which backs up storm sewers. “The storm sewers then overflow into people’s basements.”
Although Lentol has been pushing for improvements in sewage infrastructure for years and Mayor Bloomberg has made sewage and waterway development a priority, upgrades are uncertain. “We’ll have a new administration in two years, so I don’t know what will happen,” Lentol said.
The NYC Green Infrastructure Plan is still in its infancy, and has a long way to go. Nevertheless, “the river is the cleanest it’s been in 100 years,” said Padilla.
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