Gray and green: The story of a big-city sewer system that worked too well

City-aided rooftop farm at Brooklyn Navy Yard. (City DEP, via flickr)
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On any given dry day, 1.3 billion gallons of water flow off the streets and down drains into New York City’s sewage system.

Most of the time the system works flawlessly, and invisibly, and so sewage gets less attention than more conspicuous infrastructural issues, like transit and communications. Plus sewage is just gross.

What this means, in political terms, is that there isn't much payoff for dealing with what is in truth an aging and chronically failing network. So when it rains a tenth of an inch, as happens about fifty times a year, and the sewers get overloaded and spill a portion of what amounts to 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage—from whole feces to toxic sludge—directly into New York Harbor annually, it's just treated by the city as a fact of life. 

That was the case, at least, until two years ago. In a highly unusual marriage of political appeal and long-term sewage planning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office revealed a plan to solve the most pressing sewage concerns of the city through “green infrastructure.”

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Rather than spending untold sums on traditional bricks-and-mortar projects that most residents would never see, the administration’s plan proposed using low-cost technologies to reduce the flow of stormwater into the sewers while simultaneously beautifying the city, thus keeping the bay and rivers safe from “floatables” and improving the standard of living, all at a substantially lower cost than anyone thought possible. 

But as with all things that seem too good to be true, there are complications: Since the plan was first proposed, a few politicians and environmental watchdogs have raised concerns about whether the green projects will delay or displace urgently needed, long-term work on the city's sewage problems, and whether these new solutions might in fact have the effect, in certain parts of New York, of making matters worse.

THE IDEA THAT GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE MIGHT not on its own be enough to fix New York's sewage system comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with this colossal underground world.

As of 2008, the State Department of Environmental Conservation reported that the city’s system consisted of 6,000 miles of pipes, 135,000 sewer catch basins, 93 pump stations, and 14 massive sewage treatment plants. The majority of the city's sewer pipes, laid long before the federal government passed the 1972 Clean Water Act and mandated newer technologies, are part of what is called a “combined sewer system.” Most of this system was in fact laid out 50 to 150 years ago, and there have been few major upgrades since then.

It takes a staff of 6,000 and $2 billion a year just to maintain these antiquated systems.

The way it works is that the pipes catch all the water both from human use and from rain runoff. Rain overflows the system, redirecting excess sewage from treatment plants to open bodies of water through 450 known outfall points (although many unknown outfall points exist—activists working in the Gowanus Canal believe that particular water body contains at least 200 pipes and outflows of unknown origin).

The network of pipes and drains is incredibly intricate.

Trying to describe its layout, Steve Duncan, an urban historian and sewer-explorer who operates the site Undercity.org, said, “Imagine if you’ve never seen highways before and you wound up on one of those curlicues of entry ramps."

Duncan, who has actually navigated many of the city's larger sewer networks, says that there are huge structural variations even between different parts of the same system.

He explores tunnels that are more than five feet in diameter. In systems like Tippet Brook, a real waterway used for sewage in the South Bronx, later bricked up and redirected underground, he has been able to navigate comfortably through an eight-foot-wide access tunnel.

Once inside the brick-and-mortar system, he wades through water that appears sparkling, often only filling one-tenth of the tunnel. That water is toxic, full of scum and chemicals. The system has remained untouched so long that stalactites of solidified sewage now hang off the walls.

He's been inside other systems, like the Knickerbocker Avenue Extension and the Green Avenue Sewer, which are grander, and were considered engineering marvels when they were built in the late 19th century. Green Avenue alone runs 18 feet wide under the city, larger than any subway tunnel (big enough, if there were a road running through it, to accommodate two lanes of traffic) and consists of much of the same laid brick from over 100 years ago.

Duncan refers on his website, without undue hyperbole, of his sewer-going as a means of discovering the "multi-dimensional history and complexity of the great metropolises of the world."

Combined sewage systems are endemic throughout the northeast and other regions that were highly urbanized or industrialized by the dawn of the twentieth century. But New York’s system dwarfs the rest, accounting for ten percent of all combined-sewage overflows in the nation. Yet the system remains largely untouched and unchanged.

“You have a technology that is so capital-intensive when you put it in the ground, to fix it or change it is to dig it all up again,” said Martin Melosi, a professor of history at the University of Houston and author of The Sanitary City, a history of sewage infrastructure in the U.S. from colonial times to present.

Overhauling the system (replacing one set of pipes with separate pipes for sanitary waste and stormwater, or just adding new detention centers to prevent stormwater from flooding existing pipes and overflowing sewage into the rivers), said Melosi, is "impossible.”

THE OUTFLOWS FROM SEWERS INTO OPEN WATERS regularly close public access to points in the harbor, and has transformed areas like Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal into perpetual rivers of sludge. Of all the claims of impaired waterways in the state in a given year, 84 percent result from sewage dumping directly into rivers and the bay.

Outflows into open bodies of water, presented as safe after dilution into the sea, may be more dangerous than they seem on paper, as marine ecosystems allow for sewage to pool and concentrate at points along the harbor. Around Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, sewage not only seeps out of pipes into open waters— it backs up into basement storm drains and through home pipes.

Unkempt sewers lead to more than just overflows of sewage. In a disturbing story by CBS 2 this November, investigators discovered that massive swarms and colonies of mosquitoes currently breed in the sewers, and have become a summer nuisance on the Upper West Side, rising up through openings in basements and roads (and leading to over-reporting of bedbugs by confused residents).

Duncan, the sewer-explorer, corroborates this story, and says that each city’s sewers develop their own unique fauna—London has rats, Los Angeles has every type of spider imaginable, and New York’s sewers have not just mosquitoes, but play host to incredible hordes of cockroaches.

The city plugs cracks and sinkholes whenever possible, but cannot systematically address the mosquitoes, cockroaches, or the entirety of the sewage overflows. Any fix to a local problem like the Upper West Side’s pests involves long-term, sewer-wide, incredibly costly fixes.

SEWAGE PROBLEMS DO NOT AFFECT ALL AREAS OF THE CITY EQUALLY, and in fact tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods that have other problems as well. 

In a video produced by the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Harlem environmental-justice advocate Cecil Corbin-Mark says that, while the benefits of sewage systems are widespread, the burdens are highly localized. And those burdens fall disproportionately on poor and traditionally minority neighborhoods, with only three of New York’s 14 treatment plants operating in communities that aren't majority black or Latino. The Northriver Sewage Treatment Plant in Hamilton Heights serves sewage communities from Tribeca to Riverdale.

Or, as Corbin-Mark put it, “When Robert DeNiro flushes his toilet, Harlem has to deal with it.”

One of the only major cases to address the issue of odor problems (just one of the burdens of hosting a treatment plant) occurred in the summer of 2010 in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx. A large coalition of community groups—Mothers on the Move and the Natural Resource Defense Council, among others—banded together to address the issue of the stench from their local treatment plant. They successfully argued that the burdens of dumping infrastructure into low-income, marginalized regions had led to a decreased standard of living and economic detriment to an already stressed neighborhood.

But the Hunts Point case illustrated the costs of repairing the system, even with a goal as modest as reducing the smell from one facility. $87,000 of city money alone went to hiring a consultant to confirm that the stink in the neighborhood emanated from the treatment plant in question. Then $20 million went toward installing odor-control facilities, while another $500,000 went to reclaiming a portion of unused sewage-facility land for public use.

This only addressed one facility of the 35 known sanitation stations, 23 waste-transfer stations and five major sewage overflows in the region.

And Hunts Point was the exception.

“People in poor and-or black neighborhoods can complain all they want," Melosi said. But nothing will happen "if they’re not considered politically viable."

Melosi sees sewage maintenance as a largely political issue, like sanitation infrastructure in general; nothing gets cleaned up and nothing gets improved unless the votes (or campaign contributions) in that region become important. The Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, he points out, did not close because it was full or for fear of a long-term environmental threat. It was closed because then-mayor Rudy Giuliani saw Staten Island voters as a vital part of his base of support, and they didn't like it, so he and his allies used their personal and political influence to get the state to close it.

Likewise, the sewer system only came into existence in response to massive and chronic waterborne illnesses. By 1903, when work began in earnest on sanitation in the city, 141,564 New Yorkers had died of cholera. It was the state and federal government that stepped in to take action, because the rate of illness threatened the city's very existence, and had become a national-scale concern.

ONE OF THE FRUSTRATING THINGS ABOUT THE STATE of the city's sewage system, as a political issue, is that there's no one particular bad guy to pin blame on or, more constructively, to spur to action. There’s simply no incentive to fix the system until there’s an emergency.

The first major citywide infrastructure was public water; water as a public work was seen as a revenue generator. Sewage, on the other hand, has never generated revenue. People refer to money spent poorly as having been flushed down the toilet for a reason: Investing in sewer system is a loser, with invisible gains, massive costs, the need for governmental involvement on a massive scale, and equally big logistical challenges popping up regularly for as long as the system is in operation. 

Historically, whenever health and national legislation necessitated an upgrade in the sewage system, the federal government has led the charge. In the mid-to-late-20th century, federal grants floated 55 to 75 percent of the bills for massive new sewage projects. But within the past 20 years especially, the federal government has backed out of funding infrastructure, starting with a switch from grants for projects to low-interest loans.

According to the state Department for Environmental Conservation, the last 20 years saw a 70 percent decrease in federal funding of infrastructure projects—in 1987, the federal government provided $2.4 billion yearly in grants for sewage infrastructure, while in 2008 that number dropped to $687 million yearly.

Since 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency has targeted combined sewer systems like New York’s for upgrades, but offered little aid to local governments to achieve that goal. When Congress adopted the E.P.A.’s ideas into legislation in 2000, it promised a measly $1.5 billion for upgrade projects. But that money never materialized. In fact, federal money for upgrade and maintenance of federally constructed sewage infrastructure declined rapidly exactly as most of the pipes and stations built with federal money started to near the end of their functional lives, pushing impossible costs onto local governments.

Putting those numbers into perspective, the E.P.A.’s conservative estimates for 27 necessary upgrade programs for the aging systems in New York City alone come out to $21.1 billion dollars. The cheapest project costs $884,391, while the most expensive, an overhaul of the Newtown Creek facilities, costs $4 billion. The D.E.C. estimates that climate change in the near future could add another $1 billion to the Newtown costs alone.

This does not include the city’s obligations to build new facilities, or reckon with any attempt to switch New York over from its troublesome combined system to a more manageable system. (Such a conversion would require tearing up most of the city or committing to difficult underground construction).

Typically, the federal budget meets 19 percent of the minimum of funding required for the bare minimum of necessary upgrades. The massive Federal Stimulus Act of 2009, for all the language it lavished on infrastructure, allocated only $518 million for new construction projects. In 2011, federal giving dropped to $227 million, and in 2012 it may fall to 2008 levels, just $75 million.

New York’s government tries to close that gap. In 1996, voters and politicians agreed to raise $11 billion for sewage infrastructure. But that money is spent and gone.

Political structure does not match infrastructure needs. The Northern Long Island Watershed alone splits between the 5th, 7th, 12th, 15th, and 16th congressional districts and spans outflow points and facilities in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx.

State officials make attempts to secure funding for the sewage system. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand appealed to the White House Office of Management and Budget earlier this year to include $2.1 bullion for clean water initiatives for New York in the 2013 budget.

”Despite a 2001 agreement to reduce nitrogen inputs to the [Long Island] Sound by almost 60 percent, sewage treatment plants within its watershed have not been upgraded to include nitrogen removal processes,” she said.

Alongside good, old-fashioned guilt, Gillibrand tried to sell infrastructure investment on the more politically compelling grounds of job creation. By Gillibrand’s analysis, a $1 million investment in water infrastructure leads to 8.7 jobs directly and enables 3.68 more jobs elsewhere in the economy, spurring private investment, attracting business to communities, and reducing local property taxes.

But even if those numbers are accurate, Gillibrand’s analysis ignores the fact that one does not sink $1 million at a time into sewage infrastructure. It’s $1 billion and 8,700 jobs, or nothing at all.

IN THE SUMMER OF 2010, MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG and then-city environmental commissioner Cas Holloway released a document entitled “NYC Green Infrastructure Plan: A Sustainable Strategy for Clean Waterways.” The plan contained every buzz-phrase an analyst could imagine: decrease sewage overflows, increase standard of living, cost-effective, flexible, funded, long-term sustainability, green technology.

The delivery system would consist of things like a series of green and blue roofs, parks, tree boxes, roadside shrubs, water-retaining pavements, rainwater holders and so on, to sequester rainwater and prevent up to 10 percent of rains from entering the sewers. The city estimates that this would reduce the amount of sewage dumped into the rivers every year by 12 billion gallons.

At the same time, the green projects will make the city more livable, reclaim space for citizens to use, and (as it takes far less manpower and maintenance to plant and grow a tree than to build, staff, and maintain a treatment plant) save New Yorkers between $139 and $418 million in bills yearly.

Better yet, the plan costs virtually nothing: a grand total of $2.4 billion invested over 20 years should, by the city’s estimates, meet these goals. Of that, the city is prepared to pay $1.5 billion, with $187 million ready to spend between 2010 and 2014. The city claims it would have to spend at least $3.9 billion on traditional pipes and pumps to achieve the same results. The extra $900 million would come via the private sector as new regulations forced building owners and businesses to install green infrastructure.