Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Tackling The Problem Of Combined Sewer Overflow: Why Can't New York Be More Like London?

 (photos courtesy of

While New York City has once again wiggled out of its obligation under law to stop combined sewer overflows (CSOs) from its sewer system to flow into surrounding waters with the blessing of the NYState Department of Environmental Conservation, London is facing its CSO problem head on.

Both Cities have aging sewer systems. Both systems discharge untreated sewage and industrial wastewater that occur when wet weather flows exceed the treatment capacity of these combined sewer systems. Both have a growing population. Yet New York is trying to push the problem further down the road and London is planning the Thames Tunnel "that will tackle the problem of overflows from the capital's Victorian servers and will protect the River Thames from increasing pollution for at least the next 100 years." Construction of the Tunnel Project is slated to begin in 2016.

In comparison, New York is implementing a Green Infrastructure Plan "which relies upon modeling to project CSO reductions based on information available to date, that would result from managing stormwater equivalent to one inch of rainfall on 10% of available impervious surfaces in the City's combined sewer areas by 2030."

Though Green Infrastructure is great, the New York City's plan is certainly a drop in the bucket and will not address the CSO problem in any meaningful way. It simply is not enough, unless the City commits to upgrading its gray infrastructure with forward thinking projects like the Thames Tunnel.

Just this Monday night, I was sitting at a Gowanus Canal Superfund Community Advisory meeting with
representatives of NYC DEP pleading for more help from the agency to reduce the CSO's in the Gowanus Canal. Yes, New York City is currently in the process of implementing upgrades to the Gowanus Canal facilities, which it claims will reduce CSO discharges by about 34% and another 10% from newly installed High-Level Storm Sewers and green infrastructure, but the community is asking for more. Much more.
It is important for the community to remember that the green infrastructure plan is at the design bid phase and it will be some time until any goals are achieved. It has also vital for Gowanus residents to remember, as it has been pointed out, that the Flushing Tunnel work does not focus on actual CSO reductions but is simply doing what is needed to keep a 101-year old system running. While the pump station and force main improvements lead to actual CSO reductions, it should be noted that this 136 million gallon annual CSO reduction into the Canal is partly offset by a 41 million gallon annual CSO increase into the Atlantic Basin, Buttermilk Channel and East River from sewage being diverted outside the Canal. (2008 Gowanus Waterbody/Watershed Facility Plan, Table 7-9.)

So what is the difference between New York and London? Why is our City so resistant to solving a real problem that poses both a human health and environmental risk? Is it just political will? Is it disregard for its citizens?
If it is a question of money, New York City should talk to London. The Thames Tunnel is "expected to directly create over 4,000 jobs at the peak of its planned seven-year construction phase, and a further 5,000 indirectly. Generating the equivalent of 19,000 employment years, this would be a major stimulus for the wider economy of communities along the tunnel’s 15-mile route and beyond."
London sees it as vital for its economy.

Mayor Bloomberg, perhaps you can give Boris Johnson a call?



Anonymous said...

With massive infrastructure comes massive costs. Perhaps you should find out how London is financing this, because the most realistic way to finance big infrastructure is to create a larger tax base.

But we have seen what kind of reaction dense developments get here...

Katia said...

Growth and the infrastructure required to support it are
always linked.
But infrastructure and human health, it seems to me, need to come first.

Anonymous said...

The article stated that London plans on starting this project in 2016 and finish the tunneling in six years--sounds like the same time frame as the Gowanus Superfund but London's project is on much larger scale.

Couldn't our "world class" DEP undertake a much smaller Gowanus CSO prevention tunneling project for the comparatively smaller 1.25 mile Gowanus and complete it in far less than six years--right along side of the Superfund work?

Isn't NY a world class city too?

Anonymous said...

whole foods is more important to our area than infrastructure. Duh. ;). ;)

Anonymous said...

simple math - Americans spend an average of 1.8% of their income on alcohol and tobacco. In the U.K., it's 4.8%.

That translates to significant more tax revenue to fund public works.

Katia said...

Let's start drinking then...

Chris from London said...

New York is very lucky it hasn't (yet) been targeted by the kind of vultures we currently have creeping around the Thames....

The proposed Thames Water super-sewer is solving the wrong problem: the symptom rather than the cause of the overflows.  

And it is absolutely unaffordable: the UK Parliament has just proposed a bill which amounts to nothing less than a taxpayer bailout of the mammoth £4.1bn project (up from its c. £1.5bn 2005 estimate) before anything has even been kicked off...  Unlike with bailed out banks, taxpayers wouldn't even own the bailed out asset; much the opposite, they would be taxed for perpetuity for its maintenance.  You might think: "that's the cost of cleaning up the river" but this would be glossing over the fact that the offshore private equity outfit, which coincidentally acquired Thames Water a few months after the super-sewer was first proposed in 2006, has been siphoning its equity away as juicy 'special dividends' (call them bonuses if you like) ever since...

Lots of money spinning around this one then (don't you think Thames Water's wonderful marketing material which you reproduce above looks a little too good?  Why on earth should they spend so much  money promoting a scheme like this?) and a regulator which has been incapacitated... rings a bell?

Some US cities are much more enlightened in that respect, eg: Chicago.  Milwaukee on the other hand tried a super-sewer and aren't too happy with the outcome.

So what are the solutions? The answer might surprise you.  We have spent a significant amount of time researching them.  Please see here for yourself: