Is New York flushing away its summer fun? Our century-old sewer system is already so overburdened that it overflows 70 days a year—dumping 27 billion gallons of waste into the city’s waterways, just as high-rises are going up on their banks. (Even the ever-fetid Gowanus Canal is being lined with housing.) Last summer, two city beaches were closed because of high bacterial levels; experts say all this building is going to make the problem worse. And while it’s still pretty safe to kayak on the Hudson this summer, within ten years, “I could easily see beaches closing for much of the summer season,” says biophysicist Paul Mankiewicz of the Gaia Institute.
All it takes is a tenth of an inch of rain falling in an hour—a tenth!—for the sewer system to start emptying into the rivers. It’s partly a problem of neglect: In 1992, the city’s treatment plants were in such disrepair that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation sued under the Clean Water Act; the city has never allayed the DEC’s concerns, and the State Supreme Court upheld a $13.9 million fine against the city last April.
Meanwhile, the city’s population has edged over 8 million, and the Department of Planning is expecting at least 37,000 new apartments citywide in the next ten years. “We’re operating under the assumption the sewers can handle it,” says a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. “If we didn’t think so, developers wouldn’t get a permit to connect to the system. And that’s all we have to say.”
But even developers seem to recognize the issue. In part to deflect the anger of neighborhood activists, the developers of the massive Atlantic Yards complex in Brooklyn promised to build underground tanks to collect up to 800,000 gallons of storm-water runoff, and to install newfangled “waterless urinals.”
Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia have a broader wastewater policy that relies more on soil and parks to manage flow, but such ideas have not made headway in New York. “Wet-weather flows are not something they’re requiring builders to deal with at all,” says Brad Sewell, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council—instead, the city’s policy on sewage focuses entirely on projects whose cost is borne by the taxpayer: new pipes, new tanks, and improvements to treatment plans. “The city’s approach to this problem is not only irresponsible but a complete waste of taxpayers’ dollars,” says Basil Seggos of the environmental group Riverkeeper.