Bronx River could test clean water plans

‘Let us show you how to think small,’

environmentalists tell city

By Christina Davis

Plantings along streets would absorb rainfall, keeping it out of the sewers, say environmentalists. This rendering from the Gaia Institute shows Lafayette Avenue as it might look if the institute’

s proposal for capturing storm water were implemented.

Dart Westphal wants to go swimming in the Bronx River. As chair of the Bronx River Alliance, he thinks someday the river might be clean enough, if only City Hall will listen.

The Alliance has spawned a coalition of environmental organizations called S.W.I.M., which is campaigning for a plan to keep the river clean by preventing polluted storm water from reaching the sewer system.

The city has a different plan, one that involves spending billions of dollars to build enormous holding tanks to capture the storm water after it has already run into the sewers.

Like many older cities, New York uses the same pipes to carry storm water and the waste flushed from millions of toilets. Ordinarily, the pipes carry the mixture to treatment plants, like the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant on the East River, next door to Barretto Point Park. But when it rains, as little as one-twentieth of an inch of rainfall can disrupt the sewer system.

As the rain falls, the storm water gathers the litter from sidewalks, the oil slicks from cars, the chemical deposits on the streets. Much of it flows into the sewers, overtaxing their capacity. When that happens, overflow pipes dump the contaminated rainwater and the sewage into the nearest creek, river, or bay.

Each year, more than 27 billion gallons of untreated wastewater finds its way into the city’s waterways, discharged from 460 overflow pipes, including five that empty dirty water into the Bronx River.

The city Department of Environmental Protection wants to redirect that water to tanks, from which it will be pumped to treatment plants when the weather is dry.

S.W.I.M. and other local environmental groups say much of the rainwater never needs to reach the sewers. They believe that creatively capturing storm water is the key to making the Bronx River swimmable.

Environmentalists are disappointed that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s highly-publicized PlaNYC, which outlines goals for the city in the year 2030, calls for making 90% of the city’s waterways safe for boating, saying that doesn’t go far enough. The cleaner standard they are striving for would rely on nature’s own ways of reducing pollution, they contend.

The two views clashed at a meeting in April at the Police Athletic League in Longwood, where DEP officials and local stakeholders presented their views on cleaning up the Bronx River.

The environmentalists of S.W.I.M. envision using plantings to capture rainwater on green rooftops, in sidewalk gardens, on tree-lined streets, and in green streets, the small plots of planted land the Parks Department maintains throughout the city.

The plantings would be designed to capture rainwater and filter it naturally. The roots of these plants would filter and cleanse the storm water, while their leaves would help to purify the air.

Along the Bronx River itself, environmentalists wish to restore the salt marshes and shellfish beds that once flourished there. Groups such as Rocking the Boat are already working to reintroduce oysters and spartina grasses, which act as natural filters.

S.W.I.M. and its allies also call for education programs, incentives, and regulations to induce businesses and building owners to capture their own storm water by build their own small-scale holding tanks, ranging in size from rain barrels on up. The water could be used to irrigate plantings. Residents would be shown how to conserve water and told what substances are harmful to pour down the sink.

The environmentalists believe that educating citizens so that they can take responsibility for storm water would be cost effictive and environmentally friendly. They offer five simple steps anyone can take to help keep waterways clean (see accompanying story). “It’s not just an environmental concept. It’s more logical,” said Karen Argenti, chair of the Bronx Council on Environmental Quality’s water committee.

She and other environmentalists fear that the DEP is relying too heavily on a big-building approach when it proposes pumping storm water from holding tanks to sewage treatment plants, at the cost of billions of dollars. A report issued by Riverkeeper, one of the founders of the S.W.I.M. coalition, calls the approach “obsolete” as well as expensive, and says it will not solve the problem.

S.W.I.M points to Philadelphia and Chicago as examples of cities that “think small,” to control storm water. The Bronx River Watershed would be the perfect place to test similar solutions, says Teresa Crimmens, of the Bronx River Alliance.

The Bronx River is the “only freshwater river within the city limits,” Crimmens points out, explaining that because it flows from Westchester to the East River without mixing with other streams and creeks, it can become the perfect laboratory, offering environmental investigators full control over the watershed.
Successful storm water management around the Bronx River could show the city the potential of a cost effective “green” solution, Crimmens says. Organizations like hers offer “a wealth of knowledge, experience, and willingness to help build and maintain”

environmental alternatives, she adds.

So far, the DEP is sticking to its proposals, but it hasn’t slammed the door on the environmentalists’ ideas. “I think they have been more receptive to alternative than in previous years,” said Argenti. “I’m hopeful that we’ve caught their attention.”

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