The math is simple. New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has over $1 billion in equipment that is at risk from rising sea levels and storm surge.
Add to that price tag the importance of DEP’s mission – providing clean water to nine million New Yorkers and processing 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater every day – then set those numbers atop the memory of Hurricane Sandy’s collision with the city’s treatment plants and pumping stations, and a drably named new study, NYC Wastewater Resiliency Plan, suddenly becomes a lot more riveting.
On the night of October 29, 2012, as Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge overwhelmed the city’s coastline, 10 of New York’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, and 42 of its 96 pumping stations, suffered roughly $100 million in damages.
At the Manhattan Pumping Station, which sits at 13th Street and the East River, water breached a meager line of defense and flooded a four-story basement up to street level, shorting fuel pumps that powered the backup generators and stalling the flow of lower Manhattan’s wastewater to the plant in Brooklyn that treats it.
Four days after the storm, the Manhattan Pumping Station and the vast majority of the DEP’s infrastructure was back on line, treating 99 percent of New York City’s wastewater to federal Clean Water Act standards. “The DEP deserves a lot of credit for averting disaster,” says Roland Lewis of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.
Still, the storm left a lasting impression. “We’d been thinking about resiliency for many years,” says Vincent Sapienze, the Deputy Commissioner of Wastewater Treatment at DEP. “Sandy made us put our foot down on the pedal.”
That newfound urgency propels the DEP’s newly published Wastewater Resiliency Plan, which the city started working on in 2011, long before Hurricane Sandy made landfall. It was initiated, along with hundreds of studies, in 2007 after Mayor Bloomberg announced his PlaNYC sustainability initiative, though at that time it was a far smaller undertaking.
Watewater treatment plants like this one at Newtown Creek in Queens are a focus of New York’s latest resiliency plan. Photo credit: Mitch Waxman via Flickr
When the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy made many of the what-ifs from the early iterations of the study very real, however, the scope of the work was expanded from evaluating the durability of two wastewater plants in a climate-changed future to evaluating all 14, as well as 50 of the city’s 96 pumping stations.
The resulting document, according to Patricia Cerro-Reehil, Executive Director of the NY Water Environment Association, is “ahead of its time, very insightful, and a model for other major municipalities.”
The primary aim of the study is to ensure that the city’s wastewater system can continue to operate – or be brought back online in a short amount of time and without significant damage – if water levels reach a 100-year-flood height plus 30 inches. To achieve this goal, the DEP used a three-part assessment of climate, risk and adaptation to determine what measures would be most impactful and cost-effective.
Generally, those measures involve elevating and waterproofing critical equipment to reduce the risk of damage and loss of service, as well as hardening the wide array of entry points – from doorways to manhole covers to storm grates – that surround and feed into wastewater treatment facilities.
There are also managerial recommendations, such as establishing safe houses for staff during storms, having electrical and mechanical contractors on standby in emergency situations, and retrofitting plant systems to allow for digester gas reuse as a backup power.
The report details site-specific actions for each of the 14 treatment plants and 42 of the pumping stations, as well as prices and potential long-term cost savings for the repairs. All told, the DEP recommends making $315 million in upgrades to protect more than $1 billion in critical wastewater infrastructure.
Since the storm, the DEP has already spent $50 million repairing its wastewater system and building resiliency into it. The department estimates that it will take another $50 million to get New York City’s wastewater facilities back to pre-Sandy condition.
At the Manhattan Pumping Station, these efforts have translated into submersible fuel pumps and other waterproof equipment, a lot of rewired and elevated infrastructure, and plans for static barriers and doorways that will prevent floodwater from pouring into any of the building’s hundreds of openings.
Despite these measures, and praise from a wide array of advocates, the DEP knows its plan has limitations. “Even with all these resiliency measures we’re taking, if we have another Sandy it’s essentially impossible to prevent all flooding,” says Deputy Commissioner Sapienza. “We’re going to do a lot better because of the new plan, but the Rockaway Plant and the whole peninsula were completely submerged. It’s tough to fend that off completely.”
Graham T. Beck has written about art, cities and the environment for the New York Times, The Believer, frieze and other august publications. He’s a contributing writer for The Morning News and editor-in-chief of Transportation Alternatives’ quarterly magazine, Reclaim. He lives in New York City and tweets @g_t_b