A Rising Tide: Solutions Sought To Handle Overflow (Part three of four)
By JULIET WERNER
The flood that ravaged the borough on July 18 came as a shock. Three weeks later, on Aug. 8, there was more rain, more flooding, and shock quickly turned to outrage. As Queens residents cleaned up, they found that the pools of water sitting in their basements were contaminated with sewage.
Although the storms hit all five boroughs, the worst flooding was in Queens.
“These areas are mostly low-lying or in neighborhoods with no storm sewers, features that create a vulnerability to flooding, which is now compounded by rainfall conditions that seem to be getting worse,” Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Emily Lloyd said.
According to DEP, the summer of 2007 saw 20.63 inches of rain, the fourth wettest in the 39 years of record-keeping. The city’s drainage and sewer system, which consists of 6,600 miles of pipes, is not equipped to handle this level of precipitation. The current national standard requires that sewers handle up to 1.75 inches of rain per hour, but in Queens neighborhoods built prior to 1960, the sewers can only handle 1.5 inches of rain. During the Aug. 8 storm, rainfall reached two inches per hour, exceeding five inches at one point.
New York City’s sewage system is not only outdated, but also “combined;” waste water and stormwater are contained by the same pipeline. When the volume of stormwater and wastewater overtaxes the sewer, it becomes “surcharged.”
“Unless the excess water is absorbed by green spaces or channeled by curbs and conveyed overland to some body of water, the excess water creates street flooding that can flow off the street and into below-grade areas such as driveways, patios and basements,” DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd said, adding “Surcharged sewers can also cause sewer backups in homes and other buildings.”
If Mayor Mike Bloomberg looked to London’s congestion pricing as a model for how to handle New York City’s traffic problem, perhaps Queens elected officials could turn to another one of the 722 communities nationwide operating on a combined sewer system for an approach to flood management.
Several elected officials, including Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) and State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) are currently recommending homeowners install check valves, a mechanical device ensures fluid (liquid or gas) only flows in one direction. The valve is designed with a “cracking pressure” or the minimum pressure at which the valve automatically starts to operate. A licensed plumber would be needed for installation, which takes two days and costs between $2,500 and $3,000.
Lancman and Stavisky are drafting legislation to be introduced this month that would award tax credits of 50 percent of up to $2,000 of the cost of installation to homeowners.
“This is a way to empower individual homeowners while we wait for the city to catch up,” Lancman said.
NYS Plumbing, Heating & Cooling Association President Tom Manuiszko said homeowners should avoid using sink and toilet check valves in times of high pressure. When asked whether homeowners would be notified when valves were switched on, Maniuszko said he was dubious.
“It’s a crap shoot,” he said.
In addition to the proposed legislation, the elected officials plan to apply for assistance from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Program.
“Neglect costs money and prevention saves money,” Stavisky said, adding that 15 percent of approved money from FEMA’s individual assistance program will go to the State Emergency Management Organization for future mitigation efforts.
Gennaro, though supportive of the check valve technology, is looking for long-term solutions.
“In a perfect world these wouldn’t be necessary because we would have a sewer system capable of handling all the storm and waste water that’s produced,” Gennaro said.
“Events like Aug. 8 are currently expected to remain still be highly unusual,” Lloyd said. “This is why we are focusing on managing storm water as part of the solution, rather than building sewers to manage the worst storm.”
The mayor has approved $500 million in the capital budget for sewer replacement and installation.