In response to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s announcement of new water quality criteria for the waters surrounding New York City and up to the Bear Mountain Bridge, Riverkeeper, the leading environmental organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, and Save the Sound, the leading environmental organization dedicated to protecting Long Island Sound, call on New York State to seize the historic opportunity to stop sewage overflows that too often inhibit millions of New Yorkers from safely enjoying the water where they live.
While the new criteria will result in new actions to upgrade several sewage treatment plants that discharge to the Hudson River in Westchester and Rockland counties, Riverkeeper and Save the Sound have been critical of the proposal for failing to establish a clear path forward for reducing combined sewage overflows that are an egregious source of pollution in the waters of New York City and around Yonkers.
“New York State needs to step up to the historic opportunity and legal imperative to set water quality standards that finally – more than 50 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act – set the goal of safe swimming for the Hudson River and other waters around New York City,” said Riverkeeper’s Senior Director of Advocacy, Policy and Planning, Dan Shapley. “The status quo – where 21 billion gallons per year of raw sewage mixed with polluted stormwater flow into NYC waters annually – is unacceptable. Everyone deserves safe access to clean water.”
“The Clean Water Act has been so powerful to date because, through water quality standards, it ultimately requires safe fishable, swimmable waters, whether you live in New York City on the East River or on Eastern Long Island,” said Roger Reynolds, Senior Legal Director of Save the Sound. “We won’t get there, however, without more seriously addressing the 21 billion gallons per year of combined sewer overflows that are only getting worse with extreme weather and climate change. Next year, we will witness Olympic swimming in the Seine, and there is no reason we can’t ultimately see that success in the Western Narrows of Long Island Sound and all New York City waters.”
Currently, when it rains in New York City, 418 combined sewer overflows (CSOs) discharge pollution including human excrement, industrial drainage, and street debris – and it happens where people kayak and children wade in the water. In Yonkers, Westchester County CSOs similarly limit safe public use of the waterfront. Health hazards that result from contact include gastroenteritis, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose, and throat problems, respiratory infections, meningitis, and hepatitis. These effects are more severe in vulnerable subsets, like pregnant women, children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
“Just this month, we’ve seen the opening of a ‘beach’ in Manhattan where swimming isn’t allowed, and the cancellation of the largest open water swim event of the year because the water quality wasn’t safe for swimming in the Hudson River,” Shapley said. “From Flushing Bay and the Harlem River to Raritan Bay, New Yorkers are voting with their swimsuits and kayak paddles – they want access to safe water.”
The rule released this week is the first of two rules prompted by a federal lawsuit the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic filed on behalf of Riverkeeper, Natural Resources Defense Council, Save the Sound, and others in 2017. The groups have challenged New York State’s decades-long failure to comply with federal Clean Water Act requirements to set the goal of safe swimming in saline waters, and to establish legally compliant and scientifically sound criteria to meet that goal.
The updated water quality criteria establish measurable levels of fecal indicator bacteria used to assess risk from untreated sewage, based on different uses of the water. New York State established pursuant to federal approvals that all saline waters around New York City must have water quality sufficient to protect swimmers. New Yorkers deserve the most protective criteria, but the state’s proposal falls short of this test in several ways:
- NYS is choosing the less protective of two EPA-approved options for swimming criteria.
- NYS is proposing less-protective criteria for some waters designated for paddling, instead of swimming, which in effect will allow more sewage in many of those waters.
- NYS is proposing stricter standards in dry weather, but a get-out-of-jail card for CSO and stormwater discharges that would allow for high levels of fecal contamination after rain causes discharges of raw sewage or street runoff from the city’s sewage and stormwater systems.
Under the Clean Water Act, NYS must direct New York City to complete “Long Term Control Plans” to reduce CSOs. However, these plans that have been approved so far are unambitious, and will allow for continued overflows at levels that are unacceptable, damaging to the ecosystem, and will prevent New Yorkers from using the water consistently for recreation for another generation. Even after the plans are implemented, an estimated 15 billion gallons of CSO will be discharged annually. And that’s a conservative estimate: as we have witnessed this summer, climate change is already causing more frequent intense storms, resulting in frequent sewage overflows.
The next step New York is expected to take will be to apply these new criteria to the city’s waters. The state will determine which waters must be made safe for swimming, which must be made safe for only kayaking, whether there are any waters that cannot meet either criteria, and whether some waters will receive exemptions during wet weather. True to their missions to protect and restore the Hudson River and Long Island Sound, Riverkeeper and Save the Sound will continue to push for improvements to sewer infrastructure plans to achieve consistently swimmable, fishable, and drinkable waters for all through advocacy rooted in community partnerships, science, and law.