Swimmable Waters for New York City

Location: Queens and Westchester County, New York | Status: Active  

Summary: Save the Sound has a multi-faceted campaign that includes lawsuits, community organizing and participation in administrative processes to improve the quality of New York City waters.  

The power of the Clean Water Act is that it requires actions to make all waters to eventually be fishable and swimmable. This includes the Western Narrows of Long Island Sound (aka the upper East River) and all New York City Waters. While this may seem like a pipe dream, we’ve made real progress with increasing amounts of recreation on the waters. Indeed, in 2024 we will witness olympic swimming in the Seine River, thanks to Paris’ efforts to clean its waters and there is no reason we cannot ultimately see this in New York City.  

Save the Sound has taken a multi-faceted approach to tackling this problem. Along with our partners, we have filed a federal lawsuit against EPA demanding that they force New York City to comply with water quality standards that will allow swimming without a risk to health. We are also advocating for stronger Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs) to reduce sewage overflows to eventually comply with these standards. The current LTCPs will be in effect for the next several decades and don’t do nearly enough to tackle the problem. Perhaps most importantly (the “game changer”), we are advocating for a state of the art sewage treatment facility to be built on Riker’s Island upon the closing of the prison facility, which will radically reduce sewage discharges and bring us meaningfully closer to the swimmable goals.   

With today’s technology, raw sewage should no longer be entering rivers, creeks and Long Island Sound. Yet combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, happen in New York City whenever there is significant rain or snowmelt–about 100 times per year. Because sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed by rainwater mixing with sewage, they collectively discharge 27 billion gallons of untreated or undertreated sewage into New York City waters. Raw sewage contains disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, and solids that don’t belong in our water. They can also contain toxins and heavy metals. This makes the waters unsafe for boating, swimming, and other recreational uses.

The Lawsuit – In 2015, Save the Sound, along with Riverkeeper and NRDC, brought a Federal Court action against the EPA to compel them to publish new water quality standards for NYC waters. New York State and New York City both intervened in the suit to protect their interests. In 2022,after the matter was fully briefed, we agreed to stay the case so long as New York State went through a process to update their water quality standards to comply witht he Clean Water Act. Per that agreeement, NY DEC announced a public process in which they would (1) publish water quality standards that protected health, and (2) reclassify waters based on the potential to achieve swimmablity. The agency has promised that for any waters that were reclassified as below swimmable, they would perform a formal Use Attainability Analysis identifying the Highest Attainable Use. If done properly, this would meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act and address the concerns set out in our suit.  

Water Quality Standards Process. DEC has begun the formal process for water quality standards. Save the Sound is participating in that process along with our allies but we have serious concerns that (1) the new health based standards for primary contact recreation will not be applied to all waters, (2) there is as of yet no firm end date as to when and on what schedule final determinations will be made. If we do not receive adequate responses on these issues, we may have to return to court and lift the stay to re-activate our legal challenge.  

Combined Sewer Overflows. With our allies the SWIM Coalition, NRDC, and Riverkeeper, Save the Sound has been working to require New York City to meaningfully reduce the amount of raw and undertreated sewage dumped each year into NYC waterways. Under the Clean Water Act, CSOs must be addressed through Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs) that create enforceable requirements to reduce the discharges over time. The New York City LTCPs were proposed over the last several years, yet they don’t do enough to meaningfully protect human health and aquatic life. In particular, they rely heavily on treatment with chlorine, rather than reduction in sewage overflows, which only partially treats the sewage and fails to protect water quality. 

The Game Changer – Renewable Rikers. One potential solution we are advocating is to convert the closed Rikers Island into a sewage treatment plant that would consolidate the four Upper East River treatment plants—Hunt’s Point, Wards Island, Bowery Bay, and Tallman Island—into a state-of-the-art facility. Known as Renewable Rikers, this would be the best-case long-term scenario. Pursuant to New York City Local Law 31, the city is performing a feasibility study of this option, which was projected to be completed in October 2023 but has not yet been released. While this is the most promising option, it is far from assured as Mayor Adams has failed to take the last several scheduled steps required for closure. And in early November 2023 New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams announced she would reconvene the Independent Rikers Commission to devise a new plan to close Rikers Island. We must continue to advocate for the problem to be addressed. 

Below is a summary chart of the combined sewer overflows entering the Long Island Sound Western Narrows (aka Upper East River). Making New York City waters swimmable will be dependent, in large part, on reducing these overflows.

Waterbody Gallons of Sewage Discharged per Year City’s Proposed Reduction/Treatment
Alley Creek 78 Million No reduction in sewage discharges and partial treatment with chlorine
Bronx River 455 Million No reduction in sewage discharges and partial treatment with chlorine
East River/Western Long Island Sound (Citywide LTCP) 5,130 Million Reduction by 87 Million or 1.7%
Flushing Creek/Flushing Bay 2,701 Million Reduction by 775 Million or 28.7% and partial treatment with chlorine
Hutchinson River 323 Million No reduction in sewage discharges and partial treatment with chlorine
Westchester Creek 289 Million No reduction in sewage discharges and partial treatment with chlorine

Latest step: Filed formal comments in permit proceedings in February 2022 urging DEC and EPA to require better Long Term Control Plans and compliance with Water Quality Standards. The Renewable Rikers Act was passed by the NY State legislature in Februrary 2021, requiring NYC to establish a process to transfer the island and to assess its capacity for wastewater processing.

Next step: We are awaiting the agencies’ response in the permit proceedings, which should be in summer 2022. We will also continue advocacy with Renewable Rikers for a state-of-the-art consolidated sewage treatment plant on the site of the closed Rikers Island prison complex, which will help restore the East River and the Narrows of Long Island Sound.

Further reading:

Action opportunities:

Page last updated: November 21, 2023

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