Poop in the Water and Community Awareness: HII and the S.W.I.M. Coalition

Join the Human Impacts Institute Community Conversation! How do you think the city is doing on public notification for water quality issues?


On Monday, July 25th, 2001, the Human Impacts Institute attended the bi-monthly public meeting of the Stormwater Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition held at Eagle Street Rooftop Farmin Greenpoint, Brooklyn.The meeting began with a presentation by Tyler Caruso and Eric Facteau of their yearlong research project,Seeing Green: The Value of Urban Agriculture. The two researchers will measure the stormwater management potential of three urban farms: Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farm in Queens, Added Value, a raised bed farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and a new rooftop farm managed by the NYC Park Department. It is hoped that the study will prove that rooftop farms are as effective at managing stormwater as green roofs planted with sedum, currently the only type of green roofing eligible for the NYC green roof tax abatement of $4.50 per square foot. If policy makers are swayed by the results of the study, it could lead to significant incentives for the construction of more rooftop farms in NYC. The researches also pointed out the numerous benefits of rooftop farms beyond stormwater management such as improved food access, education, carbon sequestration, building cooling, and sustainable community development. These benefits are harder to quantify, so for now the team will focus solely on the ability of urban farms to mitigate runoff, thereby reducing the frequency and intensity of combined sewer overflows (CSO), which currently release raw sewage into New York Harbor around 80 times a year.

Also present at the meeting were representatives from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to address S.W.I.M Coalition members concerns about how the agency notifies the public about water quality emergencies. S.W.I.M. Coalition members were frustrated by how DEP handled the recent emergency at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, citing inadequate public notification and a lack inter-agency communication, which could have protected more people from coming into contact with contaminated water on the hottest weekend of the year. A fire broke out in the plant and a massive amount of untreated sewage was discharged into the Hudson River, but kayakers downriver had no idea. DEP announced plans to improve their public notification system and agreed to consider the points that were raised at the meeting. Most frustration, it appeared, came from the agencies lack of coordination with local boating and swimming organizations that were on the ready to relay news of the incident to their members, but did not receive word in time. Community organizations and the informal networks they support are a valuable resource for city agencies to connect to the wider public. According to S.W.I.M Coalition members, DEP is not using that resource to it’s fullest potential. There was also frustration about how DEP responded to plans for a new boathouse and community center on Newtown Creek.

At the meeting, HII also announced plans to test the water quality at East River State Parkand hopes to secure funding soon. HII is partnering with East River State Park to develop educational outreach for “green infrastructure” in the park, such as a compost system, rainwater harvesting, and solar lights. Additionally, HII is looking to secure funding for developing seasonal, hands-on environmental education programs, which would be free to the public, as well as the building of a greenhouse to raise native plants for park stewardship and habitat restoration.

By Peter Tzannes, 2011 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Services and Education Intern

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