Green solutions for New York City's overflowing sewers
Techniques such as more trees and porous pavement can reduce runoff that fouls the city's waterways.
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What does this say about the DEP’s efforts to fulfill their responsibilities?Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures World Water Day 2011
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“Both the testing and the notification that is based on that testing is insufficient. It doesn’t meet their required duties,” Ms. Zidar said.
Zidar is critical of the DEP’s plans for stormwater management as well.
“The DEP is kind of creating their own definition of green infrastructure, which is confusing for people who have been in this field longer than they have,” she said. “They are using the term ‘green infrastructure’ to refer to what’s really stormwater detention.”
Detention refers to a process by which stormwater is held and then later released, decreasing the volume of water in the system. But retention, by contrast, is when water is retained and utilized. Retention, not detention, is what green infrastructure is based on, according to Zidar and others in the S.W.I.M. network.
“There are major flaws in the [city's] plan,” Zidar said. “We’re trying to make this better.”
In addition to the S.W.I.M. coalition, individual sustainability activists are taking matters into their own hands. One technology designer, Leif Percifeld, has invented a way for the NYC sewer system to “talk back” to New Yorkers, alerting them to storm events and system overflows.
Using Open Source coding and software, Mr. Percifeld made a sensor that can detect rising water levels and send text messages warning recipients not to use water at home. His next step is getting into the city’s sewers to install the sensors – no easy task, given that he’s doing it illegally and undercover. With the help of a canoe, a flashlight, and some mapping software, however, he is determined to make it happen. Anyone can sign up for the alerts through the Don’t Flush Me website.
Percifeld is acting to solve this problem as a citizen scientist, tackling a citywide infrastructural problem through grass-roots means: crowdfunding on a website to pay for materials, developing the technology on his own, and entering sewers without authorization.
Another citizen scientist team, Seeing Green, is embarking on a year-long research project to evaluate the potential of urban farms to become part of a city’s green infrastructure. Like Percifeld, Tyler Caruso and Erik Facteau are working at the grass-roots level, collaborating with people in their social network and employing their own know-how and resources to tackle the problem of burdened water systems. Caruso and Facteau would like for their research to nudge city officials into providing further support for urban agriculture.
Cleaning up the city’s waterways is a dirty job. But solutions are evolving from all levels – official citywide plans and grass-roots, collaborative efforts amongst concerned citizens. Moving forward, it will be vital that the lines of communication between all these actors are kept open so that affordable, sustainable solutions can go into effect as quickly as possible.