Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.


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DEP and Water Board Agree: Revenue Good (But What’s Conservation?)

The DEP has been promoting water conservation for two decades, since the droughts of the 1980s.  But June 17, 2011, the Water Board’s last meeting of the fiscal year, marked the end of an era of “conservation” rhetoric. Gone are the days of saving water and taxpayer money. The future is all about increased sales and maximum revenue: consumption, not conservation.

Source: NYC Water Board Financial Update – 6/7/2011

According to their financial presentation, the DEP collected $2.68 billion from residents last year and surpassed their own revenue projections by 2%. The good news: that’s the first time since 2005 that they haven’t made less money than hoped. The bad news: that’s also almost nine billion more gallons of water used, plus the $51 million more that taxpayers coughed up to pay for it. So why, after worshiping ‘less is more,’ are more water and more revenue suddenly a triumph? Over the past ten years, usage decreased for all but two of them (see the Water Board’s report, page 29). Now, with our water use back up to near 2009 levels, water is just a stream of revenue again.

Pay no attention to how our water rates are higher than ever, every year. (This year’s 7.5% hike to $8.21 is somehow the lowest rate hike since 2006.) All that seems to matter to the DEP and Water Board is that more people get more water and pay more and more for it. The leading concern of the Water Board, according to their Mission Statement, is whether “revenue collections will satisfy revenue requirements of the [Water and Sewer] System.”

The only kind of waste that makes sense in this System is wasted potential: water not sold, consumption not metered, bills not paid. More revenue can be good for the whole city. It just depends on why there’s more of it. More paying customers come naturally with more people in the city, which in turn requires expanded services. Still, the DEP has maintained that distributing more water will bring down its cost to residents. The ‘reduced increase’ of this year’s rate seems to corroborate that a bit, yet the DEP can only continue to reap increasing revenue at the increased expense of residents. Is such public service really self-service or endless debt service? For instance, are “same-customer sales” a real measure of success for a public agency? Does the fact that each customer paid (on average) 19.2% more in October 2010 to use 6% more water than in October 2009 constitute a win for New York City?

As it is, revenue maximization is our current course. Meanwhile, conservation is a promised land saved for rainy days. Where we’ll end up, though, depends on who adjusts the sails.


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP – #6: Reduce Spending and Debt

While it’s true that most (if not all) of our Ten Ways to Save the DEP, point to the reduction of spending and debt in one way or another, they have all really been about other things. For example, we talked about stormwater rates, which would raise more money and therefore reduce debt. We talked about automating the permit process, thereby streamlining bureaucracy in order to reduce spending and debt. Even fixing the Delaware Aqueduct would save the DEP money because they’d no longer have 36 million gallons of water a day going to waste.

However, the purpose of the suggestion that you’re reading about now is to discuss one concrete proposal that the DEP can easily implement that would make them greener, safer and more efficient. We at WaterWatchNYC urge the DEP to adopt BMPs.

BMPs, or Best Management Practices, are a series of guidelines aimed at water pollution control. The guidelines also make treatment and distribution processes more efficient, thereby saving money. Just a short list of things that fall under the category of BMPs that can be implemented in NYC:

  • Semi-permeable surfaces
  • Green roofs
  • Xeriscaping
  • Rainwater harvesting

The best thing about BMPs is that the ideas and guidelines already exist. We do need someone to come up with the next big thing in water conservation and pollution management and control. But until then, we have existing guidelines set forth by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Let’s use them.


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP – #5: Fix the Delaware Aqueduct

The Delaware Aqueduct issue is one that has been covered before on this blog. Simply put, there is a leak in the 85-mile long Delaware Aqueduct which transports water from some of our upstate reservoirs to New York City. The aqueduct carries about half of our water from our various upstate reservoir systems and has been leaking for over 20 years. The current estimate has the leak at about 36 million gallons of water per day. For more details about the aqueduct leak, as well as a great attempt at a coverup by the DEP, see this past post.

In our past post linked to above, we said, “Unfortunately, little can be done at this point to actually fix the leak.” We stand by this statement. But we want the leak fixed anyway. How can we demand that the leak be fixed and still claim that little can be done to fix the leak? Simple. We’re asking that a system be put in place now that will allow the leak to be fixed down the road.

The leak can’t be fixed now because shutting down the Delaware Aqueduct cuts off about one half of our water. What we need now is redundancy. If we have another tunnel that can carry water from the Delaware Reservoir System to the city, we can completely shut down the Delaware Aqueduct and not lose half our water. This is the project we need to work on now so that we can fix the Delaware Aqueduct later.

We’re not saying anything new. The mayor’s PlaNYC, which has been around since 2007, calls for the same thing (conveniently, PlaNYC doesn’t say anything about the leak in the aqueduct). But the city bungled their first effort at setting this plan in motion when the Autonomous Underwater Vehicles that they had specially made in order to study the leak couldn’t obtain any useful information. Now, like many objectives of PlaNYC, no real progress has been made.

All we’re asking for is for the objectives of PlaNYC to be put in motion. We’ll stop wasting 36 million gallons of water a day, we’ll be a cleaner, greener city, the mayor will have kept at least one promise to his constituents and everyone will be happier (especially the residents of Wawarsing, NY, whose homes and yards are being flooded by the aqueduct leak).


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP – #4: Automate the Permit Process

As anyone who has ever taken out a DEP permit knows, it’s a long and arduous task. You have to fill out a form, go to the borough office, hand the form in and then wait. If you’ve gone to an efficient borough office you’ll wait in the office for a while before getting your permit back. But we all know that the words “efficient” and “DEP borough office” don’t usually go together. In most cases, you’ll have to go back to the office the next day and hope everything went smoothly to get your permit back.

Why hasn’t the DEP started allowing permit applications to be done online? Fill out an online form, hit submit and get a reply within 24 hours. Simple. The DOB’s forms are filled out this way and theirs are way more complicated than the DEP’s!

The best part about automating the permit process is that it doesn’t just make getting a permit easier for New York City plumbers. All New Yorkers will benefit. It will reduce errors and cost, which in turn will reduce the cost of the taxpayers. Streamlining the system will also make construction and city improvements smoother. In this economy, when the construction industry has been hit just about harder than anything else, these changes will go a long way. Every little bit helps.


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP – #3: Stop Using the Water Board to Bypass Contract Bidding

Like every government agency, every so often the DEP needs to outsource some of its work. They need studies done to determine the efficiency of their procedures or they need construction done on new or existing facilities.

The fact that some of their work is outsourced actually should benefit the public. We don’t need the costs of training and maintaining additional DEP staff worked into our water/sewer rates. What we pay for water is already high enough. Let the DEP worry about being the best at distributing water to New York City and let them pay others to be the best at other things, like environmental impact studies and rate analysis studies.

Considering how often work is outsourced, it’s a good thing government agencies have a system in place to ensure that the outsourcing is executed fairly and efficiently. Whenever work needs to be outsourced the DEP puts out a Request for Proposals (RFP) and anyone interested responds in writing with what they can do to complete the work and how much they’ll charge to do it. The DEP now has to look at two things in each bid: 1) Can this company complete this job effectively? and 2) who will do it for the least amount of money?

After all, it is our money that these government agencies are throwing around. Following the rules above ensures that they’re not abusing that right.

If only this was how the DEP obtained their contracts. Steven Lawitts, Emily Lloyd and other past DEP commissioners found a way to bypass the contract bidding process and they milked it for all it was worth.

The purpose of the Water Board is to be a regulatory agency, constantly monitoring the DEP and keeping them in line. After all, the DEP’s capital budget is over $1 billion. Someone’s gotta make sure all that money is being used correctly. Ideally, as a regulatory agency, the Water Board should be watching everything the DEP does and telling them where they’ve overstepped their bounds. In actuality what the Water Board does is back up and support every action that the DEP takes.

Since the Water Board controls the DEP’s finances and blindly supports their every move, it stands to reason that all the DEP has to do is ask the Water Board for money for a specific project and the Water Board will hand it to them with a big smile on their faces. So instead of finding the company that will complete a job most effectively for the least amount of money, they just pick the company they want to work with and ask the Water Board to give them any amount of money they ask for without any regard for whether or not they’re the right people for the job.

This is how we got ourselves into the current Booz Allen Hamilton rate study mess. Years ago (under former DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd), the DEP asked the Water Board to pay BAH to audit its customer service and collections procedures. BAH came back (after asking for more money and turning in their report after the deadline) and said that in order to maximize collections the DEP needed to perform a rate study. Then they got the DEP to hire them (without putting out an RFP) to perform that rate study. They released their results a couple of weeks ago and they are woefully lacking.

Let’s break down the string of failures here, shall we? Audit of customer service and collections procedures goes straight to BAH without an RFP – failure #1. BAH asks for more money (which they get) and turns in the report late – failure #2. BAH report’s only conclusion is that to increase collections BAH should be hired again for more money to perform a rate study – failure #3. Rate study goes straight to BAH without an RFP – failure #4. Rate study comes back with no analysis or conclusions – failure #5.

So where we started with a simple, minor problem–the DEP giving a small contract to BAH without letting others bid on it–now we have a major problem in that we’ve shelled out millions of dollars for a report with no conclusions or recommendations. The original contract may have been small but because of it we ended up with bad advice and a poorly run agency!

At a recent Water Board hearing, Chairman Alan Moss asked if one of these days newly appointed DEP Commissioner Caswell Holloway could be brought in on a hearing. Moss’s reasoning behind the request? He wanted to assure Holloway in person that the Water Board is behind the DEP 100%. Does that sound to you like the right attitude for a regulatory agency to have?

Maybe if the Water Board started actually auditing the DEP’s expenses and maybe if the DEP stopped using the Water Board to bypass contract bidding, there wouldn’t be so much wasteful spending with our money.

[CORRECTION - 3/3/10: The assertions above, that the Booz-Allen contracts were obtained without competition, are incorrect. The public records indicate that the Booz-Allen contracts were procured through a competitive Request for Proposal process. The Water Board's website posts the official minutes from past Water Board meetings. The minutes from the June 2008 meeting summarizes the competitive process the Water Board used to award the Booz-Allen contract.

We apologize to the DEP, Water Board and the public for the error .]


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP – #2: Introduce Stormwater Fees

Almost any effective CSO mitigation plan that the city can possibly come up with will involve the creation of large multi-billion dollar retaining tanks and force our water/sewer rates to skyrocket. So here comes our out of the box thinking: How can we mitigate the negative effects of CSO without spending billions of dollars restructuring our sewer system?

The Citizens Action Committee (CAC), made up of industry experts, recommended that the city use water and sewer rates to incentivize owners to retain water on site. Currently, New York property owners do not pay to dump stormwater but by levying such charges the city can effectively incentivize owners to retain water on site and eliminate CSO occurrences, as the CAC recommended. More importantly, the administrative costs to the city would be minuscule compared to the billions that would be spent building huge tanks. As a bonus, on site retention can also have other environmental benefits (for example, green roofs mitigate the effects of urban heat island).

In recognition of the above, the mayor’s PLANYC Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan 2008, Initiative 10 states:

The City’s current water rate structure is comprised of a charge for consumption of water and an additional 159 percent for all sewer, stormwater, and wastewater services. Because this rate structure fails to reflect the true costs of stormwater generation and can lead to distortions, the City is currently undertaking a yearlong study to consider improvements. The City is analyzing its current expenditures, reviewing the rate and credit programs of other municipal water systems, and estimating the impacts of alternative stormwater rate structures on ratepayers and revenues. This effort will be coordinated with other ongoing efforts to map impervious areas in the City and to overhaul the program for water bills.

The “yearlong study to consider improvements” that the plan refers to is Booz Allen Hamilton’s (BAH) rate study, the results of which were released last week. (You may remember BAH from many of the other studies they performed for the DEP in the past. They are, after all, the DEP’s favorite go-to accounting firm when using the Water Board to bypass the contract bidding process.) The first thing worth mentioning is that this “yearlong study” took more than a year. Shocker.

But that’s not as important as the results. So let’s look at the results. The DEP paid BAH over a million dollars to “[analyze] its current expenditures, [review] the rate and credit programs of other municipal water systems, and [estimate] the impacts of alternative stormwater rate structures on ratepayers and revenues.” I would have thought that BAH would calculate the administrative costs involved and the feasibility of enacting a stormwater fee. Then they would project the savings as a result of on site stormwater retention and avoidance of the creation of stormwater retention facilities. I expected graphs indicating the relationship between the different possible stormwater rates and expected consumer response. (If we charge 5% of the water rate we need $2 million to implement the program but it’ll take us 20 years to recover that two million. If we charge 30% of the water rate  we need $2 million to implement the program and we’ll recover the costs in less than a year. Something like that.) In short, how large (or small) a fee would you have to implement to start seeing a savings.

What BAH did instead was what every college student does when the deadline is up and they haven’t done any of their work. They reiterated the question. Don’t get me wrong–they did it well. They included five pages of meaningless charts (fancy, but meaningless) showing which cities use which rate structures. But they didn’t address the crux of the problem. There is nothing in the report about the effectiveness of such a program, what it would cost the DEP to implement it and how much can be saved by stormwater avoidance.

The only thing BAH actually put forth in their conclusions (slide 30 of this presentation) is the following: “New billing system must be in place in order to fully implement a City-wide stormwater rate structure and credit program.” It’s subtle. Did you catch it? It sounds to me like BAH’s pitch to sell the DEP a new rate program, one that would no doubt take another few years and another few million dollars.

In summary, we hope that the good people at the DEP and the Water Board go ahead with stormwater rates and are not put off by the BAH report. To quote the mayor’s office in Appendix K to the Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan, Environmental Entrepreneurs, a national community of over 850 prominent business leaders who believe in protecting the environment while building economic prosperity, had the following to say about stormwater rates:

We strongly urge the City to include in the Plan a firm commitment to restructure the water rates to implement a separate stormwater fee, varying based on the imperviousness of a site, as soon as possible. We understand that a rate restructuring study is now underway and urge that the consultants conducting that study be asked not whether a separate stormwater fee is practicable – because we know it is, based on the experience of many jurisdictions around the country – but rather how to implement such a fee structure in New York City as soon as possible.

Again, special thanks to the good folks at SWIM for fighting for this one. We’ve even heard DEP Deputy Commissioner of Environmental Planning and Analysis Angela Licata advocating for stormwater fees at a few Water Board hearings.


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Ten Ways to Save the DEP – #1: Better CSO Notification Procedures

Like most older sewage systems, New York City’s sewage system is what’s known as a “combined sewer system.” This means that the system was never built to accommodate clean rainwater and dirty wastewater separately and therefore, when it rains, the clean rainwater is dumped into the sewer outfalls together with our dirty wastewater.

Sewer Systems

Top: Combined Sewer System. Bottom: Separate Sewer System.

In the image above you can see a perfect example of how NYC’s older sewer system (top)  differs from newer, “separate sewer systems” (bottom). As you see, during dry weather, all that happens in both cases is that wastewater goes to the publicly owned treatment works (POTW). But when it rains, new systems keep the wastewater and rainwater separate and send only the wastewater to the POTW while the clean rainwater goes to the river.

In NYC, when it rains, a mix of rainwater and wastewater goes to both the POTW and to the river. As a result, after heavy rains our sewer outfalls often experience what is called a “combined sewer overflow” or CSO. During a CSO it is dangerous to boat, swim, fish or conduct countless other activities around the heavily polluted water.

The existence of CSOs is in itself a problem that the DEP has to deal with. But it is a problem that will take years and years and billions and billions of dollars. What can we do to mitigate the dangers of CSOs right now?

CSO Outfall Sign

CSO Outfall Sign at Wallabout Bay

The answer is better CSO notification procedures. NYC currently has about 500 CSO outfalls according to the New York Water Environmental Association. In 1999, the city began putting signs up at their CSO sites like this one at Wallabout Bay. The signs say “IF YOU SEE A DISCHARGE DURING DRY WEATHER PLEASE CALL! 311.” Now, I ask you: if you hadn’t read the first three paragraphs of this post, would you know what this means? I wrote the first three paragraphs of this post and I’m still not sure what this means!

Here’s another problem: If it just rained last night and this afternoon your son or daughter wants to go swimming in, say, Paedergat Basin, how are you supposed to know whether or not they are about to climb into a toxic cesspool?

Thanks to pressure from our friends over at SWIM (Storm Water Infrastructure Matters), the DEP (with a little help from HydroQual Environmental Engineers) recently created a web page where you can check on the status of CSO sites around the city. I include a link here so that you can take a look yourself and decide if this is sufficient for a system that has 500 CSO outfalls that your child can be swimming in, that your husband can be fishing in or that the entire family can be taking a boat ride in.

We live in an age obsessed with notifications. The federal government requires notifications on every single pack of cigarettes and bottle of alcohol. The mayor requires calorie counts to be posted in every donut shop in NYC. Why are we more concerned with what we put inside our bodies than with what we put our bodies into? A large, easy to read sign near every single CSO outfall into New York that says something to the effect of “IF YOU SEE WATER COMING OUT OF THIS PIPE, DO NOT SWIM HERE. ALL WATER COMING FROM THIS PIPE IS TOXIC AND DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH” is the best way to keep us safe from the unfortunate, unavoidable effects of CSO.

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