Water Watch NYC

Everything you need to know about water in NYC.

Warren Liebold – We Will Miss You.

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We are saddened to hear the news of Warren Liebold’s passing on August 20. Warren was a colleague, friend and mentor to all of us at Ashokan. Nothing happened in the field of water conservation without his involvement. We first met when I was working for HPD and Warren was brought on by then DEP Commissioner Al Appleton to promote a new DEP rebate program. I assumed it would go nowhere. A year later it grew into the largest water conservation program in the United States, and as a result water consumption plummeted in NYC. He realized that greater reductions could be obtained by holding property owners responsible for their consumption, and rolled NYC’s Water meter installation program. He then decided to provide consumers with transparency tools to monitor consumption and created New York’s Automatic Meter reading Program. Due to his perseverance, everything he did was a great success.

In 1997 I discussed opening a water services company with him and he recommended that I name it Ashokan.

For twenty years we discuss food and film, but I was awed by Warren’s encyclopedic knowledge of water conservation. Everyone in the industry knew that if you attended a water conservation seminar Warren would be speaking and announcing a new program. No building code relating to water took place without Warren. We worked together on NYC’s Adoption of the International Plumbing Code, The Mayor’s Green Code Task Force, Water Reuse guidelines etc. If you live in NYC and take the water for granted you owe a debt of gratitude to Warren Liebold. He will be missed.


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DEP Killing Financial Transparency

On August 13th, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (or DEP) announced the decision to deny public access to the Customer Information System (or CIS), despite the fact that it has allowed that access for over 30 years. This change in policy is set to go into effect on September 13th. According to the DEP, the service is being shut down due to the outdated nature of the system’s technology. However, no replacement for the system has been brought forward, and the DEP will continue to use the service themselves.  What has been touted as a necessary technological update appears to be a thinly veiled excuse to deny access to vital water billing information to the general public, with the only beneficiary being the DEP.

Currently, CIS provides water billing information for New York City properties going back to 1986. What makes this service so important is that water billing errors at a property can be readily identified based on the data that has been collected over those years. Once an error has been identified, an appeal can be written to correct and reduce the bill. However, without the ability to check for these errors in CIS, the DEP would be the only entity with this information, completely compromising any kind of consumer protection. In future water bill disputes, property owners will have to simply accept whatever ruling the DEP gives, and will have no evidence in their corner to try to reduce the bill. The DEP could simply ignore any data available only to them and determine that an incorrect bill was correct, with property owners having no way of disputing it. This change in policy creates a broken system that wipes away all billing transparency, and more or less incentivizes the DEP to legitimize incorrect water bills at the cost of New York City property owners.  

Withholding this information would also have a large impact on the sale of properties in the area, as prospective buyers and sellers would have limited knowledge on what regular water billing and usage would look like for a property. This type of data is definitely something that would have an effect on the value of a property. The lack of data would leave buyers in the dark or mislead them when attempting to make a purchase, and could make selling properties unnecessarily difficult.

It is absolutely clear that the only entity benefiting by this change would be the DEP, as any unchecked billing errors would put money in its pocket, to the direct detriment of the consumers. Not only would this affect current property owners, but members of the real estate industry would be left in the dark in terms of gathering important information regarding the properties they’re working with.  It would be a shame for such a blatantly one sided policy change to go into effect, considering the vast number of people who would be disenfranchised by the change.  The DEP claims that this is an unfortunate but necessary change due to outdated technology, but the fact that the technology will remain the same and the DEP will continue to use CIS tells a different story.   


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Intro 1253 doesn’t consider water conservation – but you can

In December 2018, the New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection met at City Hall to amend the administrative code of the City of New York in relation to the commitment to achieve certain reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (Introduction No. 1253), establishing a sustainable energy loan program (Introduction No. 1252), and to a building energy efficiency grade (Introduction No. 1251). The full report can be accessed online, but in short, the clock is ticking fast to combat climate change in New York City. Our buildings contribute 70% of the city’s total carbon emissions, and the time for change is long overdue.

In 2009, Local Law 87 was supposed to mandate retrofits in large, high energy consuming buildings. The law was weakened, and instead became a voluntary retro-commissioning program. De Blasio “used retrofit to win” his position as Mayor, according to councilmembers, and attempted to make a voluntary program work – but it didn’t. Now, a full decade later, time is up. We lost this decade of potential progress due to pushback from the real estate industry.  However, there is now overwhelming support for Introductions 1253, 1253, and 1251, and as the largest city in the country, it is New York’s moral obligation to do as much as we can.

Although these amendments are being presented and Local Law 87 never saw the success it was hoped to, it is important to acknowledge that the voluntary retro-commissioning program resulted in a 15% drop in carbon emissions over the past decade. However, with the new IPCC report, we know that a 15% decrease over 10 years isn’t going to cut it. New York City’s carbon reduction goals are to achieve a 40% decrease by 2030, and an 80% decrease by 2050. With the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions being heating/ cooling and electric use, large buildings must be targeted first.

“Can a letter go out to the Trump International Building?” said a member of the committee, which was met with laughs and applause. “They don’t believe in climate change, but it’s real,” he continued. It is an unfortunate reality that at such a critical time to make huge changes to protect the future of our homes, cities, countries, and planet, the current administration is turning a blind eye to impending disaster. That’s why New York has stepped up to remain compliant with international environmental agreements such as the Paris Agreement.

Kinks in compliance were still being worked out by the Department of Buildings at the hearing last December. What we do know is that annual audits of energy use will be mandatory, as well as sub-metering non-residential tenants. Mandatory auditing is a huge step- and I see no reason to stop at energy. The NYC Retrofit Accelerator and Community Retrofit NYC programs both helped identify energy and water saving retrofits, yet “water” language is otherwise absent from today’s efficiency conversation. Decreasing water consumption leads to decreasing energy consumption, and the two utilities should not be separated in conservation efforts as they often are. Representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection, which is New York City’s water utility provider, were present at the public hearing, yet there was no discussion of mandating audits or sub-metering for water usage.

Furthermore, there are reasons beyond the 2050 carbon emission cut goals to reduce water usage, such as the impending Delaware Aqueduct shutdown or CSO mitigation in our waterways. The more water we use, the more water we have to manage, which poses real infrastructure issues. The tools exist and are readily available to tackle water consumption the way the city is about to tackle energy consumption, and I see no excuse to ignore the issue. As we know, any and all action to reduce our carbon footprint can help in the race against a disastrous future. And the race is getting tight.

The last update on the status of Intro 1253 was that it was returned unsigned by the Mayor on May 20, 2019.  In the meantime, building owners and property managers can fight on the front lines of the climate battle by engaging in conservation practices for both water and energy. There are plenty of tools and consultants out there to help – such as us at Ashokan Water Services.  For any noble real estate or sustainability professionals reading this, check out our monitoring, auditing, and sub-metering services.

Allegra Miccio


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Climate means more than temperature: the implications of climate change on NYC’s water supply

People often use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” interchangeably, but it is important to note that climate encompasses more than just temperature.  A climate refers to the weather conditions in a specific geographic region, which of course includes temperature, but also has a great deal to do with precipitation.

When we think about our water supply, precipitation is key.  In the case of New York City, the amount of precipitation we get locally does not actually matter too much.  All of our water comes from the Catskill/ Delaware Watersheds in upstate New York.  So, the precipitation we are concerned with is in a region designated by NOAA as Climate Division 2 of New York.

As seen in the accompanying graph, the region in which the watersheds are contained gets a lot of water.  The reservoirs are full, and there is no imminent threat of that changing.  However, we must keep in mind that year-to-year accumulation is variable, and precipitation events are erratic.  For example, in 2011 there was a huge spike in precipitation from Hurricane Irene.

NOAA Eastern Plateau Annual Precipitaton 1980-2018

Although New York City’s water supply is in good shape for the foreseeable future, the looming Delaware Aqueduct shutdowns can cause delivery issues.


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When it comes to protecting the Gowanus, every drop saved helps

Having grown up in Brooklyn, I always knew the Gowanus Canal to be a polluted waterway that was near the big-box hardware stores under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  It was flanked by “cool neighborhoods” on either side- namely, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Boerum Hill.  These are the places my parents liked to go out to dinner, do boutique shopping, and catch a movie.  To me there was this grey area between Fifth Avenue and Smith Street, of which I knew nothing about for most of my childhood.  It was Gowanus.

Fast forward to my college years.  I’m in an introduction to Urban Planning course, learning about Superfund sites.  It turns out that the dirty little waterway is one of the country’s most polluted.  Fast forward to present day.  I’m back in Brooklyn, getting my Master’s in City and Regional Planning, and working in water management.  My office is in- you guessed it- Gowanus.

With water, it’s important to consider that every part of the cycle is interconnected.  One could argue that what we do at Ashokan Water Services (reading meters, monitoring consumption, and finding ways to help people save on bills, to name a few of our so-called water services) has little effect on bigger, hot-topic water issues that environmentalists are into.  I, however, beg to differ.

The less water we use, the less water we discharge to the sewer systems (and the less money we spend, but I’ll leave that pitch to our sales team!)  Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) occur when the volume of waste in the sewer system exceeds capacity.  When the sewers overflow, waste is released from CSO outfalls into bodies of water, like the Gowanus Canal.  This is common during precipitation events, and the discharge can contain anything from stormwater runoff to toxic waste.

So, saving water seems great.  It will save bill-payers money, and help ameliorate issues like CSOs.  This is where the Gowanus Canal comes in.  Last summer had the pleasure of chatting with folks from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy about the Gowanus sewershed and implications of impending rezoning in the neighborhood.  The inevitable future of high-rise residential buildings in the area will lead to increased volume of water in the sewershed.  The Conservancy’s goal is to implement extensive stormwater retention systems, such as bioswales and storage tanks in buildings, to eventually reach zero CSO.  Requirements to implement sewage overflow prevention measures in new developments are included in the rezoning outline.

Mitigating waste dumped into the Gowanus Canal will allow the waterway to more easily transition to a natural state.  The reintroduction of mussels and oysters into the ecosystem helps to filter water, and creating natural banks rather than built up bulkheads can help improve storm resiliency.  While some groups advocate for development catered towards human recreation (such as boat slips, access points, and promenades), I think it is wiser to focus on returning the canal to a more natural state.

As someone who spends every day in relatively close proximity to the canal, I am concerned about the seriousness of health issues.  There are reportedly higher than average cancer rates in the area, and anyone who comes in direct contact with the water is at even higher risk.  I also had the opportunity to canoe with the Gowanus Dregdegrs Canoe Club last summer, and I’m going to be honest, I was very paranoid about touching the water. It was nasty.  While I support their initiatives as stewards and educators, and hope that the Gowanus can ultimately be reclaimed for human enjoyment, remediation needs to come first.

Ultimately, the introduction of residential buildings surrounding the canal will lead to increased demand for public space.  It is likely that this demand will come before the canal ceases being a cocktail of toilet water and chemicals, because of the impending rezoning in the area.  The Department of City Planning’s rezoning framework for Gowanus is focused on resilient infrastructure, open space, job growth, and residential development.  As can be seen with the first residential development to go up bordering the canal (365 Bond), some public space that has already been created.

Despite the filthiness of the Gowanus Canal, it really can be quite beautiful.  It is as much an asset as it is an issue, and with the hard work of advocacy groups and conservationists in the neighborhood, the aforementioned Conservancy and Dredgers to name a few, change can be made.  It is my dream for an organization like Ashokan to help spread the water conservation good news.  Every effort helps, and every drop of water saved makes a difference.

It is important to keep in mind that water issues such as these are not limited to the Gowanus neighborhood.  It is important to conserve water anywhere and everywhere! For more information on how we can help you save water, check out our website.

Allegra Miccio


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DEP Proposes 2.31% Water Rate Increase for FY20

On May 1st, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection proposed a 2.31% increase to the water rate for Fiscal Year 2020.  The increase is subject to approval by the New York City Water Board, which will hold a series of public hearing.  If approved, the rate increase will go into effect on July 1, 2019.

Despite the proposed rate increase, water still costs less in New York City than in most of the country.  Single family homeowners can expect to see an average increase of $1.82 on their monthly bills, and multi-family units will see an increase of around $1.35 per month. Additionally, the minimum charge of using less than 92 gallons of water per day will not increase.  For the past six years, this rate has remained constant at $1.27 per day.

According to the DEP, the increased revenue will be used to fund critical drinking water and wastewater projects, as well as maintain existing affordability programs for low-income and multi-family properties.

If you have any thoughts or concerns, please participate in one of the following public hearings.  This information is from and available on DEP’s website.

Bronx
Thursday, May 30 at 7pm
Hostos Community College, Savoy Building, 2nd Floor
120 East 149th Street

Manhattan
Tuesday, June 4 at 2pm
255 Greenwich Street, 8th Floor

Queens
Wednesday, June 5 and 7pm
John F. Kennedy, Jr. School (P721Q)
57-12 94th Street

Brooklyn
Monday, June 10 at 7pm
St. Francis College, Founders Hall
180 Remsen Street

Staten Island
Tuesday, June 11 at 7pm
Joan & Alan Berniknow Jewish Community Center
1466 Manor Road


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NYC Water Board Approves 2.36% Rate Increase

This morning the New York City Water Board held a meeting to approve the 2.36% water rate increase, effective on July 1, 2018.  This is the first rate increase in three years, but also the lowest proposed increase in 15 years.

In the preceding weeks, public hearings have been held in each borough for citizens to raise comments and concern.  Alfonso L. Carney Jr., chair of the board, noted that public attendance at these hearings was light and attributed this to the assumption that the proposed rate increase must not be troubling.  He acknowledged the points brought up by the few who did participate in the hearing process, and encouraged more concerned citizens to do so in the future.  Some substantive points made at these hearings were:

  • The DEP should establish a system to bill separately for water and stormwater, such that costs are split equitably among rate payers.  Board member Adam Freed spoke up in favor of this suggestion, noting that this will be more feasible when the update underway to the DEP billing system is complete.  He commended groups like the SWIM Coalition for their advocacy in this area, and is personally pushing for stormwater charges that incentivize green infrastructure installation (hopefully, more successfully then the Parking Lot Stormwater Pilot Program!)
  • There is widespread support of the Multifamily Assistance Program, which has a cap at $10 million.  It was suggested that the cap be doubled to $20 million by an unnamed opponent of the rate increase.  While the board acknowledged this opinion, all they can do is keep this in mind for next year.  Meanwhile, the new rate schedule altered the way this cap is administered.  While the program once operated on a first-come first-serve basis, going forward assistance will be granted based on need.  Need is assessed by NYC HPD from a metric based on median income and rent.
  • Dov Vinar of Ashokan Water Services (that’s us!) raised concern about amendments to the Innocent Purchaser clause which implements a firm 30-day limit on the process.  His concern is that the shortened time frame will potentially leave people exposed to ending up with bills from the previous owner.  The water board will not address this issue.
  • Dov also argued that a two-year expiration on Letters of Authorization is too short because appeals are often lengthy.  Here, we saw the sole immediate success of the public hearing process!  An amendment has been made such that LOAs are good for three years, or a time period at the discretion of the contracted party and the rate payer.

The amended resolution was approved and passed unanimously.

Allegra Miccio


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Amendment to NYC Benchmarking Law is Anti-Water Conservation

The New York City Council amended Article 309 of Local Law 33, mandating that buildings obtain and disclose energy efficiency scores and grades starting in 2020.  Buildings will receive energy efficiency grades of “A” through “F” assigned through a benchmarking tool.  Similar to restaurant grades, buildings will be required to display energy scores in a prominent location near their entrance, in hopes that many will optimize energy efficiency in striving for an “A.”

Article 309 is titled “Benchmarking Energy and Water Use,” yet every efficiency clause deals only with energy.  Why should buildings be graded on their gas and electric efficiency, but not water?  It has been evident time and time again that the city does not care about water conservation.  It is imperative that this issue is at the forefront of the city’s conservation agenda, especially with the looming Delaware Aqueduct shutdowns.  The DEP only cares about generating revenue.

At Ashokan Water Services, conservation is our mission.  We specialize in promoting effective water management in the very types of buildings which will be affected by the energy efficiency amendment, and implore the New York City Council to make the same grading requirements for water efficiency as they have for energy efficiency.

Allegra Miccio


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We went to the January 2018 NYC Water Board Meeting so you didn’t have to

Public hearings can be long and tedious.  The process is boring, and attendance tends to be low.  Such is the case with the New York City Water Board’s public hearing.  However, these meetings have huge implications for water costs in New York City, so representatives from Ashokan Water Services (that’s us!) went to represent the interests of New York City water consumers and bill payers.  On Friday, January 26, 2018 the New York City Water Board held a public hearing at 8:30am followed by a meeting at 9:30am.  The issues on the table were whether to repeal the 2.1% increase to water and sewer rates allowed under the December 19, 2017 decision of Prometheus Realty Corp vs. New York City Water Board, and whether to extend the deadline to comply with the terms of the Multifamily Conservation Program to December 31, 2018.

In the Prometheus case, the Water Board was accused of unfairly implementing the 2.1% rate increase and issuing a $183 tax credit to only a certain tax class.  To address the rate increase issue of the Prometheus decision, the Water Board hired Amawalk Consulting Group to assess their revenues and financial standing.  Their findings showed that the Water Board is in good financial standing. This means that the 2.1% water rate increase is not necessary to fund the FY2018 budget, and that water and wastewater fees are reasonable as they currently stand.  Although no rate increases are being adopted at the moment, the board will meet again in April with a rate proposal for FY2019.

A representative spoke on behalf of the Rent Stabilization Association, commending the decision to repeal the rate increase.  He also suggested that all tax-classes should be considered to receive credit, for there was no basis upon which one tax class should be singled out.  He advocated for a full elimination of the $183 rebate, and in favor of continued rate freezes.  He expressed belief that the Multifamily Conservation Program (MCP) should be expanded to include additional buildings willing to meet the qualifications.  The current eligibility base is too small for substantial water conservation in the city to be realized- a belief that we share here at Ashokan Water Services. (Check out more of our opinions on the matter here!)

The 2017 Water Rate Schedule stated that properties that did not provide evidence of MCP compliance would receive a penalty charge of 10% of their bill.  Compliance includes the property having four or more units, wireless meter reading devices, and proof that conservation efforts are being made such that water consumption decreases.  However, the penalty was never assessed since its proposal a year ago, even though approximately 10,000 properties have not provided evidence of compliance dating back to 2012.  At this meeting, the board proposed to extend the compliance deadline to December of 2018.  To implement this, the Department of Environmental Protection claims that they will “immediately begin enhanced outreach and engagement with the affected properties.”

However, no insight was provided as to how the DEP will do this.  Representing Ashokan Water Services, Hershel Weiss voiced his concerns at the public hearing.  Our main qualm is that MCP regulations have not been enforced in the past, so no one complied with the guidelines.  Albeit, these process guidelines are still unclear, and no one understands who has to submit applications.  Our request (which Hershel has voiced at approximately 14 different Water Board public hearings over the years) is simple- the Water Board must write a clear directive stating specific guidelines, a checklist for compliance, and who needs to submit applications.

The Water Board assured everyone at the hearing that they would take all comments and concerns into consideration.  “We don’t come predisposed,” said Alfonso Carney, the chair of the Water Board, “we will use what the members of the public say.”  This sentiment is expressed at every meeting, and nothing substantial comes of it.  We did not expect this meeting to yield different results, but our fingers are crossed nonetheless.

The Water Board with reconvene in a few months.  Updates regarding their public hearings and meetings can be found here.

Allegra Miccio


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The Parking Lot Stormwater Not-So-Pilot Program

A pilot program, by definition, is to be short-term, small-scale, and experimental.  They are feasibility studies, done to help determine whether or not the proposed project will work if implemented on a large scale.  Since these programs are experimental, it is expected that the hypotheses are tested and comprehensive reports are published detailing successes and failures.  It can be argued that programs such as the Parking Lot Stormwater Pilot Program have been deliberately ignored, and perhaps never intended to be experimental after all.

Because the Parking Lot Stormwater Pilot Program was implemented under the umbrella of New York’s Green Infrastructure Plan, one would expect that data collected regarding feasibility would be included in the Green Infrastructure Annual Reports.  In 2012, the first year after the pilot program was introduced, the GI report noted that the DEP was still identifying stand-alone parking lots which were to be charged for runoff starting in 2013.  In 2013, a rate increase from $0.05 to $0.06 per square foot was reported, as well as an increase in the number of lots being charged, and the total revenue generated from the program.  The 2014 GI report noted another rate increase ($0.06 to $0.063 per square foot) and the usual statistics on revenue.

Notably, the 2014 report provided the first piece of useful information about the Parking Lot Stormwater Pilot Program- that it wasn’t working.  Of course, the DEP did not outright state that the program was a failure.  Instead, the report reads, “no green infrastructure exemptions have been given to date.”  This means that parking lot owners would rather pay the stormwater fee than install green infrastructure on their properties.  However, the purpose of the Green Infrastructure Program as a whole was to promote the development of GI throughout the city, not to devise revenue-generating tactics.  In order for this program to be successful, the prospect of being exempt from the charge needs to actually entice people to install GI.

After the 2014 report, the pilot program should have ended or been modified to spark the desired change.  The hypothesis was tested, and it failed.  Perhaps the fee was not high enough for anyone to feel burdened by it, or retrofitting parking lots was more expensive than the fee itself.  Nonetheless, the pilot program continued.  The 2015 GI Annual Report states that, “previous annual reports describe the Parking Lot Stormwater Charge Pilot Program and can be found on DEP’s website.”  What this reads is that the DEP gave up.  They had seen no results from the pilot program, but were unwilling to cease collecting the revenue it generated.  In 2016, the annual report again failed to include any relevant study, and it is safe to expect the 2017 report won’t either.

As of now, the Parking Lot Stormwater Pilot Program isn’t much of a pilot program.  It has been in place for seven years, and its short-term feasibility was disproved back in 2014.  The program continues, unfairly charging people while no research is being done and no dedicated reports are being put together.  Instead, each year a short sentence is dedicated to the program in GI reports, which somehow passes as enough of a report to keep the program running under the guise of being a pilot.

Allegra Miccio