An ambitious plan to more than double New York City’s investment into making the city a natural sponge for increasingly heavy rainfall hinges in part on its ability to buy up new plots of land.
The state and city announced $2 billion on Tuesday that adds to an existing $1.5 billion fund to expand green infrastructure throughout all five boroughs, such as rain gardens that capture rainwater and bioswales that slow rainwater down. The funding will be spread out over 17 to 22 years.
Broadly, the effort seeks to use natural infrastructure to mitigate flooding, limit combined sewer overflows, and improve coastal water quality.
It’s not yet clear how much of the money will be spent on land acquisition, how many private landowners are willing to sell, or what it would cost, according to Amy Chester, the former chief of staff for legislative affairs and senior policy adviser under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But there are plenty of opportunities, she said. For example, the funding could be used to acquire more land for Staten Island’s bluebelts—a network of 16 natural drainage systems on the southern tip of the island.
The money could also pay for buyouts in communities that constantly flood in places like Queens’ Flushing and Jamaica neighborhoods, said Chester, now managing director of Rebuild by Design.
Chester’s group has been working with the city to develop a buyout strategy. One of their early recommendations has been for the city to take a systematic approach, rather than “just doing green infrastructure over here and over there, which is how we’ve mitigated sewer flows in the past.”
She also applauded the funding influx, saying it gives the city’s green infrastructure plans a huge boost. “It’s almost too big to wrap your head around, all the things $2 billion can pay for,” Chester said.
The proposed order is still out for public notice, according to Ted Timbers, a spokesman for New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection. Eligible expenses include land acquisition, project design, construction, and other costs such as the implementation of green infrastructure practices. The proposal also calls for the construction of projects in environmental justice areas to the maximum extent practicable.
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The maintenance of the new green infrastructure projects presents another challenge, said Mike Dulong, senior attorney at environmental group Riverkeeper. He called on the city and state to include maintenance as part of the capital investment process.
A 2019 report from New York City’s comptroller found that poor maintenance had previously undermined the successes of the green infrastructure program.
“Green infrastructure practices were left to wither—plants died, the areas became full of trash, and the sidewalk rails were broken,” Dulong said. “Unless the vegetation and soils are healthy and pollution-free, the water quality and community benefits of flooding mitigation, air quality improvement, shade, and green spaces will be lost.”
Chester said the city could partner with workforce development and community groups to hire locals to maintain the projects. One possible model is the Coney Island Beautification Project, under which residents help clear out sewer drains before big storms approach, she said.
More green infrastructure could also make New York City safer, according to Chester. For example, Hoboken, N.J., has invested heavily in various green plans since Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, and the city now has zero pedestrian deaths because the projects have been built in ways to calm down traffic flows, she said.
Liz Moran, New York Policy Advocate for Earthjustice, hailed the plan as a way to “absorb excess water from entering New York’s old water infrastructure system, while also serving as a tool to reduce carbon pollution and make neighborhoods healthier places to be.”
Other cities, such as Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., have also embarked on green infrastructure projects, but New York’s plan could set a good example across the nation because “when New York City does it, everybody pays attention,” Chester said.
More than 70% of New York City is covered by surfaces that aren’t absorbent, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Heavy rain can thus flood the city’s catch basins and sewer system with huge amounts of stormwater.
Hurricane Sandy caused roughly $19 billion in damages and lost economic activity across New York City, according to city officials. Ten of 14 wastewater treatment plans run by the Department of Environmental Protection released partially treated or untreated sewage into local waterways.
In 2022, New York City discharged roughly 17 billion gallons of combined sewer overflow, an amount that’s down significantly from 30 years ago, when the city discharged roughly 100 billion gallons a year, according to Timbers.
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