New York City's first waterfront plan in two decades envisions a metropolis where residents flock to the waterways for recreation. And it spends a sizable portion of its more than $3.2 billion in funds on a key ingredient for that vision: getting human waste out of New York Harbor.
The plan, formally announced Monday at Brooklyn Bridge Park by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, seeks to transform the city's waters into blue highways for recreation, transportation and commerce _ undoing decades of planning that often placed roadways and concrete between residents and their shoreline. It would add 50 acres of new parks, expand dozens more and dredge waterways to make room for giant container ships.
But most of the money set aside to pay for the first three years of the plan will be spent more or less behind the scenes _ on efforts to improve the area's water quality, in part by reducing the sewage overflow that drives so many boaters and swimmers away from the shores in the days following rain. The $2.57 billion over three years is to be funded with city water utility payments.
Like many older cities with sewage systems that were first built before waste treatment became a consideration, New York City's street gutters and its toilets all empty into the same warren of pipes. When the city is hit by heavy rains, the flood of water through the city's street grates can overwhelm the system, and about 60 times a year, this pushes raw sewage out of one or more pipes scattered around the city's shoreline.
Much of the money for the waterfront plan will be spent increasing the capacity of the system during rainfall _ through renovations to wastewater treatment plants and city pipes, and by installing permeable pavement and other landscaping that will allow water to be absorbed into the ground, rather than flowing into the city's gutters.
The changes are part of a 20-year plan issued last year by the city, which aims to reduce the sewage outflow by 40 percent over that time. Over the past three decades, the city has reduced the amount of human waste making up the outflow that makes its way into the harbor, from 30 percent to about 12 percent.
Those and other improvements in water quality have been enough to get some New Yorkers back in the waters that for a century and more have gained a reputation as notoriously filthy.
Morty Berger, founder of NYC Swim, says he's seen his group grow from nine people to upward of 2,500 over the last two decades. As the water got cleaner, more New Yorkers began signing on for the swims the group sponsors around the Statue of Liberty and at other spots in New York Harbor.
"It's clearly an acceptance that water quality has improved," he said.
Cortney Worrall, who works for the advocacy group Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance and participates in group swims in the harbor, says she has no worries but takes simple precautions: waiting two days after rainfall, not swallowing harbor water, keeping her tetanus shots up to date, and showering after she returns to land. The New York City Health Department says some of those measures might even be unnecessary: Last year, the department issued no health advisories to New York City swimmers due to sewage releases during rainfall.
Other forms of in-water recreation that bring the city's residents closer to the water have been booming too, with canoeing and kayaking groups multiplying over the last 15 years.
It is a turnaround for this city, where the waterfront for much of its history has been viewed more as dumping ground than destination. The Erie Canal's opening in the early 1800s made the city America's main port, and industrial toxins and human waste turned much of New York Harbor to muck. The harbor's oysters died, methane gas bubbled to the surface, and the horrific smell wafted inland and kept the city's upper class far from the water.
At one point, wooden ships would actually park themselves in the most polluted parts of the harbor to kill off the small water critters that were eating away at their vessels.
Aside from the water quality improvements, the first three years of the city's waterfront plan will be paid for by more than $700 million from the city's capital budget. The mayor's office says that money has already been set aside for the projects, and that spending cuts of 4 percent in most agencies and thousands of planned teacher layoffs won't slow the effort.
The city plans to continue previously announced plans to expand East River ferry service between neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, possibly allowing passengers to use the same MetroCards used on the subways to get home.
The plan also calls for boosting the city's maritime industry, in part by dredging some parts of the harbor to make way for the giant container ships that are expected to make their way up the East Coast after the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed, spending more than $200 million on maritime industry initiatives and ecological restoration.
The city says the blueprint marks the first time New York has issued a plan for the use of the waterways themselves, rather than just the shoreline.