With all the conversation about carbon and energy footprints in the green building movement, occasionally the importance of water in our lives gets forgotten. As NRDC senior attorney Larry Levine put it, “How many jobs are created by the New York City water system? All of them.” Particularly in a post-Sandy New York, the New York water system — both the harbor and the upstate watershed — is both a tremendous boon and a potential burden.  The New York Conference on Water, held on July 16 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, proved to be a critical series of discussions related to water as a growing threat to infrastructure; as a necessary resource; and as a means of travel, work, and play.


Of course, most important is a clean supply of drinking water — the subject of the first panel of the morning. Of particular importance was the maintenance of the waste and stormwater systems, which in New York City are largely combined. The potential outflow of wastewater increases during a storm surge, making the heightened possibility of larger storms even more fearsome. Additionally, wastewater treatment plants already account for one-third of New York City’s energy use, and this will increase when a new filtration plant for the Croton water system comes online, heightening the need to keep the Catskill and Delaware water systems clean (and therefore maintain EPA waivers from expensive filtration plants). Development of green infrastructure such as tree and plant ground cover, permeable surfaces, and catch basins and cisterns (as shown in the NRDC infographic above) to protect our state’s watersheds were also part of the discussion.


Another panel discussed the theme of green infrastructure and design under the title, “Water as a Threat.” Of particular interest was the “Big U,” a Rebuild By Design project developed by panelist and landscape designer Laura Starr and the BIG Team. The design combines green infrastructure – particularly bioswales and natural levees against storm surge — with means of recreation and connection to the community. Part of the design focuses on connecting the Lower East Side to the water, in the form of green elevated connections above the FDR Drive, and perhaps the covering of the highway to have a seamless transition from the primarily NYCHA apartments in the neighborhood to the expanded park, which would have greater access to the East River.


As a resident along the East River for the past four years (and a frequent user of East River Park), the Big U plan is an attractive one for connecting the NYCHA projects which are disconnected from the street grid to the rest of the neighborhood, and to also connect the neighborhood to the water in a safe, sustainable, and honestly beautiful way. And of course as a user of the New York City water supply (and having visited the Neversink Reservoir with Hunter College’s Geography Department in the winter of 2013), I value having a clean, affordable, and environmentally friendly water supply available as a public resource. The Conference on Water provided new insights into how the maintenance and expansion of these systems could occur, showing desirable projects on both the public and private levels for sustaining our upstate watershed and our city waterfront. 

Read notes from the New York Conference on Water here.

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