NYC Local Laws, Planning, Water

Keep Your Stormwater to Yourself!

No Comments Posted on 05 March 2014 by Tiffany Broyles Yost

On February 20, Urban Green Council hosted a salon about the new stormwater rules from the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP) and innovative design strategies for compliance.  NRDC’s Larry Levine recently wrote about the new rules on our blog, which reduce allowable stormwater flow by 90% in some cases.

Deep reductions certainly make sense. According to Riverkeeper “more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewage overflows (CSOs) into New York Harbor alone each year.”

James Garin and Angela Licata (NYC DEP) provided background on the new rules and their goals.  In addition to reducing CSO, the DEP is trying to encourage co-beneficial strategies that increase biodiversity, reduce heat island effect, lower energy use, and add value to properties. One way to do this is by increasing green infrastructure (natural processes that filter water such as green roofs and bioswales) and decreasing grey infrastructure (traditional stormwater and waste water treatment like pipes and sewers).

A big topic at the event was how most compliance is being achieved through detention (holding the water back for a little while so the sewer system isn’t overwhelmed, but ultimately still sending it back to the treatment plant or river) as opposed to retention (holding it onsite and either using it or letting it evaporate, putting no strain on the sewer system). Some would argue that the greater benefits of retention mean we should be doing more to encourage it.

Michael Nilson (Langan Engineering) and Jeff Miles (Kiss + Cathcart Architects) shared recent projects on which they’ve of applied a mix of green and grey strategies. At Bushwick Inlet Park, rainwater is collected from paved surfaces on the hill to irrigate the green roof slope. All other rainwater infiltrates into the ground or passes through a tidal wetland landscape at the river’s edge; no stormwater is sent to the city’s combined stormwater system.

Solar 2, a green energy arts and education center, meets the new stormwater requirements and features a high-tech grey strategy, a “smart tank.”  These tanks use internet-based predictive weather data, tank level sensors, and other controls to switch a rainwater harvest tank (retention) into a detention tank when needed to manage stormwater, saving both money and space on the site.

The increased cost of installing larger tanks has been one of the primary criticisms of the new stormwater rules. Architect Jeff Miles argues that the cost difference between green and grey strategies is spurring innovation like smart tanks and vegetative systems. “We’re constructing the future so we should be developing new ways to think about old problems like stormwater,” he says. According to Jeff, early collaboration between the client, architects, and engineers is crucial to a project’s success.

There is a lot of potential for these new rules to bring value but we need to hear more success stories where green infrastructure is used. A tax credit for green infrastructure retrofits available from DEP should also aid innovate owners.

Commercial Buildings, Water

Can You Increase Your Commercial Project’s Value With Water Management?

No Comments Posted on 19 February 2014 by Larry Levine

In the last several years, NYC has stepped up as a national leader in the use of green infrastructure. A multi-agency effort led by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), smarter (and more cost-effective) stormwater management keeps runoff out of overwhelmed city sewers and helps reduce the overflows that regularly plague all five boroughs.

DEP’s technical guidelines allow for two compliance paths: slow-release methods (such as subsurface vaults and blue roofs) or volume-reducing green infrastructure practices (including rain gardens, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting) – or a combination of two approaches. (Although DEP’s current guidelines don’t address permeable pavement, a new city law requires DOT and DEP to develop recommendations on that topic.)

So why should property owners choose the greener path to compliance? Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a report, The Green Edge: How Commercial Property Investment in Green Infrastructure Creates Value, detailing a wide range of benefits that green infrastructure can provide to commercial property owners and their tenants:

• Increased rents and property values

• Increased retail sales

• Energy savings

• Local financial incentives (such as tax credits, rebates, and stormwater fee credits)

• Reduced infrastructure costs

• Reduced flood damage

• Reduced water bills

• Increased health and job satisfaction for office employees

• Reduced crime

Real dollar values can be put on many of these benefits:

On any given property, these benefits can add up to big money over the long-run. The Green Edge includes three examples that show the potential cumulative value of a suite of green infrastructure retrofits to the owners and tenants of medium-sized office buildings, midrise apartment buildings and retail centers. In both the office building and apartment building examples, the total present value of benefits approaches $2 million over 40 years; for the retail center, benefits exceed $24 million, including nearly $23 million of increased retail sales for tenants.

This commercial office building in Washington, DC, incorporates a green roof, a cistern, plantings that maximize the “curb appeal” of the façade, and reuse of captured rainwater for landscape irrigation — achieving zero stormwater runoff from a 2-year storm or less. More information is available here (Photo credit: Timmons Group, Richmond, VA.)

So when it comes to stormwater compliance in NYC, why not invest your compliance dollars in ways that create value, instead of just adding to the cost side of the ledger? Green infrastructure can actually make the difference in having a project pencil out, as illustrated by this case study in the Jan/Feb. issue of Urban Land. In other instances, lower life-cycle costs can be compelling.

In virtually every case, though, putting your stormwater management dollars towards “gray” infrastructure, rather than green, carries an opportunity cost of not using those dollars for something that creates real value beyond mere regulatory compliance.

This big-picture thinking about green infrastructure also applies to existing developed sites, where investments in retrofits can improve older properties and create value, while contributing to the city’s green infrastructure goals. Property owners should check out DEP’s incentives for green infrastructure retrofits, including a green roof tax credit, and a green infrastructure grant program.

The report doesn’t offer a single formula for calculating return on investment. But it does show why the commercial real estate industry should think broadly about the benefits of green infrastructure in order to make wise investment decisions.

So instead of asking “Why green infrastructure?” ask yourself “Why not?”

For more on this topic, see these recent articles:

Larry Levine is a senior attorney in NRDC’s Water Program. He focuses on promoting the use of green infrastructure as a sustainable solution to polluted urban runoff and raw sewage overflows.

Building Resiliency Task Force, Water

Toxic Soup: A Holiday Recipe You’ll Want to Avoid

No Comments Posted on 19 December 2013 by Cecil Scheib

Across New York City, hazardous chemicals and other materials are stored in spaces that aren’t floodproof – even if the building is in the flood zone. When a surge like Superstorm Sandy’s inundates storage areas, the result is “toxic soup”: contaminated floodwater that can poison both people and the environment. New buildings built to code in flood zones must address this issue, but existing buildings may still be storing hazardous materials without adequate floodproofing.

Minutes ago, the New York City Council passed Intro 1102-A to help safeguard toxic materials stored in flood zones. Under the law, based on a recommendation of the Building Resiliency Task Force that Urban Green Council managed for the city, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will:

  • Have rules in place by January 1, 2015 for the proper siting and storage of hazardous substances, including taking into consideration floods and storm surges;
  • Require annual reports from buildings storing significant amounts of hazardous chemicals, showing their flood zone, evacuation zone, and a description of how their storage takes into account potential flooding;
  • Require that these buildings take into account extreme weather events, including potential flooding from storm surges, in their risk management plans.

While we may never see another Sandy, NYC will face some future disaster, and our buildings need to be prepared. This law recognizes that it’s hard enough to rebuild after floods without have to wade through a contaminated mess to do it.

Since the release of the Task Force report in June, the City Council has passed 14 of its recommendations (get full details on our Tracker). In all, 16 of 33 report proposals have been implemented. We look forward to working with Mayor-Elect de Blasio and a new administration to continue to advance building resiliency, but NYC has already taken a huge step forward. So happy holidays – and lay off the toxic soup!

Climate Change, Energy, Making Buildings Resilient, NYC Local Laws, Residential Buildings, Water

Special Event:
Taking Action After Sandy

No Comments Posted on 11 December 2013 by Cecil Scheib

Thirteen Building Resiliency Task Force (BRTF) proposals have already been passed by the City Council this term (you can learn more about them on our tracker). It’s impressive that the city acted so decisively after Sandy to improve the building code for both sustainability and resiliency – but it also means some new requirements that owners and building professionals must contend with. Thankfully, these laws provide new options for building design and retrofits, as several barriers to resiliency and sustainability have been removed. Last week, experts from the Task Force got together with a lively audience to discuss challenges and opportunities arising from these new laws.

Angela Sung Pinsky (Real Estate Board of New York) believes there have been changes in the way owners think about the chance of flooding, saying “in Manhattan, there has been an increased consideration of barriers in flood zones.” BRTF 5, now Local Law 109 of 2013, allows temporary flood barriers or shields (and their supports) to extend a short distance into the public right-of-way – good news for owners trying to protect their buildings. However, owners should be aware that permits for these barriers are “revocable consents”; as Angela put it, owners are essentially “renting space back” from the city. She said the city is considering a streamlined process to make these permits easier to obtain.

Though the public water system remained functional during Sandy, there was no way to get water in upper apartments in many tall buildings, because as Artie Klock (Plumbers Local Union No. 1) pointed out, “the pump is located in the cheap real estate – the basement.” So the physical damage from inrushing water created a secondary problem as people were forced to evacuate from a lack of potable water. When building water tanks ran out, buildings quickly become uninhabitable. BRTF 23, now Local Law 110 of 2013, requires that buildings over five stories have faucets available to supply water only from street pressure during emergencies. This is a retrofit requirement – within eight years, both new and existing residential buildings must install one faucet for every 100 people who live there. An audience member expressed disbelief that people would carry water upstairs from the accessible fixture – but Artie pointed out the overlap between sustainability (water savings from low-flush toilets) and resiliency (water availability to flush toilets during a power outage), saying “Carrying 1.6 gallons up the stairs to flush your toilet is a lot easier than carrying 5 gallons up.” Good point.

Jon Weiskopf (Steven Winter Associates) mentioned a sea change that happened in the city after Sandy: “The building code was designed to get people out of buildings; now we are trying to keep people in.” Instead of focusing solely on evacuation after an emergency, extended habitability has become another goal. Jon credited the Department of Buildings, Con Edison, and particularly FDNY with their creativity on the Task Force, saying they were “very active in coming up with solutions.” Some of these solutions remove barriers, including BRTF 17, now Local Law 111 of 2013, which allows natural gas to be used much more broadly for backup generators. Along with burning more cleanly and not requiring fuel deliveries, natural gas may be available when diesel fuel tanks have run dry. Jon said that since the same generator may now be used for both emergency purposes and to strategically reduce loads to save on utility bills, the new law gives “a huge range of design possibilities” for engineers.

To guard against flooding, vulnerable equipment must be moved higher in the building. BRTF 3, now Local Law 100 of 2013, requires electrical services, fire protection systems, compressed gas or hazardous material tanks, and vent piping to be located above the flood line. Paradoxically, building code provisions had prevented raising some other building systems such as fuel oil storage and telecommunications equipment. These barriers have been removed by BRTF 4, now Local Law 98 of 2013. John D’Angelo (NewYork-Presbyterian) says moving equipment out of the basement may sacrifice some more valuable real estate. Owners can’t just swap things around space-wise, since (as he put it) “no one wants to go down into a dark dank basement for high-end retail.”

Nevertheless, John saw resiliency improvements as necessary. “NYC has so many lives in such a small space, with so many interdependencies, that without resiliency we face cascading emergencies after an event.” Hopefully, as these new laws become standard practice, our city will be both greener and better prepared for emergencies to come.

Building Resiliency Task Force, Resiliency, Water

Surviving the Next Mega-Blackout with Emergency Drinking Water

No Comments Posted on 14 November 2013 by Russell Unger

If you could only bring one survival tool into the wilderness, what would it be?

Whether you thought of a canteen or a solar-powered water purifier, you likely came up with a solution to a fundamental problem – access to water. We can survive up to a month without food, but not more than a week without water.

Back in the urban jungle, if toilets can’t flush, buildings will quickly become uninhabitable.

That’s why a bill passed minutes ago by the City Council is so important. Introduction 1094-A requires that within six years, every multi-family residential building in NYC that uses an electric pump for its water supply must install emergency drinking water fixtures. There must be one fixture per 100 building occupants and they must be located in a common area, supplied only by water pressure from the public water main (meaning no pumps or electricity are required). The City Council also passed three other bills that implement recommendations of the NYC Building Resiliency Task Force, which Urban Green convened and managed for the city:

  • BRTF 5 – Remove Barriers to Sidewalk Flood Protection (Intro 1093-A)
  • BRTF 17 – Remove Barriers to Backup & Natural Gas Generators (Intro 1101-A)
  • BRTF 20 – Add Hookups for Temporary Generators & Boilers (Intro 1092-A)

You can see the latest status on the Task Force recommendations and read summaries of new laws on our tracker.

Many New Yorkers lived through the reality of downed water pumps in the aftermath of Sandy, whether it was the absence of drinking water or toilets that couldn’t be flushed. That’s why Supply Drinking Water Without Power was one of the central recommendations of the Task Force.

New York is blessed with a gravity-fed distribution system that brings water from reservoirs in Upstate New York down to the city, and up to the fourth or fifthfloors of buildings just from pressure in the water mains. But the electric water pumps needed to send water higher can’t run without power, and during blackouts, some pumps can even block water from being available on lower floors.

The Task Force was very reluctant to recommend retroactive requirements for existing buildings. We made an exception for this proposal because of how much is at stake. With a working water supply, people can stay in their buildings much more safely. The proposal attempts to mitigate costs by allowing a six-year lead time for installation and by permitting faucets to be divided with splitters.

Within the next two decades, it’s near certain there will be another big power failure. If that happens, New Yorkers will turn en masse to these emergency water stations. When water starts flowing from some near-forgotten corner of the building, those of us who lived here during Superstorm Sandy will remember what we learned and how we adapted in its aftermath.


Let the Waters Flow

No Comments Posted on 17 October 2013 by Cecil Scheib

Fountain fed by Tunnel No. 3

Gas lamps flickered in the twilight. A brass quintet played cheerful tunes. And a City Hall Park fountain burst to life with Catskills rainfall as the newest segment of New York City Water Tunnel No. 3 was ceremonially opened today.

The tunnel will provide redundancy in the Bronx and Manhattan, allowing Water Tunnel No. 1 (leaking millions of gallons of water daily) to be shut down for repairs. Since that tunnel was completed almost 100 years ago, in 1917, and is impossible to fully repair while in service, this work is long overdue.

Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway said that the existence of Tunnel No. 3 was a testament to long-term planning – similar to the bold, 1901 vision for the water system that resulted in the tunnels we’ve used until now. Moreover, Holloway compared the planning and execution of the tunnel (which has been in progress in some form since 1954) with the city’s response to Superstorm Sandy. “The parallels are striking,” Holloway said. “There’s a water crisis and a pressing need for strong action. After Sandy, in just seven months, we produced a plan to combat climate change and sea level rise, and to improve the resiliency of our city. We can and will carry through on the recommendations of that plan.”

The plan he refers to is the reports of SIRR and the Building Resiliency Task Force that will prepare the city for long-term risks from climate change. More immediately, until now, the Bronx and Manhattan have been at risk for a tunnel failure that could leave large portions of the city without water. There just was not sufficient redundancy to maintain service for everyone in case of a problem. (Don’t worry, Brooklyn and Queens – you’ll have your part of Water Tunnel No. 3 by 2021!)

We’ve reported in the past that from 2015-2019, NYC will have to function with 50% of its water supply turned off, due to construction of an 8-mile bypass tunnel around leaks downstream of the Delaware Aqueduct. Note that Water Tunnel No. 3 doesn’t fix this problem, as the new tunnel starts at the Westchester-Bronx border. So while this worthy investment will save water and provide resiliency for the water supply within the city, we still face challenges to come.


When NYC Loses 50% of its Drinking Water

1 Comment Posted on 30 January 2013 by Russell Unger

Within the next decade, an aqueduct that supplies half of New York City’s drinking water will be shut down for 6-15 months of repairs. Amazingly, almost no one knows about this.

The Delaware Aqueduct is the world’s longest tunnel and an engineering marvel, delivering water 85 miles to the city using only gravity. However, a portion of it travels through soft limestone and this has become a problem. A small stretch has been leaking water for decades – up to 35 million gallons per day, or more than 3% of the city’s water consumption.

From 2015-2019, NYC will be constructing an 8-mile bypass tunnel around these leaks. During most of this construction the Delaware Aqueduct will continue delivering water, but at some point it will need to close to make the connection to the bypass. Read the details from the Department of Environmental Protection here.

How will New York function with 50% of its water supply turned off? Thankfully, by the time the Delaware spigots close, those at the new Croton Filtration Plant will open. Right now, 10% of our water comes from Croton; when the plant is completed, it can supply 30%. The city has a few other tricks up its sleeve like moving water between various reservoirs and relying on groundwater supply in Queens. The challenge is also mitigated thanks to a 2010 law that increases water efficiency standards for new plumbing fixtures (a Green Codes Task Force recommendation). However, it seems probable that there will be some restrictions on water use that year, such as limits on water for landscaping. Without restrictions, NYC might be forced to “borrow” water from neighbors in New Jersey and Long Island.

From time to time I’ve heard the sentiment that thanks to climate change, we no longer need to worry so much about water efficiency in New York. This theory is that our region is getting wetter, which is why we haven’t had a drought in 10 years. That may be the case, but I wouldn’t want to bet my money – or my drinking water supply – on what the weather forecast predicts for next week, never mind years out. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that water efficiency ensures we aren’t needlessly wasting resources and enables us to operate our drinking water infrastructure below capacity, giving us critical breathing room at times like the closing of the Delaware Aqueduct.


Climate Change, Water

Searching for Piano Tops

No Comments Posted on 11 September 2012 by Yetsuh Frank

In his quirky but groundbreaking book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Buckminster Fuller pointed out that if you are aboard a sinking ship, even a floating piano top can look extremely promising.  But Fuller also notes that this doesn’t mean a piano top is the ideal design for a flotation device.

To continue the metaphor, in the absence of anything like a global plan to combat the planetary climate crisis, we seem to be searching the horizon for piano tops, forcing ourselves into a series of more and more uncomfortable decisions regarding energy, resources and the ecology that supports us.  In almost every sphere of the environmental movement, you see strategies once considered beyond the pale under serious consideration–only because the options grow worse and worse each day.  Should we allow hydro-fracturing for shale gas if it keeps us from using the even more damaging Canadian tar sands?  If we could eliminate mountaintop removal to extract coal by ramping up our nuclear power output shouldn’t we consider doing that?  Even if tomorrow there were some miraculous global compact to transition to 100% renewable energy, these questions would need to be resolved to determine how we bridge to that desired outcome.

A recent addition to this growing list of uncomfortable strategies under consideration is geoengineering: the science of intentionally altering the earth’s atmosphere to curb the rise in average global temperature.  As we continue to burn fossil fuels at a breakneck pace and as negative feedback loops in the global system (like the growing seasonal reductions in the polar ice cap or the release of methane from melting permafrost grow worse much more quickly than expected, a growing chorus advocates for a dramatic response: injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere that will reflect significant amounts of the sun’s heat, thereby slowing the rise in global temperature.  What might once have sounded liked science fiction is being studied and discussed by reasonable, intelligent people with no particular ax to grind.

A few weeks back Michael Specter at the New Yorker did a wonderful job of summing up the recent scientific activity in the field, and there have been other discussions of the subject at Scientific American and Wired.  Yale 360 surveyed the pros and cons here.

The basic idea is to mimic a major volcanic eruption, without the big bang and the earthquakes.  When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, huge quantities of sulfur dioxide were released into the atmosphere and a period of global cooling followed.  Scientists surmise that a continued infusion of sulfates would result in long-term cooling of global average temperature.  Tinkering with the earth’s atmosphere is not for the faint of heart.  Somehow filling the atmosphere with sulfates would need to happen every year, in perpetuity, or the cooling effects would cease.  Perhaps more importantly, many are concerned that even discussing the concept of geoengineering will give those that are already complacent about climate change an excuse to ignore the subject entirely under the assumption that a simple technical fix will be found.  Others have pointed out that simply reflecting the sun’s heat while continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere will do nothing to curb acidification of our oceans, one of the most dreadful and largely ignored impacts of the current climate crisis.

Ultimately, what should give us pause about geoengineering are the things we don’t know.  The atmosphere is too complex a system to think that we can start mucking with it and have anything like a comprehensive sense of the repercussions.  For instance, many fear that geoengineering has the potential to seriously disrupt the Indian monsoon.  The list of things we don’t know about how the atmosphere interacts with our planetary ecology is almost unfathomably long.  I was reminded of this when someone recently described to me the relatively recent discovery of ballooning spiders, which cast their gossamer into the air like a sail and are carried off by the wind to new domains.  These spiders have been found upwards of 16,000 feet above sea level and travel many hundreds of miles. Will geoengineering impact this species?  I doubt anyone really knows.  And how many others are there like them?  Or consider the emerging understanding about how microbes in our stratosphere impact rainfall, disease and climate?  How will geoengineering affect this almost unknown ecology?

Humans have a tendency to assume that what we know is all there is to know, or close to it. Ultimately, the thing that should make us wary of geoengineering is the same thing that should lead us to slow our emission of greenhouse gases, because we don’t really know how it will impact our otherwise stable global climate.

Energy, Initiatives, LEED, Planning, Water

LEED Regional Priority Credits

No Comments Posted on 08 February 2012 by Ellen Honigstock

Ellen Honigstock, a member of the Urban Green Council Chapter Task Force for LEED Regionalization 2012, shares their initial findings on recommendations for LEED RPC 2012:

The USGBC recognizes the importance of projects that address region-specific environmental issues in their design; these Regional Priority credits were first introduced in the LEED 2009 rating systems.

Urban Green Council, along with all the other chapters of the USGBC, is currently evaluating which credits to prioritize in LEED 2012 for the five boroughs in New York City and Rockland and Westchester Counties.

Starting in late summer 2011, the Urban Green Council Chapter Task Force for LEED Regionalization 2012 began to meet monthly.  Shortly thereafter, the Chapter Task Force (CTF) identified five general categories of regional priority issues: Water, Air, Energy, Ground and Resources.

Focusing first on what the important issues should be rather than where they might occur, the CTF compiled a comprehensive list of 17 possible priority issues. These priorities were compared with the ones identified in LEED 2009 Regionalization in order to maintain as much continuity as possible.  The list was also compared with the recommendations in the Urban Green Council Green Codes Task Force Report to identify which environmental issues would benefit most from green incentives, rather than from proposed legislation.

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Green Codes, Initiatives, Planning, Water

Stormwater Management As Mother Nature Intended

No Comments Posted on 11 January 2012 by Russell Unger

The same day last week the City Council helped us all breathe easier with a new law on chemicals in carpets, the Department of Environmental Protection released its new stormwater rule that encourages natural rainwater detention and retention, along with accompanying design guidelines. “Natural” here is not being used like the labels on cleaning products – here we are talking about honest to goodness mother nature. Rather than send rainwater to concrete tanks, sewers, and treatment plants, the new DEP rule encourages onsite reuse and natural infiltration.

It’s hard to overstate how much of a “180” this rule and the Green Infrastructure Plan represents for DEP, at least in terms of the principles involved. Until very recently, the only stormwater approach that mattered to DEP’s water engineers were those that could be measured in tanks and pipes. While we all know rainwater can be absorbed in the ground, directed into a rain barrel, and retained by a green roof, it wasn’t that easy to measure this capture. So it didn’t count at all for DEP. It does now.

The new rule is not a panacea for those who favor green infrastructure but is still a big step forward. The rule drastically reduces the allowable runoff from new construction and major reconstruction (a 90% reduction from previous limits). DEP will consider a range of approaches to reduce runoff including vegetative cover, green roofs, and permeable pavement. It will also consider open-bottomed detention systems that allow infiltration. Owners are required to provide maintenance for these systems so they work as intended. And finally, new developments next to a waterway must send rainwater into the waterway (rather than the sewer system).

Taken together, this rule implements 4 Task Force recommendations:

  • SW 2: Reduce Stormwater Runoff From New Developments
  • SW 4: Send Rainwater to Waterways
  • SW 5: Encourage Innovative Stormwater Practices
  • SW 6: Maintain Site-Based Stormwater Detention Systems

Another good day for green codes and a great way to kick off the New Year!

© 2012 Urban Green Blog.