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Posted 11/25/2014

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By JoAnne Castagna, Ed.D.
New York District


Residents of Grimsby Street in Midland Beach, Staten Island, New York noticed a large puddle of water in their neighborhood. Days went by – there was the puddle, a few months go by – there still was the puddle. The body of water was there so long residents began counting the days – 280!  A resident said that it got to the point that the neighborhood named it Grimsby Lake.

 

How that puddle appeared on Grimsby Street really wasn’t a mystery to the residents who for decades have been frustrated by chronic flooding problems. This flooding comes from the fact that the island, which is a borough of New York City, is low lying and has no conventional underground storm sewer system.

 

To help with this problem, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) created the successful storm water management system- The Staten Island Bluebelt Program. So far, many residents have benefited from it and the agency wants to expand the program to more communities, such as flood-prone Midland Beach.

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District is helping the City in this effort. The District developed an innovative permitting mechanism that is helping to move the Bluebelt Program along faster and as a result it will help reduce flooding, save taxpayer money and improve the environment and wildlife habitats.

 

The Staten Island Bluebelt Program is preserving and restoring streams, ponds and other wetland areas – called Bluebelts – in 16 of the island’s natural watershed systems. These watershed systems are being used to collect storm water runoff during rainstorms, hold it, filter it and gradually release it into the Raritan Bay and Arthur Kill.

 

During a rainstorm, water on the streets needs to be able to drain off into a storm sewer system so that roads, homes and businesses do not flood. In many parts of Staten Island, there is no such system and the rainwater has no place to go.  

 

In the areas served by a Bluebelt Program, conventional storm sewers are built in the beds of city streets, but instead of draining into a large trunk storm sewer, the water is channeled into the Bluebelt wetland systems.

 

At every point where the storm sewer pipe ends and the Bluebelt begins, NYCDEP builds special drainage facilities called Best Management Practices (BMPs) that minimize the impacts of urban storm water discharges into wetlands.

 

Many of these BMPs are man-made wetlands that include weirs that help to reduce the water speed, so the water is much less destructive. Wetland native plants are planted in these wetland areas to help clean and purify the water of sediment and pollutants. These contaminants eventually settle to the bottom of the water in specially designed sumps and are regularly removed by the NYCDEP.

 

The stormwater is detained in some of these wetland areas during the peak of a storm and then slowly released downstream into the ocean after the storm has passed. The amount of water released downstream is carefully controlled in order to prevent flood surges to communities living downstream.

 

The program is not only successfully controlling flooding, but is also beneficial to the environment and cost effective when compared to conventional storm sewer systems.

 

Constructing conventional storm sewer systems  can have an adverse impact on the environment. The Bluebelt Program is less intrusive and actually improves the environment and provides for wildlife habitats and community open space.

 

Not only is the environment preserved, but also considerable tax payer money is saved. According to the NYCDEP, the Bluebelt Program has already saved the city more than $80 million dollars in sewer construction costs.

Presently, two thirds of the island drains into the Bluebelt system. For the NYCDEP to build out the system they have to design and construct additional BMP’s and to do this they must submit permits for review and approval to the Army Corps’ New York District.

 

The Army Corps’ New York District is responsible for reviewing permit applications for work that is going to be performed in any of the waterways, including wetlands that are within the District’s boundaries. These permit applications need to be reviewed to make sure that there will be no adverse environmental impact to the aquatic environment and the work proposed is not contrary to the public interest.

 

For the Bluebelt Program, the NYCDEP has been sending the Army Corps a large number of permit applications every year to perform their work.

 

“Reviewing these applications and having them done within the NYCDEP’s timeframe can get very time consuming and resource intensive to the Army Corps and also the NYCDEP,” said Jodi McDonald, chief, Regulatory Branch, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

 

She added, “These permit applications include a variety of activities such as replacing outfalls, doing minor dredging and creating micro pools.” Many of these permit applications can also be repetitive because they are to perform similar work.

 

“Most of these tasks have minimal environmental impact. So we decided to create a Regional General Permit that allows the NYCDEP to move forward and perform these minimally environmentally invasive projects without having to submit dozens of individual permit applications to the Army Corps,” said McDonald.

 

McDonald said, “After years of working with the NYCDEP and other federal and state agencies, we now have a Regional General Permit that allows the NYCDEP to immediately move forward on a whole suite of activities for the Staten Island Bluebelt Program.”

 

She added, “They can just go and build them, without having to stop and wait for a permit application to be reviewed and authorization granted.  This saves the District and the NYCDEP time and resources and leaves the District time to scrutinize those permit applications that will have more of an environmental impact.”

 

Dana Gumb, chief, Staten Island Bluebelt Program, New York City Department of Environmental Protection said, “This permit will really give us tremendous momentum and this is very significant and important to us. We will be able to construct and get things done much more quickly than if we had had to go the individual permit route.”

 

The new permit is already starting to move the Bluebelt Program ahead – specifically in Midland Beach – the location of “Grimsby Lake.”

 

Midland Beach is located within the New Creek Watershed. The NYCDEP is restoring the West Branch of New Creek so that it can be used as a channel to move storm water away from streets. This includes removing large amounts of silt that have accumulated in the channel and moving the channel away from homes.

 

Next, they will restore an approximately 5-acre wetland complex.  This will include removing approximately 5-acres of an invasive plant species called Phragmites australis and replacing it with a diverse array of native wetland plants. In addition, there will be construction of culverts under streets, control structures and sediment clean-out locations called forebays and micropools.

 

Gumb said, “This construction work wouldn’t have started for years if it wasn’t for the Regional General Permit. We are easily saving years. When you are building a drainage system for thousands of acres in an urban setting it's a real big ticket item.  And it’s something that costs lots of money and takes a lot of time to do. So whatever savings in time we can have is very significant. If you’re saving time you are saving money.”

 

Moving the program faster along means quicker results for Staten Island communities.   McDonald said, “The Regional General Permit streamlines the permit process so that the remaining Bluebelt BMPs can be constructed faster and the public can realize benefits sooner. This includes reduced flooding of homes, roads and neighborhoods as well as improved water, fish and wildlife habitat quality.”

 

Gumb said, “The permit is a win win win situation for everyone. It's a win for the NYCDEP because we can advance our construction program much faster. It’s a win for the Army Corps because they are saving staff time and they don't have to review the same kind of applications over and over again.  And it is a win for the public because they get these things built more quickly and can have the benefits in a faster time frame.”

 

Former Staten Island Borough President, James P. Molinaro once said at a press conference that he has visited Staten Island communities after rainstorms and to his amazement actually saw ducks swimming by in the street.

 

The hope is that with the expansion of the Staten Island Bluebelt Program and the help of the Army Corps’ Regional General Permit that these large bodies of water will no longer appear and the ducks will find refuge at one on the preserved wetland habitats.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE:

Former New York District Employee Mr. Craig Spitz, who passed away this year, was extremely instrumental in creating the Regional General Permit.  Dana Gumb, chief, Staten Island Bluebelt Program, New York City Department of Environmental Protection said, “I salute Mr. Spitz who was a big supporter of the Staten Island Bluebelt Program. He was the project manager for many individual permits and understood what our projects were about. He was also interested enough to come out to the sites during and after construction. He saw what we were doing and really believed that the Regional General Permit was the right way to go.  His untimely death was very sad but maybe this permit is a kind of memorial to his faith in what the Bluebelt was all about.