Protecting NYC’s Water at the Source

Protecting NYC’s Water at the Source

By Serena McIntosh, CEP ‘14

Today is my one month anniversary as an intern with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Water Supply (DEP BWS). I am interning in the Working Lands Section, which is basically the section responsible for monitoring, implementing and overseeing a number of watershed protection programs that are required as part of our Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD) issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You might notice right off the bat that there are a TON of acronyms that I’ve had to become familiar with over the course of my first month here at DEP. Luckily, I have a strange proclivity for acronyms and pseudonyms, so this hasn’t been too challenging as of yet.

Newtown Creek WWTPThe DEP has a fairly large internship program, with interns scattered throughout the Department’s offices in Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and its various upstate offices. Despite this scattering, DEP has various tours, information seminars, and other events scheduled for all of its interns to partake in. The fun began at orientation, where my fellow interns and I had the opportunity to tour one of the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), Newtown Creek in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Newtown Creek is the city’s largest WWTP, with the capacity to receive and process approximately 310 million gallons of wastewater from over a million people throughout various sections of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan every day. The plant filters, treats, and disposes of the treated effluent into Newtown Creek, one of the most polluted urban bodies of water in the world but one the DEP and the EPA (through its Superfund program) are working very hard to restore. Much of the processing of this wastewater takes place in Newtown Creek’s 8 digester eggs, which use anaerobic digestion to transform wastewater into methane, carbon dioxide, water, and treated sludge. (To the left is a snap of a few of the WWTP’s eggs).

You might be asking yourself, so what happens to the treated sludge after it’s digested? Anticipating this question, the DEP also organized a sludge boat tour for its interns on June 28th. The tour started at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, where one of the city’s 5 sludge boats onloaded 600,000 gallons of treated wastewater (aka sludge). Sludge boats work to transfer treated wastewater in need of dewatering from plants without dewatering technology to those that have it. On this particular day, the “Newtown Creek” (our sludge boat), transported the sludge from the North River WWTP down the Hudson River to the Port Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant on Staten Island, where the sludge was then offloaded and dewatered. After dewatering, the remaining sludge, which turns into a cake-like consistency, is used for fertilizer. I took the below picture from the bridge of the sludge boat as we headed North on East River towards Manhattan.Sludge Boat

Okay so back to my internship. I promise I do more than attend AWESOME field trips organized by the DEP. As an intern with the Working Lands Section (the only intern in the section, and one of three employees in the section total I might add), I have had the opportunity to experience first-hand the process involved in implementing the city’s many watershed protection programs. Through a number of public-private partnerships with state/county/municipal governments in the watershed, Soil and Water Conservation Districts (also on the county-level), the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC), the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and other various organizations, the Working Lands Section uses land management practices to deliver high quality drinking water to NYC, while also promoting the economic prosperity of the watershed’s residents through its agricultural and forestry practices.

One of the main programs I have been involved in is the Watershed Agricultural Program’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, commonly known as CREP. CREP is a program that was created by the USDA as part of the Farm Bill, and is considered one of the oldest PES programs in the country. While the USDA co-sponsors the program, it is the responsibility of state/county/municipal governments to implement the program. In the NYC watershed, CREP sites are implemented by the DEP in conjunction with WAC, a non-profit partially funded by DEP that is the main organization responsible for the Watershed Agricultural and Forestry Programs the Working Lands Section is required to implement. The program works to protect watersheds by providing funding to eligible applicants who own environmentally-sensitive agricultural lands in the NYC watershed to implement Best Management Practices (BMPs) with the objective of reducing sources of waterway pollution. CREP BMPs include livestock fencing to prevent livestock from feeding from/polluting the water source, shrub/tree plantings to limit sedimentation, and the management/maintenance of riparian buffer zones adjacent to CREP watercourses. In conjunction with my colleague Ed Blouin, who heads up the agricultural section of the Working Lands Section, I’ve traveled to CREP sites in Delaware, Greene, Ulster, and Sullivan County to observe both existing and new CREP plantings. By integrating data from the planting plan, which accounts for the number of plants planted originally, species, and height/width, vigor, etc., my team and I account for the progress the plants are making, and for natural regeneration that occurs in tandem or occasionally in competition with the CREP plants we’ve established. (To the left is a photo of a new friend and me on a visit to a CREP site in Greene County).

In addition to my work on the agricultural side, I am currently working with my supervisor, John Schwartz, to compile data on the status of one-year and five-year old forest management plans adopted by watershed landowners who volunteer to participate in the Watershed Agricultural Council’s Forestry Program. Forest management plans (FMPs) are a component of the Watershed Forestry Program created by a certified forester intending to establish BMPs for landowners in forested regions of the watershed in order to promote sustainable silvicultural activities. Typical forestry BMP recommendations include the establishment of culverts for future logging activities, invasive species management, timber stand improvement, and thinning. These annual evaluations are required by our FAD. After compiling the necessary FMP and survey feedback data, I have been tasked with writing a brief report on any significant findings I encounter as a result of my evaluation.

With additional planned visits to local reservoirs, meetings with local Farm-to-Market committees dedicated to connecting agricultural producers in the watershed with consumers, library educational programs, and various research projects, I expect to keep busy this summer here in the mid-Hudson Valley at the DEP’s Bureau of Water Supply.

If you have any questions or would like to further discuss my work mentioned here, I am available via email.

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