Last Tuesday evening, dozens of community members convened at Flushing Town Hall to hear about the issues facing the waterways. A panel of experts from local organizations also discussed their visions for the waterbodies and potential solutions to the problems.
According to Councilman Costa Constantinides, chair of the Council’s Environment Protection Committee and the host of the event, the waterways still don’t meet the standards under the Clean Water Act, despite years of remediation.
“It’s been polluted for too long,” he said. “There’s been a large expenditure there that hasn’t gotten where we need to go, to make it swimmable and fishable in the long term.”
According to advocates, the Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek, combined, have the highest amount of combined sewer overflows (CSO) in the city: nearly five billion gallons per year.
In March 2017, the state approved the city’s Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) for the waterways. The city is currently building out a new $670 million CSO storage tunnel that is expected to reduce 746 million gallons of CSO per year.
However, the annual CSO volume in 2017 was 1.405 billion gallons, meaning the storage tunnel would still leave 659 million gallons of CSO.
For the Flushing Creek, the LTCP won’t reduce CSO at all, but instead proposed “seasonal chlorination” to kill the bacteria in the waterway.
Councilman Peter Koo said the creek is being overlooked in the LTCP.
“You use chlorine in the swimming pool to kill the bacteria, not in a creek where you want to encourage wildlife and public access,” he said.
Last month, Constantinides introduced legislation to require more oversight of the city’s Long Term Control Plans. The bill would also force the city to develop a five-borough resiliency plan.
“It can’t just be business as usual, and it can’t just be spending ‘x’ amount of dollars without deliverables,” he said. “They have to be real benchmarks for what we’re getting for our money.”
“The plan as it stands now treats symptoms instead of the infection,” Constantinides added. “We want a better plan, one that addresses needs in the long term.”
The western Queens councilman said he’s already thinking about 21st century solutions to environmental issues. When the city eventually closes Rikers Island, he wants to build a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant on the island.
In addition to discussing the LTCP and CSO issues, the panelists also explained their vision for the future of the Flushing waterways.
Michael Dulong, a senior staff attorney with the watchdog group Riverkeeper, said he wants to make Flushing Creek more accessible, a goal shared by other panelists. Dulong proposed building a pedestrian bridge that connects to the promenade.
“It’s Riverkeeper’s goal to make these waters swimmable and fishable,” he said. “We want a place where we can get to the water.”
“Having opportunities to get people to the waterfront is really key,” added Cody Herrmann from the Guardians of Flushing Bay.
Korin Tangtrakul from the SWIM Coalition, meanwhile, said there are steps the city can take to make the waters more conducive to habitat and ecology.
“Flushing Creek is home to some of the best oysters in the harbor,” she said.
Last March, Guardians of Flushing Bay and Riverkeeper unveiled their own vision for the Flushing waterways. They recommended 50 projects, including building a Queens Waterfront Exploration Center (QWEC), which would be a site for research, canoeing, kayak rentals and dragon boat racing.
Other proposals include creating a new park in Flushing West, a large-scale oyster reef and restoring the promenade at the World’s Fair Marina. “It gives you an idea of what the bay could look like,” Dulong said. “Flushing Bay and the promenade are gems.”
In addition to the challenges of access and sewage overflows, the waterways are faced with new waterfront developments in the coming years.
Private parcels along the Flushing Creek have already begun to be developed for residential or mixed use. There’s also the Willets Point redevelopment, which will result in thousands of housing units.
Finally, advocates are concerned about the impact of the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain. Dulong said community members should make sure the FAA looks at all alternatives to the rail, including extending the N/W lines from Astoria, ferries or bus rapid transit.
The project is currently undergoing an environmental review process, which will also look at potential impacts and mitigations of the project.
“If any park space is taken for the AirTrain, there should be more park space put directly in that same area,” Dulong said, “not somewhere else in New York City.”