Sierra Club’s NYC Sustainability Series: “Water Issues Big and Small”

On May 10, the Sierra Club’s New York City Group hosted three speakers who covered a range of water-related environmental topics for the latest in its Sustainability Series, “Water Issues Big and Small.”

Organized and moderated by Executive Committee Vice-Chair Bonnie Lane Webber, the event started off with Charles Sturcken, Director of Environmental Outreach and Compliance at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. Sturcken provided a historical background of NYC’s water system, beginning with the development of Croton Aqueduct, which became the city’s first central water supply upon its completion in 1842. In 1907, the system received a boost from Teddy Roosevelt, who pushed through vast resources to aid its growth. Today, the system services 9 million consumers and holds 580 billion gallons of water when filled to capacity, and could sustain the city’s needs for 18 months with no rainwater. 1 billion gallons are used each day, down from 1.5 billion in 1985 (due in large part to about 2-3 million toilets the DEC replaced, reducing water usage from 7 gallons to 1.28 gallons per flush). Sturcken noted that water is tested constantly as it moves throughout the system, and that UV light, vegetable-grade phosphoric acid, chlorine, and fluoride are all added to ensure it is clean and healthy for all to drink: as a result of intense monitoring, as well as protections against land development placed on the 2000 square miles of land that make up the NYC Watershed Area, NYC is one of just 5 cities in the country whose water doesn’t need to be filtered.

Next, City Council Member Ben Kallos spoke about potential legislation that would ban the sale of bottled water in NYC parks. 80% of plastic water bottles purchased in the US wind up in landfills, and can take over 100 years to biodegrade. They also significantly contribute to the estimated 110 billion tons of plastic currently in the ocean. Kallos engaged with the audience to gauge their interest in such a bill; their feedback included a desire to include soda cans and plastic bags in the ban. In addition, Kallos spoke of two of his recently proposed bills. The first would require the city to use fully shielded street lights to reduce light pollution, save energy, and protect wildlife, including birds whose migratory patterns are often disrupted by the city’s blinding lights. Kallos’ second piece of recently introduced legislation was inspired by the organized waste bins he saw were being used to encourage recycling across San Francisco. If passed, the bill would mandate businesses and other locations with public accommodations to put out separate bins for trash, recycling, and compost. Kallos hopes the law would provide a viable way for NYC to reach its goal of “Zero Waste by 2030.”

Finally, Lucy Robson, Director of Research and Planning at citywide civic organization New Yorkers for Parks, addressed the importance of water fountains at our parks. Robson walked the audience through various common and obscure types of water fountains, from the classic “single goose neck” shape to the sleeker, more modern “metal basinless” style. She also addressed the history of water fountains in NYC, from the opening of the first water fountain at City Hall Park in 1859 through the underwriting of ornate, beautiful fountains by wealthy families beginning in the 1880s. Robson noted that, although in many cities from Rome, Italy to Portland, Oregon, water fountains are placed frequently in the middle of city streets and are accessible to all, NYC’s only fountains are confined to parks. Robson rounded out her talk by describing her organization’s grading process for each park’s water fountains: the group assesses how clean and well-maintained each fountain is, detailing problem issues from clogs and leaks to low water pressure, graffitti, and algae growth.

Join the SCNYC Group for the next in its Sustainability Series, “Young Leaders for a Green Future,” to be held Wednesday, June 14 at 7pm (doors open at 6:30pm) at the Seafarer’s & International House (123 E 15th St).

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