Ho Ho Ho, H2Oh No!


Rain on December 23 near the HarborLAB launch. Photo by Erik Baard.


Midtown rain on December 23. Photo by Erik Baard. 

We HarborLAB volunteers love water, and that’s why we hate last week’s heavy rains. Fresh, heavy winter rains bring dirty water, the threat of drought, and barrenness. A paradox? Let’s paddle this stream of thought…

Clean Rain Becomes Dirty Waterways

New York City has a combined sewer system, meaning that water from rainfall and household use flow though the same pipes to treatment plants. That can be a great thing when compared to municipalities that allow much of their stormwater runoffs carrying metal dusts, oils and other lubricants, solvents, and various pollutants from cars and trucks to pour straight into waterways. In NYC that water is caught and cleaned before release, if rainfall is light. Unfortunately, however, any significant rainfall overwhelms our century-plus-old system.  In order to prevent backups 27 billion of gallons of raw sewage are released into the estuary annually. Because of this flaw, each year NYC fails to comply with requirements established by the Clean Water Act. There are two basic solutions: Build more treatment plants and containment basins (“gray infrastructure”) or grow more green roofs, bioswales, and other planted areas (“green infrastructure”). A third and smaller part of the solution is to build more cisterns, which can catch rainwater for later use in gardens and nonpotable applications.

Water Becomes Drought

Even our massive drinking water reservoir system has limited storage capacity. When a reservoir is topped off, excess must be released into rivers that bypass millions of thirsty New Yorkers, and ultimately empty into the estuary. So how can we bank away water as a hedge against future shortages? Snow! Our state’s snow-capped mountains slowly release water as they thaw, providing steady supplies for months. If our winter persists with rains more than snow, we could face challenges in 2016.

Life’s Essential Becomes Barrenness 

Our experience on Earth has made us “water chauvinists,” in the words of astrobiologist David Grinspoon, a science adviser to HarborLAB. But Bill McKibben of 350.org recounts how unprecedented heavy rains in Vermont cut gullies and stripped top soil rather than nurturing seedlings and strengthening old growth. In agricultural regions this leads to a double loss: a wealth of nutrients are swept away from farms, depriving acres of crops, and into water bodies to spark algal blooms that snuff out biodiversity in vast “dead zones.”

So it’s not for pure sentiment that we sing, “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

This happens to be a very rough El Nino year, which certainly contributed to North America’s rash of unusual weather. But this season’s confluence of extreme weather — a wintertime Arctic thaw, record warmth in our region, unprecedented flooding in the heartland, and a swarm of deadly tornadoes — aligns with the warnings atmospheric scientists have sounded for years about anthropogenic climate change.  According to the World Meteorological Organization (part  of the United Nations) this was the warmest year since records were first kept in the 19th century. More quietly we’re also contributing to ocean acidification, which causes coral reefs to die and shellfish populations to struggle.

HarborLAB will continue to advocate for climate change awareness in 2016. We’ll plant more seedlings, saplings, and seeds than ever before. We’ll introduce more New Yorkers to our estuary and reservoir systems through unique paddling programs. We’ll excite more kids about environmental science so that they enter careers that could help heal the world. And we’ll hope.


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