The Staten Island Bluebelt: A Study in Sustainable Water Management

New York's borough of Staten Island is a social and developmental outlier from the rest of the City and from the general image of New York as a high-density collection of high rises.  Prior to the completion of the Verrazano Bridge, which connected the Island and Brooklyn in 1964 and finally created a car link between Staten Island and the rest of the City, Staten Island had a population of only 150,000 and large tracts of undeveloped land. But the completion of the Verrazano touched off a development boom that continues to this day; Staten Island’s population gains an average of 8,000 people a year, bringing its current population close to 500,000. Such rapid growth demanded a corresponding growth in infrastructure, particularly in its water and waste management. The history of how Staten Island came to meet the needs of its increasing population is a history containing key lessons for development in this age of emerging megacities.

Geophysically, Staten Island is a creation of the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Ice Age, which cuts across it, tending northeast to southwest and creating the highest elevations on the Eastern Coast  (now largely preserved as the Staten Island Greenbelt).  South and east of those heights, Staten Island is laced with creeks and freshwater wetlands, created by thousands of years of erosion washing down to the harbor.

This area was aggressively targeted by home developers in the seventies and eighties.  Lacking sanitary sewers, they used residential septic systems to provide sanitary services, despite the unsuitability for septic of a large area whose ground water levels were close to the surface.  To obtain the necessary regulatory approvals, soil tests were generally conducted in October, the month of the year when developers had found they obtained the most favorable results. The area also lacked proper storm sewers, a problem developers simply ignored. Development trumped environmental considerations time and again.

Unlike the rest of the City, the drainage plan for Staten Island called for separate storm sewers, to avoid the problems of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) that plagued the rest of the City.  But the pace of development in the land boom of the seventies and eighties simply outran the City's financial and logistical ability to build both sanitary and storm water facilities.  The result, as development disrupted the historic flow paths of the natural creek system of the area, was a recurring pattern of winter and spring floods washing through new developments sited in these historic paths. Wet weather compromised poorly designed septic systems, compounding the impact of these floods. The smell of sewage became a familiar feature of Staten Island's freshwater wetlands.  A growing public outcry against these conditions was directed at the City and its water and sewer agency, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

In truth, government bore a lot of responsibility for the conditions that had developed.  The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's enforcement of the State's freshwater regulations was completely ineffectual. Developers soon recognized this and adopted a policy of “build first and pay a fine later.”  New York City, the owner of much of the undeveloped acreage on Staten Island, routinely sold land to developers without environmental restrictions, anxious for the revenue from such sales and also believing that promoting residential development on Staten Island was a way to keep middle class families in the City. 

The infrastructure implications of such sales were ignored, as was the major loss of natural habitat that such poorly planned development caused.

By 1990, when this author became the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Director of the New York City Water and Sewer system[1], the situation had reached a crisis point.  Staten Island was in an uproar over residential flooding in newly developed neighborhoods, but the cost and time required to provide all of those neighborhoods with traditional storm sewers would have been prohibitive.[2]

In evaluating options to deal with this problem, the author drew on his experience in the 1980s as the volunteer Conservation Chairman of the New York City Audubon Society. During that time, he had done extensive work on Staten Island, creating the Harbor Herons urban wildlife refuge to preserve critical nesting areas of the herons and colonial nesting birds and supporting the development and expansion of the Staten Island Greenbelt.  He was also familiar with Ian McHarg's seminal work, Design with Nature, and Frederick Law Olmsted's plans for a Richmond Parkway, both of which argued that Staten Island had a uniquely rich natural environmental that should be preserved and that the best way to preserve it would be to integrate it with human development.

Operating within this framework, the author realized that natural stream corridors have evolved their own flood attenuation features that tend to be far more sophisticated than human designed floodwater infrastructure.  That suggested that if the natural stream corridors could be preserved and integrated with human development, it might not only be a solution to the floodwater problem, it would also have the added advantage of preserving some of the Island's threatened natural stream habitats.  In a deliberate echo of Staten Island's publicly popular Greenbelt, he named the project the Staten Island Bluebelt. 

To manage the project, this author hired Dana Gumb, a talented land use planner familiar with Staten Island who had also been exploring land use strategies to deal with floodwater management.  After reviewing several possible stream corridors for an initial project, one was picked for an explicit cost benefit analysis.  Project costs would be designated as the cost of the land assemblage in the corridor, including purchasing privately owned land and lost City revenues from land sales. Project benefits would include avoided infrastructure costs.  Though these costs were originally envisioned as just avoiding the construction of traditional storm sewers, it soon became clear that a Bluebelt would also significantly reduce road and street construction within the corridor. 

The cost benefit analysis was highly favorable, suggesting a capital cost savings in the neighborhood of $30 million.  There would also be the savings of sewer maintenance costs, but it was assumed that these would be offset by maintenance costs of the natural habitat in the corridor. 

The other project benefit that emerged in the analysis was habitat preservation.  In designing the corridor, it was assumed that corridor dimensions would be optimized to incorporate all possible natural flood attenuation features and to avoid development densities that would hyper-charge the flood runoff.    Doing so also maximized the integrity of the stream habitat.  It has been stated that, as a criteria for analysis, the streams were to be kept as a fully functioning wetland and riparian feature, not reduced to the status of an open drainage swale.  These streams, a significant element of the historic natural habitat of Staten Island, came to be preserved.

This proved to be another major project benefit.  The general public, contrary to predictions of Bluebelt opponents who foresaw widespread public opposition to development restrictions, quickly endorsed the Bluebelt concept, once they realized the amenity of having a fully functioning native stream corridor brought to their neighborhoods and the positive impact it would have on their property values. Though the resulting boost in property tax revenues was not factored into the cost benefit analysis, all were aware of the enthusiastic response the Bluebelt concept generated with the home owning public, not only for its flood protection value, but also for its contribution to local quality of life.

With the results of this analysis in hand, DEP took the Bluebelt proposal to the Budget Bureau, City Hall and the City Planning Commission for their blessing, as it was a policy that would cut across the concerns of all of these and other agencies. A number of objections were raised during the resulting review.  Water infrastructure traditionalists protested it was unproven: what, they worried, if it failed?  The DEP answer:  nature has been managing floodwater successfully for a long time. City Planning and development interests argued that the City could not afford to forego valuable development.  The DEP answer:  development that cost more than it would return to the City was not valuable; moreover, if the City failed to handle development responsibly and solve the stormwater problem, it would discredit all development.  As debate proceeded, it became clear that the Bluebelt approach was the only viable solution to Staten Island's chronic flooding problems. In a last effort to derail the project, opponents tried to raise fear of lawsuits and political controversy. These opponents raised the possibility of neighborhood children drowning in Bluebelt streams, something not possible in traditional buried stormwater infrastructure. To address this concern, DEP agreed to design additional criteria. Following these criteria, a small stretch of the trial corridor was buried in a traditional stormwater sewer.

After several months of this debate, the necessary signoffs were obtained and, in the fall of 1990, the first Bluebelt was formally created, to widespread public, political and editorial approval. 

Over the next three years, nine other steam corridors were identified and designed as Bluebelts.  Though the Bluebelt took its fundamental shape by the end of 1993, since then nine more Staten Island stream corridors have been added for a total of 19 Bluebelt components draining about a third of Staten Island’s land area.   The attached map sets out the location of all the Bluebelt corridors.  The Bluebelt now includes about 400 acres of freshwater wetland and riparian stream habitat and almost 11 miles of stream corridor.  It has successfully removed the scourge of regular flooding from southeastern Staten Island, while saving the City $300 million in costs of constructing storm water sewers.  The program has been so popular on Staten Island that even the rabidly pro-development Giuliani Administration, which followed the author's tenure, left the Bluebelt system and the Bluebelt effort intact and those concepts of stream management have also been applied to wetland streams in northern Queens and the Bronx.  The ultimate testimony to the success of the Bluebelt concept is that the Staten Island Bluebelt has now been incorporated as a part of the official drainage plan for Staten Island and the City of New York.

The Staten Island Bluebelt is properly seen as a precursor of many other green infrastructure initiatives, including New York City's own recently announced natural infrastructure approach to reducing stormwater flows that create CSO problems in the New York City harbor.  But it is important that its lessons about green infrastructure be clearly understood.  The Bluebelt did not proceed from any ideological preference for green infrastructure, or any preordained preference for "soft" infrastructure instead of traditional hard infrastructure.  It was a problem solving solution, evaluated from the perspective of what was the most cost effective way to solve a costly and disruptive water management problem, created by ignoring the realities of stormwater drainage in an area criss-crossed by streams and spotted with freshwater wetlands.  It is this matter of fact view of nature as a tool, a tool that can be tested and valued by the traditional means of infrastructure analysis, which is the critical lesson for water managers to take from the Bluebelt experience. 

Beyond that, the Bluebelt needs to be recognized as an integrative solution that had the primary virtue of integrative solutions -- multiple benefits.  It not only met an infrastructure need in the most cost effective manner, it also had benefits in terms of natural habitat preservation, neighborhood amenity and better land use planning.  These multiple benefits explain why the Staten Island public so enthusiastically embraced the Bluebelt and why, in the greater scheme of things, the Staten Island Bluebelt has joined with the Staten Island Greenbelt in being a fundamental feature of life on Staten Island and at least a partial realization of the great visions of Frederick Law Olmsted and Ian McHarg for a nature borough in New York City.

 

 

 Authors Note:  The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dana Gumb, Director of Bluebelt Programs for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in the preparation of this article.  Mr. Gumb has indicated that those interested in learning more about current DEP Bluebelt efforts should feel free to contact him at dgumb@dep.nyc.gov.

 

 



[1] In the New York City government, unlike most other cities, the Department of Environmental Protection and the New York City Water and Sewer system are combined in one agency.

[2] Due to its single family home development pattern, Staten Island produced a very low level of water and sewer tariff revenue, far below what would have been needed for a full program of storm sewer construction.  Even existing programs of infrastructure and water management, including provision of some sanitary sewers, were costing DEP in 1990, far more than the $40 million in revenue Staten Island produced. Moreover, during the early 1990s, the water and sewer system faced a citywide political revolt against water and sewer rates that had grown in the 1980s at an average rate of 14% per year, due to poorly planned capital management programs and a series of new, construction- heavy environmental mandates.

 

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