Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton) fought for years alongside others to get city officials to pay attention to flooding that has plagued some portions of Southeast Queens for decades.
But in recent months, he has been fighting instead to convince flood-weary residents that action finally has begun to replace words.
More than 150 residents attended a town hall meeting organized by Richards at the Robert Ross Johnson Family Life Center in St. Albans on Monday night.
But so too did Commissioner Emily Lloyd of the city Department of Environmental Protection, who discussed what residents can expect from the $526 million that now is dedicated to engineering and infrastructure in the region.
Richards, in his opening remarks, anticipated later comments from residents who would say they have heard from DEP representatives before.
“It’s true, we didn’t have confidence in previous administrations,” he said. “But now we have a voice in City Hall.”
Lloyd spoke frankly about the two major causes of flooding in Southeast Queens — a lack of infrastructure and a high water table exacerbated by the shutdown of the old Jamaica Water Co. pumping stations in the 1990s.
Lloyd displayed a color-coded map of Queens showing where storm sewer infrastructure is in place and where it is not. She said Southeast Queens, with an awful lot of green, indisputably lags behind.
She also said installing storm sewers on individual streets and in individual neighborhoods had to wait for years as trunk lines, or main collection lines, have been installed.
“Now we’re building out the individual lines,” she said, with the city having added 84 miles in the city between 2002 and 2013.
But she also said it could take 20 years for the entire region to have adequate service, and that the agency has tested short-term solutions.
One, Lloyd said, is a change in the cleaning and maintenance schedules for storm drains.
“Last time I was in office, we responded to complaints,” she said. “Now we clean drains every three years. That usually works.”
Lloyd said three sites in Southeast Queens had experimental reverse seepage basins installed in areas where the height of the water table allowed for drains that draw water down and divert it.
“One has worked so well it has stopped collecting,” Lloyd said.
She said a number of other sites are being considered for the basins in hopes of buying time while the permanent system is built out.
As for the high water table, Lloyd said there should be some relief within the next few years as pumping from the old Jamaica wells is restarted when one of the tunnels from the city’s upstate reservoirs is closed for upgrades and maintenance.
But she also said it is not known yet how long that will take place, and how much can be done.
She said there would have to be an environmental study, particularly given concerns recently raised in Nassau County that pumping out the wells could affect the aquifer east of the city line.
Jamaica resident Albert Walker said after the meeting that some of his neighbors are suffering from some of the same flooding problems he first witnessed growing up in the 1950s.
But he said he was encouraged that change might be coming. Still others fell in line with Charlie Crawford.
“I was at a town hall meeting three years ago,” Crawford said during the question-and-answer period. “This has been going on for 20 years.”
Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica), also on the dais Monday, was sympathetic, having butted heads with more than one DEP commissioner about flooding.
“We have a long way to go,” Scarborough said. “But as we have said — this is the beginning.”
Richards, who became chairman of the Council’s Environmental Committee in January, said Mayor de Blasio, who appointed Lloyd, recognized flooding to be the region’s priority in a frank conversation they had at Gracie Mansion this past April.
“This is the beginning of a new conversation between the DEP and Southeast Queens,” he said.
He cited as just one example a project that broke ground only last week in the Twin Ponds neighborhood.
“That is a $30 million project,” he said.
Councilman Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), who co-hosted the meeting, said they would not have had the meeting or invited Lloyd without being confident in a change of direction for Southeast Queens.
“We didn’t want to bring folks out here to this to hear what we’ve been told for 20 years — that something is coming,” Miller said.
Lloyd said simple things people can do to help prevent flooding from clogged sewer pipes include not pouring grease down household drains, allowing it to accumulate and clog water and sewage flow.
She also said simple tips for things homeowners can do on their buildings and properties are available online on the DEP’s website at nyc.gov/html/dep/html/stormwater/flooding_guide.shtml.