In less than two weeks, the city Department of Environmental Protection’s response to flooding in Southeast Queens has gone from “It’s not our responsibility” to “Let’s talk.”
And the estimated cost of pumping untreated water out of wells to alleviate chronic flooding has dropped from about $1 million per well per year to between $300,000 and $500,000 in that time.
The developments came out of a meeting held in Albany on Tuesday among state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Hollis) and Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-Jamaica) who represent the flood-prone areas, city DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland Jr. and Joe Martens, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“I think it was a cordial meeting, a working meeting,” Scarborough said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “We are looking for a response to our problem, and we asked the DEC and the DEP to bring us technical and engineering information for the site so we can see how we can go forth.”
Much of Southeast Queens has a high water table, though for decades groundwater was pumped out by the tens of millions of gallons per day under the old Jamaica Water Service company.
The city bought the company and its wells in 1996, and gradually began shutting them down as the Jamaica region was put on city water from upstate reservoirs.
Groundwater levels have risen by more than 30 feet since the pumping stopped, allowing for flooding ranging from a few inches to several feet when there is a heavy rain in the borough.
Residents, civic groups and elected officials in the southeast contend that the city could pump out the wells to at least lessen the flooding problems.
Toward that end, more than 100 people attended a flood information meeting hosted by Scarborough at York College on Feb. 28, after which a city DEP spokesman confirmed Scarborough’s contention that the agency does not consider groundwater to come under its purview.
Until Tuesday, apparently.
Smith, in a statement issued by his office, said he and Scarborough would agree to pursue sources of funding for the necessary studies and costs of pumping. The DEP is funded completely by ratepayers.
Smith’s office cited the $300,000 to $500,000 per well per year cost just to pump the water out, adding that they were told the cost per well could go up to between $3 million and $5 million per well to treat the extracted water to make it drinkable.
Scarborough said first off that the city intends to do just that at Jamaica wells beginning in 2018, when the main tunnel bringing water to the city is shut down for a few years to make repairs. He said the water does not have to be table quality to take it out of the ground for flood relief.
“We’re not asking them to pump the water out to make it drinkable,” Scarborough said Tuesday. “We’re asking them to pump it out and relocate it someplace else.”
He added the estimated cost for just pumping stated on Tuesday comes in far below the $1 million per well that he was told prior to the Feb. 28 community meeting.
Strickland, in a statement issued through Scarborough’s office, said all four men have some homework to do.
“We’ll have to be creative because coming up with a solution is not going to be simple,” he said.
But Smith said all four men have pledged to work together on finding a feasible solution and the money to pay for it.
If they can’t, Scarborough has introduced a bill in Albany that would, if signed into law, compel the city to use its infrastructure to help alleviate the problem, as the city currently is the only entity that owns such infrastructure.
“This is a very serious matter for homeowners,’ Smith said. “I will put a great deal of capital, both political and legislative, to make this happen.”
But he also said some studies are necessary in order to give him the document to tell the mayor and governor that any eventual proposal would work once applied.
The DEP has contended that much of the problem could be alleviated by drainage and storm sewers that are planned over the next 10 years, conceding that Southeast Queens is underserved by such systems.
In a related matter, Scarborough said organizers are temporarily postponing a rally that had been scheduled for the DEP’s Corona offices on Junction Boulevard for March 22.
The assemblyman said the decision was based on multiple factors, including being sure that there is a large enough crowd in attendance to make a point.
And he reiterated that it is merely a postponement, not a cancellation.
“We will have a rally, but we need to take care of a few things first. And we want to make sure we have a lot of people there,” Scarborough said.
“In the meantime, we’ll continue to move ahead and continue to look for all avenues, including moving legislation,” Scarborough said. “This still is going to be a full-court press.”