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Queens Chronicle

Residents blast DEP flood plans

Still more questions than answers as agency admits it erred on wells

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Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 12:12 pm, Wed Nov 23, 2011.

Amrita Ghagwandin of Hollis has nightmares about rising water — and with good reason. On three occasions in 2007, she says her house on 90th Avenue filled with 12 feet of water going from the basement and rising into the first floor and she added that she has sustained consistent flooding problems since that time.

“I have lost my sanity. ... I have continued stress,” Ghagwandin said at a town hall-style meeting held last week to discuss flooding. “I have the Weather Channel on my favorites at work. I check all day long. As soon as I see a thunderstorm, I ask my neighbors “Could you go put out my sandbags?’ ... When I know there is going to be a huge storm, I have to board up the house and leave.”

And the distraught resident isn’t the only one.

About 100 people packed the Robert Ross Johnson Center in St. Albans last Thursday, many with similar experiences, all of them hoping to get answers from the city on what it plans to do to solve the persistent flooding problem affecting Southeast Queens.

The dilemma is two-fold. First, the area does not have a fully constructed storm sewer system and oftentimes it can’t handle an intense amount of rainfall. Second, the city’s decision to stop pumping area wells for drinking water has caused the groundwater table to rise by about 30 feet over the last 25 years.

Ghagwandin said she had just purchased her home and renovated it when it got flooded for the first time, with initial repairs costing $112,000. She also has a hotel bill from when she and her family had to evacuate during Hurricane Irene.

Mark Lanaghan, assistant commissioner of intergovernmental relations for the city Department of Environmental Protection was the only agency official who attended the meeting and he presented two possible ideas to reduce flooding which didn’t go over very well with the crowd.

One idea is to change the elevation of a weir, a small dam which Lanaghan described as a gate, at the south end of Baisley Pond. That would modify the water level, drawing more groundwater out through the streams that empty into it.

The short-term plan would not require much effort or funding, according to Lanaghan, but the agency would need the permission of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and city Department of Parks and Recreation to do it.

He said lowering the weir by one foot should drop the water by about the same amount and positively impact 10 to 20 square blocks north of Baisley Pond. Some expressed concern that the plan would actually elevate the aquifer by pulling more water south, but the DEP doesn’t think that will happen, because the south end of Baisley Pond flows into a storm sewer that empties into Jamaica Bay.

Sometime between now and the end of the year, Lanaghan believes the agency will be making some pilot proposals on adjusting the weir to the Parks Department and DEC to suppress the water level. The U.S. Geological Survey will also provide input.

“Every single time it’s rained hard since 1996, we’ve had flooding. Are they gathering this information to tell us that our houses are going to be worthless? That nobody is going to buy them? What are they gathering the information for?” asked Crystal Flowers of Springfield Gardens. “Why haven’t they come back with positive answers? ... You’re going to tell me that a small pond on Baisley Boulevard is going to take water out of everybody’s basement in the community?”

Between 2007 and 2008, the DEP lowered the weir by about six inches and observed about a six inch decrease in the water table at a couple of its monitoring wells, However, Lanaghan noted, that each year is different depending on the amounts of precipitation and recharge, the movement of water deeper into the ground.

R.W. Hall, a resident of Jamaica and the owner of a contracting company, asked Lanaghan if moving the weir one foot would lower the water by the same amount, why not decrease it by five feet to get rid of even more?

“You would probably have a more dramatic drop in the elevation of the water table,” Lanaghan said. “One of the things we want USGS to model for us is what would be the optimum choice. If you are willing to live with a dry lake bed at Baisley Pond, which would be unattractive and unappealing, maybe it would make a hugely dramatic difference.”

Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) said Hall had a valid idea, but warned that reducing the water in the pond too much might do more harm than good.

“If all the streams come towards our area — what if too much water comes down at one time?” he asked. “You think we have flooding now. We might have another Katrina here, if we have a huge storm. We don’t want that either.”

Another plan is to install reverse seepage basins, or French drains, which involves sinking a pipe or chamber into the aquifer to draw it out and dispense it into the storm drains.

Lanaghan said the agency would have to consult the USGS to determine how many would have to be installed, where, and how much of an effect they would have. He added that the plan would not work for those who do not live near a storm sewer.

Lanaghan also told attendees that building out the storm sewers in community boards 12 and 13 is a high priority for the agency, with $250 million allocated to such projects over the next four to 10 years.

When Jamaica Water Supply served Southeast Queens it pumped millions of gallons of water out of the ground daily. But when the DEP took over the company in 1996 it stopped utilizing area wells, instead transporting water through tunnels from upstate. That change caused the groundwater level to rise to an alarming degree.

“We were not monitoring the groundwater elevation,” Lanaghan said. “We did not expect the groundwater elevation to respond like this and we were not prepared.”

The city’s drinking water now comes from three upstate tunnels, one of which the Delaware Aqueduct, carries roughly 50 percent of the supply but is leaking. The DEP has proposed building a bypass tunnel in 2018 and 2019, while it makes repairs.

During that time, the agency intends to extract 60 million gallons of water from wells located throughout the borough to offset losses during construction, thus reducing the groundwater table temporarily.

But several lawmakers and residents who attended the meeting called the time frame “unacceptable,” and they want the city to start using the wells in the near future. However, Lanaghan said, it’s not that simple.

“If I had to turn on 30 wells tomorrow or my head was going to be chopped off, I don’t know which wells would be turned on, which would make most sense, and nobody does at this point,” Lanaghan said. “We have some guesses.”

The DEP also doesn’t have the resources to advance the project right now, he said, but at some point will review the status of each well, and plans to consult the USGS to determine what measures make sense.

“If the wells worked before, why can’t they work now?” asked the Rev. Charles Norris of the Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Jamaica. “And if they need fixing, somebody has got to find the money to fix it.”

When JWS was in operation, the quality of the water was not very good, Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) and others at the meeting noted. Starting in 2001, as part of the Brooklyn-Queens Aquifer Feasibility Study by the DEC, Station 6 in Jamaica used old wells from JWS to extract groundwater and repurpose it for drinking or industrial uses, but it was shut down in 2006 because it became to expensive.

Fritz Edwards of 165th Street in Jamaica said he has had a consistent flooding problem and has two pumps running nonstop. When it rains, he said, he uses four pumps to get rid of the water. He added that the borough has enough drinking water so he doesn’t believe the DEP should pump the wells for that purpose and therefore should not be as concerned with its quality.

“Get some PVC line and take it out to Jamaica Bay,” Edwards suggested. “Put it in the sea. We don’t need that water.”

Welcome to the discussion.