Northern Queens residents who attended a presentation from the new Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Tuesday night were pleasantly surprised at his candor and the level of information provided.
The meeting was sponsored by the Jamaica Hill Community Association in conjunction with Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) and Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) at Edison High School in Jamaica.
At the end of the two-hour presentation, several audience members stood up to thank the commissioner, Cas Holloway, for the level of information provided in an easy to understand fashion. One attendant, Jackie Forrestal of the Hillcrest Estates Civic Association, applauded Holloway, adding the public should become informed and continue to get updates about DEP projects.
“People need to be educated more about where their litter goes in the street, that it goes out to the ocean from sewers,” Forrestal said.
The audience was most encouraged by Holloway’s announcement regarding a monitoring of flooding conditions along Utopia Parkway in Fresh Meadows. “The flow monitoring study will pinpoint where the worse conditions are,” the commissioner said. “It will take a year and has already started. We promise to update the community about the findings.”
Holloway explained that the study will show where the worst flooding problems occur so that the DEP can take proper measures to remediate the situation.
Fresh Meadows Homeowners Association President Jim Gallagher also spoke from the audience and told Holloway that Utopia Parkway has had a serious flooding problem for 30 years. “I hope you expedite the program for the flow monitoring,” Gallagher said. “It needs to be done sooner.”
Holloway acknowledged flooding has been a major issue in Queens and said the current remediation work in Whitestone and College Point won’t solve all the problems. He pointed to the “Bluebelt” approach as one technique being tried.
Bluebelt originated in Staten Island, which has more open space than other boroughs. It is a technique to deal with stormwater runoff using lakes and wetlands for natural drainage. Holloway said it’s very effective and is being tried in some area of Queens, including Baisley Pond and Springfield Boulevard.
Debbie Ayala, president of the Jamaica Hill civic, peppered the commissioner with several questions and got positive responses. She said the DEP property on 164th Street where a derelict water tower is situated needs to be spruced up.
The agency is in the process of removing the unused tower, but Ayala said the fence surrounding the property “is horrible” and with the tower down, plantings need to be done.
Holloway promised a repaired or new fence, while Gennaro said he would allocate funds for new trees and bushes for the site.
The commissioner also explained a new automated meter reading system that is being installed throughout the city, with 32 percent of the project completed. When finished, it will allow homeowners to check their daily water consumption online.
“If there is an unknown leak, this will help to find it,” he said. “It will also allow DEP to be aware of a potential problem and the homeowner can be informed.”
The rest of the meeting was devoted to defending the city’s position in asking for a 12.9 percent water rate hike. He noted that the largest portion of DEP spending, 43 percent, goes for operation and maintenance while 37 percent goes to debt service, to pay for capital construction projects.
Holloway discussed several federally mandated projects that are costing the city $3.2 billion a year to build. They include the Croton water filtration plant in the Bronx, which will be completed next year; an ultraviolet disinfectant plant upstate costing $1.6 billion that will be ready in 2012, and the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Brooklyn, costing $5 billion that will be finished in 2014.
Another expensive project, the Paerdegat Basin combined sewer overflow facility in Brooklyn, is costing $427 million and will be completed in 2011. It will include a 50-million-gallon tank to prevent excess waste water from flooding and polluting the area.
Holloway also outlined the city water tunnel number 3 project that the DEP has chosen to build at a cost of $5 billion. One section is already completed and a second one is scheduled to be done in 2013. He noted that the first two tunnels were completed in 1917 and 1936.
“We need to do maintenance on those two tunnels and they have to be turned off to do it,” he said. “It will take years to turn them back on.”
With water rates rising seemingly every year despite people trying to conserve water, Holloway explained that New York is slightly below average for big cities around the country. “Next year maybe the water rate increase will be less to run the system,” he said. “It depends on the financial markets.”
The Water Board will hold a hearing on the proposed increase on May 11 at 7 p.m. at Edison High School.