Last fall, I awoke one Friday morning to the stench of rainwater mixed with raw sewage flooding the basement of my residential college. When I ventured into the pouring rain outside, I saw rivers of water cascading down the two storm drains in our courtyard, into the combined sewer flooding my basement below.
Sadly, this was but a symptom of a much greater problem facing our city. Because pavement, rooftops and compacted soil fail to soak up rain the way a more natural, vegetated landscape might, rainwater quickly exceeds the urban landscape’s capacity to absorb and becomes runoff. Along its way to local streams and the Long Island Sound, urban runoff picks up fertilizers, motor oil, grit from the road and numerous other man-made chemicals. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that 80 percent of Long Island Sound water pollution results from this sort of stormwater runoff, with fertilizers carried by the runoff fueling toxic algal blooms that close Connecticut’s beaches for much of the summer and ruin oyster harvests and fish catches. Even worse, much of New Haven still sends its runoff into the same pipes as toilet water. Whenever New Haven receives any substantial amount of rain, the resulting runoff exceeds the capacity of the sewage system in these parts of town and causes raw sewage to overflow into streams, the Sound and even — as I learned last fall — people’s basements.
With the support of the Connecticut environmental organization Save the Sound, the Mayor DeStefano recently proposed a municipal stormwater authority to deal with the dual challenges of combined sewer overflows and runoff pollution. The Board of Aldermen, which must either accept or reject the pollution solution, has reacted to the proposal with a surprising mixture of skepticism, confusion and a general ignorance of how essential this is to the process of cleaning up our rivers and the Long Island Sound.
Ending combined sewer overflows and curbing runoff pollution will require both the completion of New Haven’s sewer separation project and a transition to a lower-impact urban landscape. We need more trees and native landscaping to soak up and evaporate rainwater and more retention basins to filter out pollutants. Two factors stand in the way of this future. First, current funding is insufficient for New Haven’s Engineering Department to even maintain its existing storm sewers, let alone pay to construct and maintain them throughout the rest of the city. Secondly, property owners, including “big box” stores, car dealerships and other businesses, can allow unlimited amounts of polluted stormwater runoff to flow into public sewers at zero direct cost. Rain gardens, dry wells, cisterns, green roofs, vegetated swales, constructed wetlands, dry detention basins and permeable pavement are all well-established ways to treat and reduce urban runoff, yet even highly responsible property owners have largely failed to implement them in the absence of any economic incentive or statutory requirement to do so.
The stormwater authority proposed by the DeStefano administration and endorsed by Save the Sound would overcome both of the main obstacles standing in the way of a cleaner, healthier Long Island Sound in an elegantly simple way: it would charge property owners an annual fee based on the amount of impervious surfaces on their property and then provide credits for people who adopt any of the more sustainable stormwater management practices enumerated above. The revenues from this fee would provide reliable funding to maintain separated storm sewers and eventually treat runoff from roads.
New Haven has long ignored the environmental impact of urban runoff. Now the costs of this ignorance have become exceedingly clear. Please contact your alderperson and explain why they need to stop ignoring the 80 percent of Long Island Sound pollution that comes from runoff and approve the proposed municipal stormwater authority.
Brian Tang is a junior in Timothy Dwight College and a member of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.