Can Nature Protect New York From Water Catastrophes? Yes!

New York City did a bold move in the 1990s by betting on Nature-Based Solutions to protect its drinking water quality. Yet new challenges arise: how can nature help the Big Apple on its path to Climate Change adaptation? Let’s explore:

with 🎙️ Paul Gallay – Lecturer & Co-Director at the Columbia Climate School

💧 Columbia University is a global leader in climate and sustainability education, aiming to bring an interdisciplinary knowledge base for future climate leaders to work with businesses, communities, governments, and civil society to address the climate crisis.

This episode is part of my Series on the Water Crisis in America

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What we covered:

🌊 Why we failed at bringing people into the Water Equation and how we can act on it today

🩺 How there’s an intricate relationship between water quality and our health, and how the recent US EPA PFAS announcements moved the needle

😊 How New York has been leading the battle against emerging contaminants since the 2018 Water Protection Act

💪 How the best approach to protect quality is not to treat Water, but to protect it at the Source

🚰 How New York secured its water future by entering into a Watershed agreement in the 1990s and what it involved

💸 How nature-based solutions in the Catskill Mountains and in the Croton Watershed represented an eight-time better solution than grey-engineered alternatives

🤝 How protecting New York’s watershed has a bunch of welcome side-effects for the local communities

💙 Communities, Households, their link to water, societal involvement, the Army Corp of Engineers, the Hudson river… and much more!

🔥 … and of course, we concluded with the 𝙧𝙖𝙥𝙞𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙧𝙚 𝙦𝙪𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 🔥


➡️ Send your warm regards to Paul on LinkedIn.

➡️ Check Columbia University’s website 

➡️ A big THANK YOU to Sciens Water for enabling this episode!

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is on Linkedin ➡️

Teaser 1: How Communities agreed with New York to better protect the Watershed

Teaser 2: How the Emerging Contaminants Water Protection Act supports New York’s efforts to mitigate water quality risks

Teaser 3: Source mitigation of water pollution has many welcome side effects

Teaser 4: The Billion Oyster Reef project that could help New York to mitigate Climate Change

Teaser 5: How New York City faces Climate Change and Rising Waters

Full Video: My conversation with Paul Gallay

Full Transcript:

These are computer-generated, so expect some typos 🙂

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Antoine Walter: Hi Paul. Welcome to the show,

Paul Gallay: Hi Antoine, Thank you!

Antoine Walter: So if I’m right, you are the host here. You know the building; you know everything. So I have to be cautious…

Paul Gallay: Well, Columbia has tens of thousands of people all working in the same direction, which is to actually figure out what sustainability looks like and then help build it.

What’s to rethink in Water?

Antoine Walter: So if the aim is to heads towards sustainability, how do we have to rethink water?

Paul Gallay: Well, we’ve taken it for granted. We’ve done a. Damage both in terms of supply and water quality, but we also have neglected to bring people into the equation as we work to provide for sustainable water supply as we work to provide for safe drinking water, and as we work to make sure that our communities understand the challenges ahead and can plan ahead.

We failed at bring People into the Water Equation

Antoine Walter: So what makes you think that we’ve failed in those tasks?

Paul Gallay: We have images of many of our aquifers and our reservoirs that show significant draw down well above a reasonable carrying capacity. And we haven’t been working on a water budget, but I have this hat. It’s cap and it has water printed on the front of it, and it’s my water cap because when I was working for the state of New York, we put caps on the consumption in a very heavily populated part of New York called Nassau County on Long Island.

And those limits, those poage limits are why Nassau has adequate supply now. But how many communities really got out ahead of a water budget? And so we haven’t been focusing on. What capacity we have and what our consumption rates do to our capacity, and we haven’t been focusing on how the contaminants that we put into our water can be so dangerous that it can make whatever water that we still do have unpotable.

We should focus our efforts on the Households

Antoine Walter: When you mention these elements of quantity and quality is it on the households that we should focus on first or is it the industry or is, is it the agriculture, which is the part of. Water cake, which is the first portion to look at.

Paul Gallay: They’re all essential. And I would say that we have to start with our residential systems.

Because while the industry is essential, the industry does not produce products where the water goes into someone’s body as it does in a household, or where it goes into a product at a farm, or, where you’re growing food or raising cattle. Public health depends on safe, abundant, affordable drinking water, especially in the pandemic.

We found that to be the case, and so we really do have to focus first and foremost on understanding the threats to residential and agricultural water.

Water is closely linked to our health

Antoine Walter: So that means that the number one challenge is really linked to health. We have to, to highlight this link between water and health, if I get you right?

Paul Gallay: Absolutely. There is this expression, you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry, and at least you know when your well runs dry, you have to deepen it or connect to some other system or, or go buy big pallets of water from the store, but you don’t know when your water quality. Has declined either because of excess nitrogen or because of these PFAS chemicals or any of the other emerging contaminants, the remnants from pharmaceuticals that can be in water supply, so better testing.

You know, New York has the emerging contaminants protection Acts 2018. It’s at limits on 1.4 Dioxane and it’s set limits on several of the pfas chemicals. Numerous other states are starting to do the same. But so many chemicals are poorly understood as to A, how much there is in our drinking water supply, and B, what we need to do to make that drinking water supply safe.

Is the US EPA regulating PFAS a game-changer?

Antoine Walter: To that extent, how does it change the picture with the recent directives the EPA has enforced over this last tune in August about Gen X and pfas? Did it change, move the needle, change the picture?

Paul Gallay: It’s been a long time. It’s a great start. It has to be built upon because you can manipulate those chemicals ever so slightly, and then you’re no longer under regulation.

So it’s sort of chasing a bit of a moving target. There’s a significant degree of private litigation that is forcing communities and businesses to come to grips with the risks associated with these PFAS chemicals. EPA is getting. They’ve been promising to get there for quite a long time, and they knew for even.

Back in the battle days with DuPont and 3M, EPA knew the results of a lot of the studies that were being done and did not act, but we have to play catch up. We have to do everything faster now than we would’ve had we addressed these issues sooner.

New York leads the way with the Emerging Contaminants Water Protection Act

Antoine Walter: You, you mentioned this emerging Con contaminant Act in New York, which is active things two, 2018, right?

Yes. How. And forced. How do you measure this 1.4 dioxin? These emerging contaminants is, it’s at the end of a building. Is it at the top of selected people? Is it at the outlets of this infection factory in, in New York? How is it done?

Paul Gallay: I think it’s at the outlet from the water supply or the outlet from the treatment facility.

You can’t expect the water supplier to guarantee. Pipes going up into somebody’s tap are safe. That’s a whole different system. But one of the other things about that Emerging Contaminants Protection Act is it’s got to come with, uh, support for small municipal systems to actually do what’s necessary to restore water quality and remove contamination.

The best way to remove pollutants from Water is to prevent them to mix up in the first place

Some of these filtration processes for these PFAS chemicals are hugely expensive. And it’s why prevention is so important. It’s why one of the things that the state of New York is doing that my, uh, former employer, Hudson River Keeper helped pioneer is to develop a track down system to keep the contaminants out of people’s supply in the first place.

Mm-hmm. , which is ever so much less expensive than actually stripping contaminants out of water supplies once they get in there.

Antoine Walter: And what’s your role? Columbia in all of that, are you the one which is saying, Hey, there’s a problem showing where the problem is? Are you helping to be part of the solution? What’s your involvement?

Paul Gallay: I have two jobs at Columbia. I’m an educator and a researcher and I teach, uh, two classes, one on us, water and energy policy generally. I want my students to come out of that course with a sense of how to actually make a change. And build solutions and do prevention.

The New York Watershed Agreement, a staple of modern Water Management

And the other course I teach is about the New York City Watershed Agreement in the 1990s in which the communities that host New York’s drinking water reservoirs came together with a city to try to provide for economic opportunity as a way of making it worthwhile for them to help support clean drinking water for the nine or 10 million New Yorkers downstate consume it.

So that’s the education side and my. To help students understand the challenges of actually making change and restoring water quality and rebuilding capacity. My research is more focused on the other end of the spectrum, which is storm water management, storm and flood protection and sustainability of communities that otherwise are at risk from sea level rise, storm surge and large stationary, uh, rain systems, and it all comes under the.

Of the university’s new effort, the fourth purpose as they call it, to go beyond just research, to go beyond just education and to bring that research and education together with practice and make change today because we don’t have time to make change tomorrow if we can make that change today.

How to leverage Nature-Based Solutions in the Catskill Mountains

Antoine Walter: So when, you know, gets to end back in what you just said, let me come back to, to this 1990 approach, which is often mentioned as a perfect example of nature-based solutions.

I’m gonna take my muggle hat on. I’m not the specialist here. New York City had the choice between going into advanced water treatments and say, regardless of the water quality which enters the system, we will be able to treat it or to better protect the Catskill Mountains, the Croton watershed. And they took that decision, which at the time, if I’m right, was even cheaper

Paul Gallay: in a significantly, yeah, 8 billion for filtration and roughly a billion. For source based protection.

And so they have this multi barrier approach where they try to keep contamination out of the water supply through conservation easements and stream side restoration projects to keep contaminants out of the feeder streams and working with farms to reduce the. Of nitrogen pollution that otherwise would go into the drinking water supply.

A multi-barrier approach to protect Water at the Source

So this multi barrier approach to protecting water at its source, it has many benefits as opposed to a filtration plant, which is simply designed to deal with a problem after it’s been created. If you keep the contamination out of the water supply, not only do you have healthy water, you have healthier farms, you have more vibrant communities surrounding the reservoirs, you have better opportunities for.

You have a higher quality of life in those communities. It is a big deal in the upstate communities for New York City to be able to help control their land use. They resent it. But since New York is investing in these communities so aggressively, they resent it less.

Antoine Walter: Don’t take me wrong, I have to play the devil advocate here, and it’s gonna sound terrible what I’m gonna say, but New York City is the second richest city in the.

Behind Vaduz, which is the capital of Liechtenstein, which is arguably not a city, so let’s say the richest city at all in the world. We have all that science and technology available. Why would we bother dealing with nature to do the job when we could be absolutely safe? And sure by putting whatever filters in in the system.

Shouldn’t New York afford a “better” Water Management?

And even worse, if no, I’m the man in the street who doesn’t know really about nature based solutions versus treatment technology, wouldn’t I feel safer if you told me? We’ve put the state of the art technology in. Treatment facility downtown, which is very close to my home and delivers me perfect Drinking water

Paul Gallay: filtration only takes out certain sorts of pollution, mainly bacteria and turbidity and the like.

It doesn’t take out other types of pollution that you’re better off trying to prevent from getting into the drinking water supply in the first place. That’s. Number two, New York City may be a very rich city, but it has overburdened school system. It has a public health system that is also underinvested in.

It can actually be cheaper AND better

It has public housing that is underinvested in. So the difference between an $8 billion filtration system and a $1 billion pollution prevention system provides resources. Spread the benefits to other important investment opportunities for New York City.

Antoine Walter: You mentioned the research area, which is linked to flood prevention or stormwater management.

Yeah, if I’m right there as well. New York has quite an interesting approach with bringing some more green in the city. Outside of Central Park on a small scale and distributed across the city,

Paul Gallay: New York is facing the challenges that any coastal city is facing. By 2050, the water levels will be nearly two feet higher than they were in the year 2000.

And that’s if we’re lucky. If we’re unlucky, it will be higher still. Coupled with storm surge from large wind driven storms, stationary storms like Hurricane Ida and on re last fall in 2021, the risks to community life, limb and property are growing and so you’re going to need to have, again, a multi barrier approach.

There are lots of Welcome Side-Effects to letting Nature do the Heavy Lifting

a layered solution because one community may be able to make. Of, uh, barriers, hard, concrete barriers to protect them, but other communities may not have the opportunity to build those barriers. They may not be feasible. Will that community benefit from efforts to have water retained in wetlands or will that.

Community benefit from the opportunity to have a system where, uh, parks have perme permeable surfaces and so the water will percolate in and not go into the storm. Sewers. Will they bring build storage tanks to contain some of that storm water runoff? Mm-hmm. so that it doesn’t end up in people’s basements.

We need to take advantage of every technique we can. One of the most interest. Is to try to rebuild the oyster reefs along the shoreline of New York City that used to exist. That would break the wave energy and reduce the storm intensity before it got onto land. There’s a project in New York City called A Billion Oyster Project.

The Billion Oyster project: How Nature-Based Solutions could help (again) New York in mitigating Climate Change

Whoa. That is about 250 million oysters into their billion. Oyster target and they’re rebuilding these reefs and building living shorelines. So you, you restore wetlands, you build some stationary structures when necessary, when the other nature based solutions won’t work. You build ways to retain the storm water, and if you do all of these things thoughtfully and with the community, Partner working side by side with the government.

We have a shot at actual sustainability and protection from these storm risks. Is that part of your research? Absolutely, and I focus as much on the community side, combining the engineering and scientific expertise of the government agencies with the wisdom in the communi. As to where the problems are most intense and where the potential solutions lie, where can we concentrate our investment and actually get the most storm prevention bang for the buck?

So my job is to bring the community wisdom and expertise together with the agency wisdom and expertise from the academic standpoint again. University’s fourth purpose making a difference in the world today. It’s one of the things that I’m proudest and one of the reasons that drew me to Columbia

Community involvement is the Special Sauce

Antoine Walter: and what is your single special, So special treat to get the communities on board for this kind of approaches, this kind of research

Paul Gallay: to tell the communities they deserve better and tell the communities that the university will support them in seeking to achieve better. And then working with the agencies to say you’re going to deliver better.

And as I mentioned during my talk earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for creating these shoreline protections has. To do better and to create an environment and climate justice working group for their harbor and tributaries shoreline protection study. And when we went to visit with the Army Corps in May to, uh, to see if we could create some sort of a better process and deliver on the promise to the community that you deserve better and you’re going to get better.

We were hoping that the Army Corps would agree to continue the dialogue. And before we had a chance to suggest that, they said, Well, what if we had an ongoing dialogue in this working? And it’s always better when it’s the idea of the agencies that are responsible. Mm-hmm. rather than having it foisted upon them. Right.

Antoine Walter: It’s a fascinating field. I could. Go on for for a while, but I have to be cautious of your time You came to a conference. You probably want to attend the conference to round that discussion off. I just have a couple of rapid fire questions.

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Rapid Fire Questions

Antoine Walter: What is the most exciting project you’ve been involved in and why?

Paul Gallay: At Columbia, the most exciting project. Is the Army Corps of Engineers agreeing to sit side by side with communities, to enfranchise communities, to empower communities so that we can co-create the knowledge necessary to protect the communities from storm surge and sea level rise. In the past when I was with Hudson River, Keep so many exciting things, but I would never say that anything was better than New York deciding to re.

In its water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure, that $4.4 billion that they have appropriated in grants for communities since 2015. That is single handedly restoring water quality to communities across New York state.

Antoine Walter: And finally, what is the trend to watch out for in the water sector?

Paul Gallay: How the. That the federal government and the states are now investing through the, uh, Inflation Reduction Act and the American Rescue Act and the Infrastructure Act, how it’s actually put into practice, how the checks are cut and to whom and based on what sort of inclusive practice to. The solutions that are being funded in a way that truly benefits everybody in a community and does resilience and sustainability for those who need it the most.

Antoine Walter: Well, Paul, it’s been an incredible time for me to get a piece of your wisdom. So thanks a lot for sharing, and I wish you a good rest of the conference.

Paul Gallay: Oh, thank you, Antoine, and thank you for covering these issues. I appreciate that very much. Thanks a lot.

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