The Jack’s Pond Bluebelt in Great Kills, Staten Island offers beautiful scenery for the nearby houses, while also protecting them from flooding. (New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Flickr)
A Citywide Bluebelt Strategy Might Just Save Brooklyn Communities Like Mine From Flooding Catastrophe
By Amanda Salazar
As Hurricane Lee makes its way past New York City this weekend before heading up the New England coast, my neighbors in southeast Brooklyn are breathing a sigh of relief.
The storm isn’t expected to hit New York City, which means, for once, our community is going to be spared from its usual flooding. Any time a storm or even just a heavy rain hits, our Brooklyn basements and backyards become swimming pools — an issue that’s only worsening with climate change’s increasing hazardous weather events.
Mill Basin, Bergen Beach and Canarsie are just a few of the neighborhoods in the city that are prone to flooding from storms and sewer overflows. Thanks to living in Mill Basin my whole life, I’m very familiar with the near-annual issue that my neighbors face. One of my close friends in the area owns a water vacuum for this very reason.
Bergen Beach, a coastal neighborhood with big houses and a community center along the beach, is part of the city’s sewer and street redesign initiative that’s supposed to end flooding. Five years into the program, the area is still struggling with the issue.
I kind of think of it like putting giant sponges out into the landscape, because it’s going to temporarily hold the water, but then the water that’s in excess is going to move on afterward.
—Dr. James Booth, deputy chair of CUNY City College’s Department of Earth & Atmospheric Science
Canarsie, which is home to the Canarsie Pier and sports rows of houses along Fresh Creek, suffers from flooding from storms, sewer backups, creek overflow and groundwater seeping into the soil beneath the structures. It’s so bad in this area that homes are literally caving in, as first reported by The City.
One method the city’s been looking at to help minimize the flooding problem is the Bluebelt strategy. This program creates natural drainage systems, made to approximate wetlands, to absorb and filter rainwater at the same time. Bluebelts also include catch basins, which are underground boxes that help direct water toward storm sewers that collect the water that makes it past the wetland into the streets.
Imagine this: a man-made marsh, complete with tall grasses and cattails that line both sides of a stream, which snakes around a developed community. That’s essentially what a Bluebelt is.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to construct a wetland, engineers create shallow basins by digging up accumulated pond sediments or debris where there aren’t any existing structures. They then fill them with soil or gravel, then plant vegetation that likes damp environments such as marsh grasses.
“The idea with Bluebelts is that, because we’ve forcibly changed where water can go by developing, we want to allow for specific places for water when we have an excess of it,” Dr. James Booth, deputy chair of CUNY City College’s Department of Earth & Atmospheric Science, told me during a Zoom interview. “If we were to think of an analogy, I kind of think of it like putting giant sponges out into the landscape, because it’s going to temporarily hold the water, but then the water that’s in excess is going to move on afterward.”
There are two primary causes of flooding — precipitation, including storms and rain, or strong wind — and the method to protect against the flooding depends on its cause, according to Booth, who’s an expert on climate change-caused hazardous weather. Of course, there’s also flooding from sea level rise, but it’s not as frequent.
Bluebelts are meant to deal with flooding from precipitation, but they can help with storm surges if the Bluebelt is located close enough to another body of water. When it rains, the reservoirs hold onto the water, while the vegetation and soil absorb as much as they can; eventually the excess water is absorbed, too.
This is helpful because New York City’s sewer system is old and not well-equipped to handle large quantities of rainwater on top of the regular amount of dirty water flowing through it. Too much water in the pipes can push untreated sewage into local waterways. Bluebelts are able to sop up some of that rain before it even reaches the rickety sewer system. Each Bluebelt is designed to handle 1.75 inches of rainfall per hour — the upper limit that the sewers can effectively deal with.
Additionally, Bluebelts can reduce basement flooding by catching the water before it can reach homes. The plants and waterways in Bluebelts can also help reduce the urban heat island effect, which is when heat gets trapped and amplified by concrete and tall buildings.
On top of all of that, they’re just pretty. Compared to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed 12-foot-tall concrete seawalls to stop storm surge, Bluebelts’ marshy scenery are a welcome alternative. The seawalls project, if finalized, could cost $52 billion. While they could stop surges of water from barraging the coasts with flooding, the stone slabs would alter the landscape and views of the city’s waterfronts. In contrast, Bluebelts just look like greenspaces.
There are around 90 New York City Bluebelts so far, most of them in Staten Island’s south shore, which was battered 10 years ago by Hurricane Sandy, and a couple built more recently in Queens and the Bronx. The city’s chief climate officer, Rohit Aggarwala, previously told me the New York City Department of Environmental Protection is working on a citywide Bluebelt strategy. As of now, it’s not clear if my community would receive any Bluebelts once the program is expanded.
Booth acknowledged that the plan isn’t flawless — implementing a citywide Bluebelt would be costly and time-consuming.
There’s no one set financial cost of a Bluebelt. It depends on the location and the size. Price changes based on whether you’re creating a completely new Bluebelt or are just adding onto an existing one. For example, it was announced in August 2021 that three new Bluebelts had been completed on Staten Island at a total cost of $135 million — one for $53.8 million, another for $46 million and the final for $35.8 million. A spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection told me they’re currently working on some larger Bluebelt projects that will cost up to $100 million each.
But as climate change worsens flooding through more extreme weather and sea level rise, New York City needs innovative mitigation strategies.
“The cool thing about the Bluebelts in my mind is that it’s more of an acknowledgement of, ‘All right, here’s what nature used to be doing, let’s see if we can get a little more of that back in here,” Booth said.