By Justin Brannan, Bay Ridge Councilmember (D43) and Chair of the Committee on Resiliency and Waterfronts. Image from Twitter user @Dave_Stein.
If you take one thing away from this op-ed, let it be this: the city should pay for you to get a backwater valve, and I’m here to tell you why.
Last weekend, Tropical Storm Henri dumped about a month’s worth of rain on New York City in just a few hours. Before heading north, Dyker Heights was soaked with 8 inches of rain! The historic and rapid rainfall caused flooding of roadways, subways, and – if you were one of many unlucky homeowners – the basement of your house.
Many homeowners throughout New York City’s flood-prone neighborhoods are no strangers to the costly damage caused by summer storms and sewer surcharge. Besides ruining everything in your basement, the wastewater can also pose serious health hazards. We all understand that, when it comes to keeping our city clean, safe, and healthy, we’ve all gotta do our part – but that doesn’t mean it should be your job to deal with the city’s raw sewage in a storm! We understand flooding only occurs when the volume exceeds the capacity of the sewer system but it is not and should never be the responsibility of homeowners to take on water and waste from the city’s overwhelmed infrastructure.
The only permanent fix for home and basement flooding in the face of severe downpours, which we’ve seen before Henri and will undoubtedly see more in the future, will be for the city to invest in its aging sewer system. This is going to be a long and costly project, and will be especially important in neglected outer borough communities. In the meantime, there is a tool that can help: homeowners can install backwater valves to help prevent flooding through their sewer lines during heavy rainfall. These valves are so effective that some other municipalities have mandated them.
However, retrofitting an existing sewer line with a backwater valve can cost thousands of dollars. Obviously, you shouldn’t have to pay to bail yourself out of a predicament the city caused in the first place. That’s why I plan to introduce legislation for the city to provide funding for rebates to cover the cost of backwater valve installation. This is a simple and effective salve that other cities, including Washington, D.C., have implemented successfully.
Look, I get it: Henri gave us record-breaking rain totals for our area and there isn't a sewer system on the planet that can handle that much rain – certainly not our ancient sewers here in New York City that, even when performing as designed, cannot prevent all flooding – but that’s not your problem. Your basement is your home, it’s not the New York City sewer system overflow tank.
Climate change is real and the storms are getting stronger and more frequent. These are the facts. We may not be able to shut down New York City and send everyone to Aruba while we replace all our unseen and aging infrastructure but, in the meantime, better attention must be paid to 311 calls and complaints from residents who know their neighborhood better than anyone. We’ve gotta be proactive because we’re all getting tired of singing this same song.
My job is all about making government work for you, and it is painfully clear that part of that mission must include providing a better chance at riding out the next Henri without your house getting flooded. Until we are able to fix and upgrade our sewers, the city has to make things right and ensure homeowners the financial means to protect themselves.