Newark environmental coalition on citywide campaign to address water quality, management issues

Newark DIG: Doing Insfrastructure Green Credits: CivicStory
Newark DIG is working with residents to build community gardens throughout the city, which use vegetation, soils and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments. Credits: Newark DIG

Newark, NJ--Newark residents are being called to action as part of a citywide campaign to address water quality and management issues in the state’s largest city.

Newark DIG (Doing Infrastructure Green), a coalition of civic, academic and service organizations, is actively educating and engaging Newark residents in the process to find better ways to manage stormwater runoff and to become part of the solution in a city facing some serious environmental challenges.

Established in 2013 and funded through a variety of grants, Newark DIG implements strategic collaborative methods to address these challenges, including community-driven urban design, public policy planning, environmental and social justice advocacy, education and local capacity building.

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Newark DIG partners include the City of Newark; the Clean Water Action & Clean Water Fund; Greater Newark Conservancy; the Ironbound Community Corporation; I.T.V. It Takes a Village Inc.; MnM Consulting; the Newark Environmental Commission; the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; the New Jersey Tree Foundation; NY/NJ Baykeeper; Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission; the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program; the Trust for Public Land; and the Unified Vailsburg Services Organization.

The organization is currently working to address potential flooding during heavy rains and has launched a campaign to build green infrastructure projects in neighborhoods throughout the city and to raise awareness about local water quality issues.

As one of the oldest cities in the nation, Newark’s footprint is 70 percent gray infrastructure—pavement, parking lots, buildings and residences—and has, like many older cities, a wastewater system known as a Combined Sewer System in which both stormwater and sewage are collected together in the same pipe and then directed to a wastewater treatment facility.

After a heavy rain event or snow melt, the system can become stressed and release both stormwater and raw sewage into the city’s waterways.

Newark DIGS’s primary goal is the establishment of sustainable green infrastructure as the first line of defense to better manage stormwater runoff, improve water quality and resiliency to flooding and reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs), with a focus on the Passaic River and its tributaries.

​Rosana Da Silva, program associate at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program--one of the organizations that is spearheading the campaign-- said that although green infrastructure is used across the United States, it has not yet been widely used in New Jersey.

“Green infrastructure is used across the country but hasn’t made it to the forefront in this state,” Da Silva said. “One reason for this is because we’re highly developed, extremely urbanized and densely populated.”

Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments by reducing flooding through strategies that soak up and store water, then slowly release it into the ground. 

Since 2013, Newark DIG partners have installed 17 green infrastructure projects throughout the Newark.

The Badger-Clinton Avenue Traffic Triangle is an ongoing South Ward project in partnership with the city's Sustainability and Planning Office in which the traffic triangle was redesigned and beautified for safer pedestrian crossing and capturing stormwater runoff from Clinton Avenue.

The redesign includes stormwater planters and porous pavement to capture and infiltrate 188,000 gallons of stormwater runoff annually, which will reduce the impact of the city’s combined sewer system.

Other projects include phase three of the city's Riverfront Park, which was constructed with resiliency measures to reduce flooding, a recently completed turf field at Lafayette Street School and the construction of community gardens throughout the city.

The organization is also working on a Green Infrastructure (GI) campaign to provide each of the city’s wards with a DIG liaison charged with the responsibility of building and expanding community-based organizations and engaging local residents through educational trainings and community meetings.

​Da Silva said that green infrastructure can be implemented in a city like Newark but that getting residents on board is a crucial part of the equation.

“We’re working on the implementation of projects and getting local residents to see what green infrastructure is,” she said. “These are air quality, green spaces and quality of life issues. We’re informing residents about green infrastructure and also giving them a voice in the process. Residents can take action. It’s extremely imperative and people have a civic responsibility and an extremely large role in this.”

In a Newark DIG video highlighting the organization's efforts to address water quality and management issues, Newark Chief Sustainability Officer Nathaly Agosto Filiόn notes the litter and contaminants that end up in Newark's storm sewers.

"What happens with our storm sewers that were created hundreds of years ago is they get overwhelmed very quickly," she said. "Litter from the street and oils that come off cars is going into the water system and ending up in a bay that supplies other peoples' drinking water."

Newark Department of Water and Sewer Utilities Director Andrea Hall Adebowale said the issue of water runoff is being proactively addressed by the city and that residents can take an active part in the process..

"Those catch basins or storm drains at the corner of your blocks, they collect rainwater but that eventually ends up in your waterways," she said, noting there are more than 7,000 catch basins throughout the city. "We kind of take it for granted that every time we turn on that tap, water is going to come out. But if we don't take action now, one day we might turn on that tap and nothing may come out."

NY/NJ Baykeeper, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary, is working in collaboration with the Rutgers Extension Water Resources Group to help implement the water management measures.

NY/NJ Baykeeper Executive Director Debbie Mans noted that a few of the immediate dangers posed by stormwater in Newark include localized flooding of streets and homes, as well as polluted stormwater impacting local waterways and neighborhoods.

“Much of Newark is hooked up to combined sewers, which means that stormwater enters the same water pipes as sanitary wastewater from homes and businesses," Mans said. "When too much stormwater from rain enters the pipes, it causes the system to overload and bypass treatment at the wastewater treatment plant. This can lead to raw sewage and other contaminants in stormwater overflows.”

Mans said that green infrastructure can be as simple as planting more trees and plants to absorb more rainwater, planting a green roof and installing rain barrels or cisterns to capture rain before it enters underground pipes.

“Not only are these types of projects assisting in addressing local flooding, but also improving water quality by keeping stormwater out of combined systems to reduce bypasses that lead to the discharge of raw sewage as well as educating residents about their local environment," she said.

Agosto Filion said Newark DIG is inviting Newark residents to get involved and become part of the solution.

"A lot of small changes can have a big impact," she said.

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