Water Management and Sustainability in New York City
For the final Speaker Series of the semester, the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development invited Erin Morey, a director in the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Integrated Water Management unit, and an alum of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program.
During the presentation, Morey discussed how NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) manages the city’s various water resources, ranging from drinking water to wastewater. DEP strives not only to secure and distribute clean water, but also to promote conservation. For example, DEP uses meter readings to uncover building leaks and unauthorized usage to help inform solutions for improved infrastructure efficiency and security.
Enhancing climate resilience — such as managing water during heat waves or coastal flooding during storms or heavy precipitation events —remains a challenge. In addition to addressing climate change impacts, NYC infrastructure improvements have also worked on generating fewer carbon emissions when treating and processing water. New York City has implemented the largest scale of green infrastructure measures in the US. Green infrastructure mimics natural resources for water management, such as vegetation, soil, and other natural ecosystems. New York City recognizes that green infrastructure installations are essential to help improve water quality and plans to continue with such initiatives.
Morey also explained challenges with water quality during extreme events. During a heavy rain storm, both wastewater and rainwater enter the same sewer system, which can reach its capacity more quickly and as a result, a mix of wastewater and rainwater may end up in the city’s waterways as a combined sewer overflow. “Wait…” is a pilot program that encourages behavioral change to help free up sewer capacity during these events. Launched in 2016, the program uses text messaging to notify participants about impending heavy precipitation events and advises them to voluntarily “wait” to use water in their homes (showering, washing dishes, etc.). The “Wait…” pilot program was an innovative way to educate and engage communities. In describing the program, Morey underscored the need for these types of creative strategies to address more frequent rain events caused by climate change.
Morey moved on to emphasize the role of leadership in shifting paradigms to improve the city’s response to climate change. City leadership should continue to spearhead partnerships with private sectors to develop innovative sustainability solutions. They should also continue to promote policy changes and community engagement, ultimately influencing institutions to adopt environment-friendly approaches. Bringing diverse stakeholders to the same table is key for establishing a new sustainability paradigm. Morey also discussed that making a compelling business case is an imperative for sustainability planning and integrated water management. Relevant data and analysis can be beneficial in building a business case and garnering more support.
At the end of the talk, Morey shared how she developed her professional experience and background through her education at Columbia. She also provided practical advice, such as helpful electives and crucial technical skills for those who wish to follow a similar path.
Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development hosts speaker series every semester to provide opportunities for students to explore professional development related to sustainability and the environment. To learn more about the program, please visit our website or contact program manager Cari Shimkus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minji Ko is an intern for the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. She is an MPA candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.