A Flood With No Rain: Though Opinions Differ On The Cause, Rising Water Becoming An Issue In Boro

Juliet Werner

January 23, 6:39 PM


Engine Company 299’s flooded basement left one firefighter injured. Tribune Photo By Ira Cohen

In the years preceding Hurricane Katrina, meteorologists predicted disaster. New Orleans was low-lying and the city’s system of levees would be ill-equipped to handle a strong hurricane. Experts’ warnings went unheeded and in August 2005 the fifth deadliest hurricane in American history made landfall.

FEMA’s failure to revive New Orleans is well-documented and its director, Michael Brown, resigned soon after. President Bush’s response was criticized as well; days passed before he flew south to survey the damage.

This past summer, when Queens was hit by several storms, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) telephoned the President to request assistance. Bush swiftly complied and declared Queens, and then Brooklyn, a federal disaster area.

FEMA arrived, set up disaster assistance centers, inspected homes and rewarded millions of dollars in grants. The City stepped up as well. Mayor Mike Bloomberg established an Interagency Flooding Task Force, City Comptroller Bill Thompson invited Queens residents to file claims with his office and the Department of Environmental Protection announced it would upgrade the City’s infrastructure to handle climate change.

The summer floods can be traced to unusually high levels of rainfall – 2007 was the third wettest year on record for New York City. But some flooding in Queens is consistent and slow-moving. This is the flooding that some believe results from a rising water table.

It Starts At Home

There has been a steady infiltration of water into the elevator pits of buildings 174-11/15 and 174-03 Horace Harding Expressway, home to the Queens Tribune. The pits sit approximately 10 feet below street level.

Last summer, the building’s owner, John Ingrassia of Lana Estates, brought in an independent advisor to determine the origin of the water.

According to the advisor, the concrete elevator pits displayed definitive signs of water seepage. For example, the staining and efflorescence of the concrete pointed to the presence of iron and other soluble materials existent in subgrade soil.

The advisor had the water’s chemical makeup tested as well.

“In order to determine if the infiltrated water is from a potable source, a water sample was taken from the elevator sump pit at 174-11/15 – Sample A and a control sample from the cold water faucet,” the advisor wrote in report he compiled for Ingrassi. “The infiltrated water has a trace of fluoride concentration indicating that fluoride has not been added. In conclusion, the analysis eliminates the possibility of the infiltrated water from a potable source, i.e. leaks from water mains, supply taps or interior plumbing.”

The advisor went on to explain why the water table might be so high in Fresh Meadows.

“Rock Line Maps of this area show large groundwater basins underlying Kissena Park and the immediate area, with underground streams draining south toward the LIE,” he said, adding that one map shows a culvert crossing underneath the LIE between 175th Street and Gibbon Street, now known as 174th Street. “The condition of this culvert has to be further investigated as it is in this immediate area that the flooding and collapse of storm drainage structures indicates a rise in the groundwater table, probably due to blockage and/or collapse of this culvert.”

Neighbors Feel It, Too

Maureen Murphy owns a house directly behind the Tribune building. When the summer storms hit, she installed a check valve to combat flooding caused by storm water.

“You still get water though because the water comes up through the floor,” she said. “Everyone has it. It’s terrible.”

Murphy said the basement has been flooded with a couple of inches of water since she purchased the building in the 1980s. To remedy the problem, 10 years ago she had Montauk Contracting set up a pump that automatically turns on when the water reaches a certain level. Her pump empties water onto the street through a hose, but not all her neighbors are as lawful.

“Not only am I getting my water, I’m getting my neighbor’s too,” Murphy said, pointing to a neighbor’s hose that empties his pumped water into her backyard.

Tom Pushkal, born and raised in Flushing, works for Montauk Contracting. He installed Murphy’s pump, but can also recommend a “French Drain,” which lines the walls.

He attributes the groundwater seepage in Fresh Meadows to the Kissena Park pond and the surrounding area, which was at one point swampland.

“We’re just used to seeing things as they are now and not as they were 100 years ago,” Pushkal said.

Opinions Differ

St. John’s University Environmental Science professor William Nieter links the Fresh Meadows “elevated water table” to the nearby permeable cemetery and golf course at Kissena Park. He also said the water table changes with the seasons.

“When the top of the ground freezes, it exerts hydrostatic pressure on water,” Nieter said. “Now that we’re having cold snaps it wouldn’t surprise me if that pushes the water.”

Councilman Jim Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), a trained geologist, had a different opinion.

“The water table doesn’t fluctuate that much,” he said. “No matter where you are on the planet if you drill far enough you’ll get water. If you’re in Queens it’s relatively near the surface.”

According to Gennaro, for years the Jamaica Water Service was “artificially depressing the water table” by pumping out approximately 100 million gallons of water a day. In the mid 1990s the City acquired the Jamaica Water Service and soon started retrieving water from upstate reservoirs.

“The only real protection against ‘up water’ is waterproofing your basement and putting a pump in,” Gennaro said, adding that the cemetery and golf course are not likely culprits.

Seeking A Fix

When Lt. Steven Huron of Engine 299 on Utopia Parkway found the firehouse basement flooded, he sought help from the City.

“Everybody said not me, not me, not me,” Huron said. “Nobody wanted to fix it.”

The supplies in the basement became moldy and dirty and a fire fighter hurt himself. Now they no longer use it as storage space.

Around the corner, JHS 216’s boiler room is also flooded. According to an unidentified source involved in school maintenance, Plant Operations has carried out the first phase of a “water penetration project” and is about to enter phase two.

Anyone who spends time at Ryan Junior High School knows about the flooded boiler room. And varying theories abound.

“We’re flooded all the time,” custodian Hugo Salazar said, sweeping leaves from the curb. “We’re over a lagoon.”