When Polluted Waters Overflow Their Banks: The Challenges of Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal

by Ryan Watson on

Recent events around the city–from the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy bringing the polluted waters of Newtown Creek into homes and businesses in Greenpoint to the stranded dolphin in the Gowanus Canal–have begun to raise the issue of water-quality in the tributary waterways of the East River. Although the general public is somewhat familiar that these waterways are polluted, as these volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and chemicals make their way into our neighborhoods and our daily lives, we have a responsibility to further educate ourselves on these issues as well as advocate for cleaner waters.

When The Sewers Overflow

The topic of Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) perfectly illustrates the relationship between NYC residents and the continued pollution of these waterways. New York’s sewage and storm water systems share the same pipes, which is referred to as a “combined sewage system,” as the system is overloaded during periods of heavy rain, the result is combined sewer overflow defined as “the discharge from a combined sewer system that is caused by snow melt or storm water runoff.” In layman’s terms, whenever the sewage system is at or near-capacity, every shower, toilet flush or dishwasher and laundry cycle results in untreated human waste and chemical-laden storm run-off entering into our tributary waterways. To track the current CSO status in North Brooklyn, check out the Newtown Creek Alliance’s easy-to-read gauge that shows the system’s current capacity.

While the bacteria in the polluted storm surge brought by Sandy was able to be sterilized by bleach, how has the overflow of heavy metals, PCBs and the “black mayonnaise” that lays at the bottom of the creek affected our community? (Studies of soil contamination are underway.)

Although it appears that the dolphin who sadly lost its fight in the Gowanus Canal was not the result of pollution, it does appear that the high levels of pollution made the rescuers hesitant to enter the contaminated waterway.

With both waterways having served as focal points for Brooklyn’s industrialization history, they leave behind a massive ecological footprint, and today, we are left to face these industrial legacies in addition to tackling the challenges of CSO.

Educate yourself about these important issues and how you can help minimize your impact by:

Ryan Watson

Ryan Watson

Originally from Los Angeles, Ryan is a relatively new but very proud resident of Greenpoint. He was drawn to Greenpoint by the strong sense of community and history of local activism. Ryan can be found at North Brooklyn Farms, the urban farm at the Domino Sugar Factory, which he co-founded or working in the 61 Franklin Street Community Garden.