Blogs > Boat Blog > Exploring polluted NYC waterways: ‘You have to decide, I’m going to do what I can’

Exploring polluted NYC waterways: ‘You have to decide, I’m going to do what I can’


An egret alights amid floating trash contained by a boom in the Bronx River. (Photos: Leah Rae / Riverkeeper)
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An egret alights amid floating trash contained by a boom in the Bronx River. (Photos: Leah Rae / Riverkeeper)

An egret alights amid floating trash contained by a boom in the Bronx River. (Photos: Leah Rae / Riverkeeper)

A sulphurous stench becomes overpowering as you move up Westchester Creek, one of the New York City waterways that Riverkeeper is now able to explore with a new shallow-draft boat.

“Just hold your breath for the next 25 minutes,” our boat captain John Lipscomb says.

algaeboathookIn this tributary of the East River, an egret stands on the treads of a submerged tire. A heron perches on a sunken motor boat. Plastic bottles, caps and candy wrappers litter the surface. We enter a zone where a strange kind of algae surrounds the boat – thick black gobs on the green water. Prod them with a boat hook and the gobs disintegrate into dark clouds.

Disgusted, Lipscomb shouts to some workers at the Lehman High School grounds. “Do you know what this is?” he says. “Doesn’t taste good.”

We’ve just begun to explore these waterways to identify pollution problems and collect water quality samples in partnership with CUNY Queens College. (Read more in Dan Shapley’s earlier post, “On patrol in some of NYC’s most troubled waters.”) The creeks take us underneath the Bruckner Expressway into the South Bronx; below the Van Wyck in Flushing, and behind Rikers Island into a corner of Astoria.

East River Tributaries, July 2016

On the Bronx River, a trash boom contains a raft of debris – foam, detergent bottles, basketballs, plastic bags. It seems to be a feeding ground for egrets, possibly because of decaying algae that uses up oxygen in deep water and pushes any fish toward the surface. The algae is clearly a symptom of some water quality problem.

“This is such a mess,” Lipscomb says. “Makes you wonder whether we can ever live near water and not wreck it.”

This is how the work starts – just as it did in 2002, when Riverkeeper first entered Newtown Creek and discovered a massive plume of crude oil seeping from the ground beneath Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Riverkeeper fought for the current Superfund cleanup alongside local allies who are now taking the lead as defenders of the waterways.

The job now is to connect with partners along these East River tributaries who can help identify problems and solutions, and team up on projects that we know will make a difference. That includes leading more shoreline cleanups, rallying for sewer system improvements, reporting polluters to Riverkeeper and the authorities, pushing for Clean Water Act enforcement and pressing agencies to remove abandoned wrecks that fall into a regulatory black hole.

Measuring multiple indicators of water quality is another critical step.

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With longtime collaborator Dr. Greg O’Mullan and student Angel Montero of CUNY Queens, Riverkeeper has begun to test dozens of locations for enterococcus, a fecal-indicating bacteria. This will add to a Riverkeeper water quality database that community scientists are helping to expand throughout New York City and the Hudson Valley. We are also testing dissolved oxygen levels – another important measure of the waterway’s health, because low oxygen means death for aquatic life.

Multiple indicators are important. We don’t want to see government get away with treating high enterococcus counts simply by adding chlorine to sewage discharges. Chlorination might kill microbes but it doesn’t stop sewage overflows. (Read more in this Op-Ed by O’Mullan and his colleague Timothy Eaton, “Flushing Creek plan is no pollution solution.”) And chlorination can threaten the health of fish. “Everyone knows you don’t put chlorine in your kid’s fish tank at home,” Lipscomb says.

Similarly, we don’t want a band-aid approach to improving oxygen levels. On the Gowanus Canal, the Flushing Tunnel helps push the sewage out to New York Harbor, and reach oxygen levels needed to meet regulations. That isn’t getting rid of pollution. It’s just moving the pollution somewhere else.

Riverkeeper’s legal team has fought and will continue to fight for aggressive action to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs) in New York City. Fortunately, we have strong grassroots allies working with us. Riverkeeper is helping to drive change through the SWIM Coalition, dedicated to ensuring swimmable and fishable waters around New York City through natural, sustainable stormwater management practices – called Green Infrastructure. Visit the SWIM Coalition website to learn more.

There’s work to do all along the East River and the harbor – and the challenge is immense. “In case you ever wondered whether Riverkeeper had become obsolete?” Lipscomb says. “In case you ever wondered whether the Clean Water Act has been fully implemented? In case you ever wondered whether our DEC and DEP were sufficiently funded to protect the environment? Not so.”


“It’ll never be right as long as our sewer system flows into our harbor. We’re not going to be satisfied until the oysters in New York Harbor are edible. Why should anybody be satisfied with less?

“You’ve got to think of the entire huge problem in pieces. You have to decide, I’m going to do what I can. Who knows what can be done in future generations? All you can do now is pick some fights.”

If you would like to team up with Riverkeeper on local projects and advocacy to improve the waterways, please visit our website or contact Sarah Womer, Director of Community Engagement, [email protected].

For a look at the water quality sampling project, watch this Facebook Live video from the East River:


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