Blogs > Boat Blog > On patrol in some of NYC’s most troubled waters

On patrol in some of NYC’s most troubled waters

IMG_8458

View more images on our Flickr site

Entering the East River. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Entering the East River. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

The East River between Randall’s Island and Throgs Neck is a bit of old New York, and not in a good way: Waterfront property is largely a mix of industrial and derelict, with LaGuardia hurtling airplanes aloft at a remarkable rate, and the notorious Rikers Island prison thrown in for ambiance. It’s also the extraordinary ecological connection between the Hudson River Estuary and Long Island Sound; a place of spawning, forage and transit for life in the muck; and a conduit for pollutants emanating from New York City. The public has precious few access points, and there is an awful lot of sewage dumped here routinely, as we found Thursday in a first-of-its kind patrol in a shallow draft boat that allowed us to get to know this area better as we prepare for a water quality sampling project in partnership with Dr. Greg O’Mullan, our longtime collaborator at CUNY Queens.

Westchester Creek

Westchester Creek wrecks. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Westchester Creek wrecks. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Our first foray brought us into Westchester Creek, or as Capt. Lipscomb dubbed it, “another Heart of Darkness” – evoking his feeling upon first patrolling Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal, which are now federally designated Superfund sites, with toxic waste cleanups pending. Other than a park at its mouth, there is no public access – but plenty of combined sewer overflow pipes that had been no doubt discharging when it rained a day or so prior to our arrival. The creek is criss-crossed by highways, lined with industry and shipwrecks – including another derelict barge ready to litter the region with more styrofoam – but also fringed with saltmarsh grasses where we saw egret and blue heron hunting.

A derelict barge on Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

A derelict barge on Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

The water was a chocolatey brown – not because of mud, but because of a brown algae bloom. Our measurements of oxygen at the surface were off the charts, thanks to the photosynthesis of these algae.

Brown algae bloom, Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Brown algae bloom, Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

But just up the creek, the opposite was true: “There’s no oxygen in this creek,” Greg said as he took a reading close to the “dead end” — a series of ominous concrete arches about two and a half miles in, that the creek pours out of, along with sewage from a large swath of the Bronx when it rains. The sewage provides nutrients for algae to thrive, injecting oxygen into the water; when they die, they suck all the oxygen out, creating a dead zone. It’s a boom-and-bust cycle that is evidence of an ecological system that is severely out of whack. Have you ever tried to breathe in zero-oxygen conditions? I wouldn’t recommend it, for you or fish.

Dr. Greg O'Mullan measures oxygen in Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Dr. Greg O’Mullan measures oxygen in Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Dead end on the Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Dead end on the Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Westchester and Pugsley creeks were once part of a complex of wetlands, few of which remain. But there’s still life in these creeks, and as Lipscomb says, “Nature will come back, if we only take our foot off its neck.” Westchester Creek should be a wildlife preserve in the heart of the nation’s largest city. To achieve that vision, New York City will have to bring this creek out of the 19th Century and into the 21st. If it does, the menhaden, bay anchovy and fourbeard rockling that are believed to spawn here in small numbers will return, along with the striped bass, weakfish, bluefish, herons and egret that prey on them. Right now, there’s hardly anything but the most hardy worms living in and on the mud. Everything else that would support a healthy food web can’t survive.

A fisherman beside a huge pipe on the Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

A fisherman beside a huge pipe on the Westchester Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

By the way, those incredible images of whales feeding with the Manhattan skyline in the background? They’re eating menhaden. If we want whales, we need to protect and restore habitat for menhaden. If you needed another reason.

Whale feeding on menhaden near New York City. (Photo by Artie Raslich for Gotham Whale, via Twitter.)

Whale feeding on menhaden near New York City. (Photo by Artie Raslich for Gotham Whale, via Twitter.)

Bronx River

On the Bronx River we had our first sighting of… People!

Starlight Park on the Bronx River. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Starlight Park on the Bronx River. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Of course, those people are in a park adjacent to a junkyard.

IMG_8468

Trash was a much more common sight.

Trash on the Bronx River. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Trash on the Bronx River. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Steinway Creek

Steinway Creek is a little-known little creek near Bowery Bay in Queens, that like all these little creeks dead-ends at a combine sewer overflow pipe. This creek could be anywhere, right? How beautiful.

Greg takes an oxygen sample in Steinway Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Greg takes an oxygen sample in Steinway Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Turn around at the same point, and the view is somewhat different. Industry still thrives here, and with it largely lifeless sheet pile shorelines. Some riprap is as good as it gets, and very good compared to a vertical wall of metal, if you’re a saltwater critter seeking refuge.

Industry on Steinway Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Industry on Steinway Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Flushing Creek

We hear Flushing Creek is tidal to Willow Lake, even though it is buried for a long stretch. Trash booms on the creek hasn’t kept disgusting piles of trash from accumulating here. If you’re driving to JFK, take a look out your window on Interstate I-678 and imagine what this creek could be if we stopped dumping in it, and started coordinating sewage reduction strategies between Flushing Creek and Flushing Bay, since they are connected.

Entering Flushing Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Entering Flushing Creek. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Hudson River

This photo was actually taken on the way to the East River, but it serves as a parting shot for this blog post. We’ll be back.

Hudson River wake. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Hudson River wake. (Photo by Dan Shapley / Riverkeeper)

Comments are closed.

Tell Congress: NY Needs a Robust, Fully Funded EPA
Become a Member