Pat Arnow Gotham Gazette
If you happen to fall in to the New York Harbor, the Hudson, the East River, or Jamaica Bay, you need not fear bacterial infections or diseases from industrial pollution, according to a draft of a yearly report from the city's Department of Environmental Protection. Unless you fall in after a storm.
In fact, despite their sullied reputation, the quality of most of the waters around New York City has been pretty good in recent years. Since passage of the nation's Clean Water Act of 1972 and improvements in the city's handling of sewage in the 1980s, city waterways have improved. Perfection is a long way off. But for a city that disposes of 1.9 billion gallons per day from wastewater treatment plants in New York waters (in 2003) and lives with the effects of pollution from years gone by (such as PCBs dumped upriver in the Hudson), the waters are relatively clean.
"During the last two decades, water quality in New York Harbor has improved to the point that the waters are now commonly utilized for recreation and commerce throughout the year," says the Department of Environmental Protection?s draft report. Charles Strucken of the department says they are still working on the final report about New York water quality (not drinking water).
One problem that continues to plague the waterways stems from storm water and sewage being combined. When it rains, the pipes and water treatment facilities can't handle all of the waste. Sewage is sometimes discharged directly into the waters.
In anticipation of the sewage discharges, the city closes beaches even before storms. In the summer of 2004, 12 beaches were closed, for a total of more than 400 days. The Bronx experienced the most with 289 beach closure days for eight beaches. Expect similar figures for 2005 (results have not yet been tallied). The technology is there to keep the sewage out of the waterways. In 2005 we should not have sewage flowing into the beaches.
The worst problem for the tributaries and "small embayments" are bacteria from the storm runoffs, says the Department of Environmental Protection's draft report. "Some of these tributaries are the only remaining areas where bacterial counts exceed standards on a regular basis."
The report details pollution from industry and storm water discharge in Newton Creek, which marks the border between Queens and Brooklyn and flows into the East River. Improvements to the creek are scheduled for completion in 2007.
The infamous Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn remains polluted and even smelly at times for the same reason, reports Crain's New York Business. Developers who want to build housing along the canal are reportedly daunted by the city's recent postponement of the canal's cleanup.
The Bronx River also faces storm runoff that pollutes other New York City waterways. That's a problem for Jamaica Bay, too. There are still algae blooms on occasion, caused by an excess of nitrogen from the runoffs. When the algae die, it sucks oxygen out of the water, and fish leave or die. "The bay is also losing 50 acres of marshland a year, and no one has figured out why so far. Shell fishing is still prohibited.
The Department of Environmental Protection is building huge holding tanks to handle the overflow. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on capital projects.