Can we fix the East River? Trouble is, the East River isn’t even a river. Rivers don’t change directions several times a day. Downstream flow lets true rivers rinse out, but the East River gets none of that.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By David Stone
To Fix the East River, Recognize the Source
The strait, churned by tides, separating Manhattan and Queens was always known as a river. And in earlier times, it was sometimes the Sound River. (It connects with Long Island Sound.) But for most of its life, it was the East.
As a tidal straight, the East River churns centuries of waste back and forth, never getting rid of them.
Cartographers weren’t always as fussy as today.
For centuries, the Hudson River, parallel to the East, was the North River and still is in some seafaring journals.
And just for the record, the Hudson is not a river either. It’s a fjord.
Tides shove it back and forth past Manhattan below high cliffs carved by glaciers.
Ironically, the most catchy definition for the East River is a technical one: a drowned valley.
Carved out more than 10,000 years ago during the Wisconsin Glaciation, it filled as rising temperatures brought a melt off.
Today, global warming accelerated by manmade pollution continues to drown the valley deeper. Average depth is 35 feet and growing.
The East River Over Time
When Europeans swarmed into to the New World, the East River was more than a drowned valley to Americans already living here.
The strait bordered a verdant garden the Lenape called home.
After Europeans forced the Lenape out, the waterway evolved into a garden of toxic pollutants too slowly cleaned up.
Let’s get past the history of pollutants and raw sewage.
But first, you should know that New York City still pumps an estimated 27 billion gallons of untreated waste into the East River every year.
This is not new, just different. “The East River has been the city’s digestive system,” explained a 2004 New York Times article.
”The East River has been the kidneys, liver, spleen and urethra of New York City,” according to Carter Craft, an expert quoted in the Times.
As Manhattan’s population exploded, so did its waste.
New York City admits pumping 27 billion gallons of untreated waste into the East River every year
Not long ago, crews carted waste from outhouses and dumped it in the water. Later, sewers carried untreated waste to outlets along the river’s slips.
Today, the official story — an official story always rides alongside the truth — says those 27 billion gallons of untreated waste only gush into the water when stormy weather overloads treatment plant capacities.
But my window faces Manhattan. Sewage gushes out from under the Upper East Side under the sunniest skies.
Lots of times.
We’re told that, on most days, the bacterial level is low enough that you can swim in it without excess risk.
Caution: the measurements are in the middle of the river, not along the shores where both you and the waste are likely. Nor near Superfund cleanup sites along Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal.
Joining the human waste are enough pollutants that the Newtown Creek tributary has, at its bottom, a fifteen foot layer of petroleum based gunk. And it has a name: “black mayonnaise.”
Jennifer Bolstad who does the annual Brooklyn Bridge Swim anyway, told The Verge, “People ask me, ‘How many times do you have to shower after doing that?’ The answer is three, before you stop smelling strangely metallic.”
I may be laying it on as thick as the black mayonnaise, but there’s a political effort to downplay the full scope of the problem.
That’s because nobody’s willing to pay the price for fixing history’s mindless negligence.
Alternatives for the East River
“It’s complicated,” understates the case.
Top of the chart for why you can’t see the bottom of the river: A foot or two from shore, nature gifted the waterway with a problem for which no one has a feasible solution.
That is, pushed by competing tides from Long Island Sound, the Hudson and the Atlantic, the East River can’t flush itself.
Just as what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, the excrement you dump in the East River stays, too.
Someone once floated the idea of a damn near Hell Gate that blocked off tides from Long Island Sound. Cries of “too expensive” drowned it.
In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, James E. Serrell drew attention for the idea of filling in the river from 14th to 125th Street. A new “East River,” a canal cut through Queens, would replace it.
Filling The East River, Making It Manhattan Land
Instead of the much maligned L Train, easy aboveground alternatives would await.
The Serrell plan as well as variations touted for decades by the likes of Thomas Edison failed because of a general inability to think big when it comes to civic projects without recognizable profit involved.
Perhaps all we need to do now is stir politically connected developers imaginations with the idea of ever more glass towers rising above what was once a virtual sewer.
Along the East River Today
As much as we love new developments like Brooklyn Bridge Park or our not so new Roosevelt Island Promenades, what we have are mostly cosmetic fixes, bike and walking trails diverting attention from how badly damaged the East River is and how we continue to abuse it.
Environmental ornamentation doesn’t do anything to correct the phenomenal harm of 27 billion gallons from untreated waste gushing into the strait that can’t flush itself every year.
It’s like slapping some paint on a weatherbeaten old outhouse that nobody will tear down and pretending it’s fixed as well as modern.
That’s what politicians do when they don’t want to tell you that you need to invest tax dollars into a project that’s been neglected so long that the cost of repairs is too much to measure.
The East River has come to symbolize the environmental degradation that nobody wants to talk about.
It’s intractable to policymakers without courage, like poverty, inequality and all the isms we’re tired of hearing about and unwilling to conquer.
So that, last but not least, is what the East River is: a disgusting manmade disaster made worse by the day from neglect, symbolizing civic cowardice.
Complicating the mess are the politics of it. Less consequential issues dominate the news and political debate. Even in a mayoral election year, nobody’s talking about the monster problem we share: the broken East River badly in need of a fix.