Cleaning up Those Murky Waters

Putrid water under the 149th Sreet Bridge the day after recent rains. Photo by David L. Lewis

Despite years of progress in the effort to clean up New York’s waterways, the southern section of the Harlem River persists as a cesspool of industrial and human waste flushed into the river from nearby roads, sewers and industrial work sites after every storm.

Regular tests of the murky waters show that the eight-mile-long Harlem, which connects the Hudson River in the west to the East River and Long Island Sound, has a long way to go to reach its potential as a recreational mecca for surrounding neighborhoods.

“Every time there’s a big rain, the river is disgusting,” said Jesse Matheson, a member of Harlem River Community Rowing. “Sometimes the stuff that ends up in there is really bizarre. Once, we had hundreds of tires floating around us, and two years ago, it was filled with bread. A truck must have turned over or something.”

Water quality becomes increasingly important as the neighborhood changes from the industrial district that has dominated the area for more than 100 years into a recreation asset for residents to enjoy.

The city tests the Harlem River at one location – once a week for half the year, and once every two weeks for the other half. Regular tests show that while oxygen levels are high enough to support wildlife in the water, the high content of fecal bacteria, which probably come from the city’s combined sewer system, make the waters unsafe for humans.

Mollusks naturally remove pollutants and sediment from the water while feeding, and could have a huge impact on the Harlem River. Slideshow by Kevin Loria

The city tests the Harlem River at one location – once a week for half the year, and once every two weeks for the other half. Regular tests show that while oxygen levels are high enough to support wildlife in the water, the high content of fecal bacteria, which probably come from the city’s combined sewer system, make the waters unsafe for humans.

The amount of bacteria from human waste in the water can grow nearly 10 times larger within five days of a rainstorm, according to a study last year by the Riverkeeper watchdog organization. During the six-month study, half  the results showed levels of bacteria that exceeded federal standards for swimming, boating and fishing for food or sport.

Water runs off into the Harlem River during a light rain.. Photo by Karen Argenti, Bronx Council for Environmental Quality

When rain enters the sewers, the sewers tend to overflow, and the excess water pours out into the city’s waterways through a system of pipes that mix industrial and residential waste with the rainwater. These Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs, discharge into the river at more than two dozen sites along both sides of the Harlem.

On the Harlem, the CSOs carry not only sewage but also runoff from miles of highway and parking lot blacktop and acres of industrial operations ranging from auto-repair shops to the giant Waste Management garbage transfer station at the foot of Lincoln Avenue.

“We’re concerned particularly with people being able to go boating on the water,” said Dart Westphal, a former chairperson of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality. “You could fall in, and you don’t want to fall in the Harlem River, because the water is dirty. To solve the sewage problem, we need to manage the stormwater.”

The Harlem River is one of seven locations targeted by a federal program called the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. Just this month, the U.S. Geological Survey agreed to fund a one-year water quality study of the Harlem and Bronx rivers.

“Our ultimate goal for restoring the degraded water is to provide a source of recreation for the local community and to allow access to the river,” Dave Russ, the agency’s Northeast regional executive, said.

But improvements in waterfront access for the community won’t matter as much until the water itself is worth accessing. As of now, the few that do attempt to fish from the Harlem River are more likely to come up with plastic bags than bass.

“When people come to fish, they’re coming to clean the river,” said Sammy Ramos, who was fishing near Lincoln Avenue recently. “You find a lot of garbage.”

At the request of U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, the USGS will spend a year collecting, reviewing and interpreting all available data on the river’s water quality from local, state and federal sources, specifically targeting areas downstream from wastewater facilities, according to  Russ. The exact testing locations have yet to be determined.

The guidelines warn against children or pregnant women eating any fish from the Harlem.

Once the data is compiled, the USGS will decide whether or not they have enough information to determine the best course of action to clean up the river. The results of the study will also determine if there are specific areas along the river that require further testing. The USGS will then present its findings in an official fact sheet to the Harlem River Working Group, which Russ said would be the first step toward taking action to improve water quality.

“It’s hard to know at this time what the next step will be beyond that,” Russ said. “We will make recommendations about further sampling at the presentation.”

Cleaner water and increased access to the Harlem River will finally give local residents a chance to enjoy the waterfront with recreational activities.

Morty Berger, the founder of NYC Swim, said that because of the strong currents, only the strongest swimmers should take a dip in the Harlem. But he also thinks it’s important to be aware of the water quality, especially after a storm.

“It’s complicated,” said Berger, whose organization has run a swim around Manhattan island, including the Harlem, for 30 years. “Would I go in after a heavy rain? No. I have cancelled races over the years due to water quality concerns. Like in any open water body, you should have your tetanus shot, in case you cut yourself on something, because there’s a lot of stuff running off into the river from the road.”

Bluefish and striped bass are among the most commonly found species in the Harlem River, one of the rare waterways in the world made up of both saltwater and freshwater.

The state Health Department says people over the age of 15 can eat bluefish and striped bass once a month, as well as less common species such as the Atlantic needlefish, rainbow smelt, white perch and carp. The agency recommends no more than four a month for other species, and says eel, catfish and shad should never be eaten.

The guidelines warn against children or pregnant women eating any fish from the Harlem. They also note that it’s important to trim or cook off the fat on fish, since that’s where the highest levels of contaminants are found. And even those precautions are questionable after it rains and the levels of fecal bacteria in the Harlem River skyrocket due to sewer overflows.

A sign at a Combined Sewer Overflow point on Park Avenue at the Harlem River in Mott Haven. Photo by David L. Lewis

Now that community groups are demanding  more recreational opportunities along the waterfront, local environmentalists are working to make the Harlem River clean and safe for the public. Most of their efforts involve ways to manage the runoff and sewage overflows after storms.

Most solutions involve using vegetation and technology to capture and filter the stormwater. For example, the city Department of Environmental Protection suggests two ways to build roofs to deal with this problem. “Green roofs” would use gardens and other plants to soak up the rain before it hits the ground – and the sewer system. “Blue roofs” would use pipes, gravel beds and tanks to collect and temporarily hold rainwater before releasing it through roof drains once the water levels go down in the sewage system.

A study by MIT architecture students contained numerous ideas that also use plants and other technology to capture stormwater. One idea is to build a man-made wetland to retain rainwater and filter the contents through the soil. Another is to use a “seawall” that would slow down the waterflow, which would help restore the wildlife habitats along the river. Oysters, for example, would be able to thrive and clean the water with their natural ability to filter it.

Starting in April, the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality embarked on a project to build a park that uses plants and drainage pools to keep stormwater runoff from entering the sewers.

“Runoff is a problem because it carries stuff with it, like oil, antifreeze, grit—whatever’s on the Major Deegan,” said Westphal.

With a $200,000 federal grant, the BCEQ, in partnership with MIT, has hired architecture and engineering consultants to design and construct the park at Pier 5, an empty lot at Exterior Street and 149th Street, just south of Mill Pond Park. The goal is to collect as much runoff from the highway as possible before it goes into the sewers.

The BCEQ hopes to finish this project by April 2013. But in the meantime, the movement towards cleaning up the Harlem River is still in its early stages and city residents remain cautious about the water.

“The Harlem is getting better, but we need to continue to make an effort to clean it up,” said Westphal. “Right now, I say that you shouldn’t go out to the water if you’ve got an opening in your body, like a cut on your arm. If you put your head under, you’ll probably get an ear infection.”