On a steamy August morning at the Hunter’s Point South boat launch, Sanjay Shirke crouched on the slick rocks by the water’s edge and dunked a small, clear bottle into the mouth of Newtown Creek. His feet slipped slightly, but he quickly caught his balance. “I have fallen in before,” he quipped, as he lifted the bottle out of the creek. The water lapping at the boat ramp looked almost inviting, serenely flowing into the East River, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan skyline in the distance. Then I remembered that the water Shirke was collecting would be analyzed by a nonprofit testing lab to see how much enterococcus bacteria was in it. And that, essentially, would indicate how much human poop was present.
Shirke, who volunteers with the nonprofit boating organization HarborLAB, takes these samples to make sure that the kids he takes canoeing and kayaking are not going to get sick from the water. It’s something that many members of boating organizations do. Unfortunately, the results of his sample from that day showed enterococcus levels that he summed up as “everybody out of the water!” — putting anyone who capsized at risk of skin or eye infections and even more serious diseases like hepatitis and meningitis.
The problem of raw sewage in New York City’s waterways is not a new one, but the record rainfall this summer, the second-wettest in the city’s history, has made it a distressingly common presence along our 522 miles of coastline. That’s because about 60 percent of New York is still served by a combined sewer system, which carries wastewater and stormwater to a treatment plant in a single pipe. Having citywide plumbing at all was an upgrade in the late 19th century when the system was built, compared to dumping outhouse contents straight into the nearest body of water. But when it rains as little as one-tenth of an inch per hour — about 30 to 45 minutes of light rain — the combined sewage and stormwater runoff can exceed the capacity of the city’s 14 wastewater-treatment plants and is released into waterways in what’s known as a combined-sewer overflow. In an average year, about 21 billion gallons of polluted stormwater and raw sewage — enough to fill the Empire State Building 72 times over, according to the environmental organization Riverkeeper — pour into city waters. After decades of regulation to reduce industrial pollution and illegal dumping helped make New York City’s waters the cleanest they have been in a century, climate change threatens this new baseline. Local water-quality advocates see this summer as a warning of what’s to come with more extreme precipitation. After all, “the city’s waterways are still used as an open sewer,” says Mike Dulong, senior attorney at Riverkeeper.
It was already shaping up to be a historic summer for rainfall when Tropical Storm Ida pummeled the city at the beginning of September, breaking the record for the rainiest hour set by Tropical Storm Henri just 11 days before. After Ida, Newtown Creek, which has some of the worst overflows in the city, became a brown, viscous surge of sewage and stormwater pouring into the dark blue waters of the East River. Even before the tropical storms arrived, the summer’s rainfall had already disrupted city events. In July, the New York City Triathlon had to cancel the swimming portion after bacteria levels in the Hudson River were found to be nine times higher than the Department of Health’s safety threshold. The North Brooklyn Community Boathouse had to postpone half of its summer public paddling events on Newtown Creek because of unsafe enterococcus levels, according to Willis Elkins, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance and board member of the boathouse.
Of course, summers are not just rainer, but also hotter, and that’s driving more New Yorkers to local beaches, boat clubs, and events like “paddle-in” movie nights. “There’s a new generation of people using the harbor in a different way — getting into boats, swimming off the edge — and we want to understand what water quality is like for humans near shore,” says Rob Buchanan, who started the Citizens Water Quality Testing Program a decade ago, after a fire at a Harlem sewage plant sent millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson and Harlem Rivers. Every Thursday from May to October, CWQT sends out some 75 volunteers, often members of local boat clubs like Shirke, to collect water samples to test for enterococcus. “It’s turned into this advocacy platform, because data is very compelling in a way that complaining isn’t,” Buchanan says. For instance, in 2014, the group’s testing helped the DEP discover that an Astoria apartment building was discharging sewage directly into the East River. While volunteers are still collecting 2021 data, Buchanan is confident that this season’s results will show a majority of weekly “red” scores that violate Department of Health standards for swimming.
The areas most impacted by overflows are tributaries such as the Bronx River, Flushing Creek, Coney Island Creek, Newtown Creek, and the Gowanus Canal (site of the infamous 2010 “poonami”) because they are more inland, and while still technically tidal, they aren’t flushed out with seawater as frequently as the East and Hudson Rivers. In the smaller tributaries like Newtown Creek, sewage contamination can last for a couple of days. “Sometimes it’s a river of sewage coming off of one of the pipes,” says Elkins. “Other times, it’s a more subtle, gray-brown water slowly emanating into the waterways. There’ll be things like wet wipes, bubbling up with the poop and everything else.”
Such stomach-churning scenes can occur even after the city has reduced overflows by 80 percent over the past 40 years. In the latest phase of improvements, the DEP has been implementing a series of plans mandated by the state to reduce overflows and meet the EPA requirements for “fishable, swimmable” waters. It’s currently separating combined sewer lines in Gowanus, College Point, and Canarsie. The city has also spent billions of dollars building CSO storage tanks — massive underground vessels where millions of gallons of sewage-contaminated water can be diverted during a storm, then pumped to a wastewater treatment plant once the weather has cleared — in areas like Paerdegat Basin, near Jamaica Bay, and Alley Creek in Queens. Plans are currently underway for two storage tanks for the Gowanus Canal and a 39-million-gallon storage tunnel at Newtown Creek. Further up the watershed, DEP has also built thousands of curbside rain gardens full of water-loving native plants that can absorb stormwater off the street that would otherwise run into the combined sewer system. It’s even tried a text-message-notification program, sending reminders to New Yorkers to conserve water during rainstorms by delaying washing dishes, doing laundry, or even flushing the toilet.
However, water-quality advocates aren’t convinced the recent plans go far enough. For one, all of the new infrastructure is based on 2008 as an average rainfall year, when 46 inches fell at JFK — but as recently as 2018, an especially rainy year, 57 inches fell. That year, there was a combined sewer overflow once every three days. According to the DEP, 2008 was chosen because it was one of the rainiest years in the lead-up to the city’s 2012 submission of its plans for state approval. “They’re not looking forward to the extra rain that we’re going to see with climate change,” Dulong says. A bigger problem, he adds, is that many of the sewage treatment plants and outfalls are in low elevation areas, “so sea level rise has the potential to impact how they function.”
A few weeks after I met Shirke in August, he took his regular Thursday sample in what he calls “the oogy water” the day after Ida. His site, along with most of Newtown Creek, showed the enterococcus levels were above 24,000 colonies per 100 milliliters of water — anything over 104 is enough to shut down a beach. Levels were similarly high in Flushing Bay and Wallabout Channel, but CWQT doesn’t have the exact numbers — the bacteria levels surpassed what the testing system could even read.