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Clean Waterways: Setting our Sights Higher (With Bonus Mad Men Reference)

By Susannah Black
March 20, 2015

A conversation that Harbor types regularly find themselves having:

Civilian: “So… you’re saying that every time it rains more than a quarter inch, NYC’s sewers overflow into the harbor?”

Harbor person: “Um.  Yeah.”

Forty years of the Clean Water Act have given us a Harbor that’s significantly cleaner than the Harbor of the bad old days of the 1960s and 70s.  In the era of Mad Men, no New Yorker was going to frolic in the East River, and not only because you can’t really picture Don Draper in a kayak: that joint was toxic.


(Credit: AMC/Jamie Trueblood/Mirrorimage-NL via iStock/Salon)

Now, it’s less toxic.  The rivers and the Harbor are alive again, and home to many species of marine life (and the mammals that depend on that life for their own livelihoods: check out Sam, the juvenile harbor seal who hung out with us a bunch this winter.  He (or possibly she) is a carnivore, eating fish and crustaceans.  No marine animals, no seals: despite the fact that they’re New Yorkers, p. Vitulina have not yet successfully mastered ordering takeout.


But we’ve got a long way to go.  That’s why, when the DEC held a public hearing on boosting clean water regulations & enforcement on March 9, a whole batch of people showed up: swimmers, kayakers, moms & dads, and the Billion Oyster Project Away Team, consisting of Sam (the human, not the seal) and Pete.

The basics of the new proposal: all of NYC’s coastal waters and tributaries “must be kept clean enough for people to enjoy a full range recreational and educational activities — including swimming, wading, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, and youth environmental education — without fear of returning home with rashes, pinkeye, diarrhea, or worse,” as Larry Levine described it in his report on the meeting. This would end the current zoned system, where different areas are subject to different levels of protection.

This is a good first step, if it goes through, and we’ll be following the issue.  But Levine is concerned that there’s a loophole in the boost: it relies on a definition of clean-enough water that is a little more wishy-washy than the best current water quality assessment protocols dictate.

Read a full account here, via Larry Levine’s excellent blog which you should be following anyway.

* N.B. overheard at NY Harbor Foundation:

Pete: …Seal’s gone.

Robina: Maybe he got bored?

Matthew: We could put out an X-Box…