How to Best Restore the Gowanus Is a Matter of Debate

Published on The Brooklyn Ink on August 4, 2016

Every month at the Mary Star of the Sea Senior Apartments in Carroll Gardens, members of community groups interested in the future of the Gowanus Canal gather to ask officials questions about the cleanup plan, and to bring their comments. One thing the meetings make clear is that as more details of the long awaited cleanup are made final, some citizens have concerns about the plan and different visions for the canal itself.

The Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, as the group is called, is comprised of various organizations that represent residents and other stakeholders in the canal, such as the Carroll Gardens Association and the Red Hook Civic Association.

Here are some of the ideas and concerns about the canal that have bubbled up:

Stirring the sediment

The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club is one of the members of the advisory group, and it aims to educate people through canoe trips down the canal. The idea is to increase the community’s sense of responsibility by helping people interact with the waterfront. Owen Foote, an architect and urban planner who leads the canoe trips, gives visitors a historical overview of the decades of pollution that plague the canal today.

Along the way he points out a potential problem. At the temporary takeoff point at the end of Sixth St. off Second Ave. in Gowanus, visitors climb into the canoe with Foote and head down the canal toward the flushing tunnel—a high-velocity pump designed to circulate fresh water into the canal and oxygenate the waterway. But here Foote explains his worry: The water velocity could be stirring up contaminated sediment at the bottom of the canal, potentially releasing industrial toxins back to the surface.

Balancing development with nature

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy is another member of the advisory group that has been gathering opinions from the community. One recurring question in the ongoing discussion is what people want for the waterway after it is cleaned. Natasia Sidarta, the program manager for the conservancy, said much of the community wants more street trees and open green space. She said she also hopes the area around the canal is developed responsibly—to include free spaces for people to enjoy the water as well as the schools and amenities needed to accompany residential development.

It’s a balance, she says. “There’s always a lot of people who want to live here in Gowanus; it’s such a booming market for residences and businesses,” Sidarta said. “But I think there’s a way to balance that with the infrastructure that’s needed. You can build lots and lots of new development around here, but where’s the sewage going to go?”

Much of the canal is still lined by industrial companies, along with restaurants and newer development such as a luxury apartment building recently built by Lightstone Group.

Whole Foods opened its first location in Brooklyn in Gowanus at the intersection of Third St. and Third Ave. along the canal, with a pathway and benches that line the shoreline.

Sidarta noted that Whole Foods’ green space is one of the few areas along the canal where residents can sit and enjoy the waterfront, but that the area could use more plants and a more inviting sitting space. “I go there pretty often and I don’t see many people hanging out there. It definitely could be better,” she said. “That’s just one of hopefully more park space to exist. At least it’s a learning experience for more park spaces to come.”

Other canal advocacy groups are more in favor of returning the waterway to its natural state, in which wildlife could thrive, rather than developing the area around the canal. One such group, the Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, lists its guiding principles on its website as working toward the canal’s “restoration of the natural environment” and to “save and protect its industrial heritage and support its innovative and creative future.”

Changing behaviors

The EPA designated the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund cleanup site in 2010, which identifies the parties responsible for polluting the canal and holds them accountable for paying for the cleanup. In this case, it is the City of New York and National Grid, an electricity and gas utility company.

To restore the canal, the EPA signed off on a plan in 2013 to dredge the bottom of the canal, to remove the contaminated sediment containing industrial waste and sewage, and to install two retention tanks that will capture sewage that overflows into the waterway during rainstorms.

On top of the industrial waste that was dumped into the canal over time, raw sewage and runoff rainwater flow into the canal whenever it rains, when the city’s combined sewer system is overrun. As part of the cleanup plan, an 8 million gallon retention tank will be installed underground at the head of the canal under Butler and Nevins Streets, while a smaller 4 million gallon tank will be under Second Ave. and Fifth St.

Foote said that while the retention tanks would solve most of the sewage problem, it tackles the effects of the problem rather than the problem itself. A better option for the long term, he says, is to invest in a separated water treatment system and provide incentives for homes and businesses to use dual-flush toilets.

In the meantime, one tip that Foote gives every person who joins him for a canoe trip is to think twice before flushing the toilet, showering, or washing the dishes while it’s raining—to avoid polluting the New York Harbor. Foote said people will eventually monitor their water use the same way that recycling has become mainstream.

A question of time

With the varying views on the best way to clean and restore the canal, the discussions may continue for quite a while. Dredging has yet to begin in the canal, and last year, the EPA said the complete dredging process would take 10 to 15 years. Foote said the EPA reported it would take that long back in 2010.

In a June 9 press release, the EPA stated that the dredging would begin at the Fourth St. basin in 2017, followed by the start of the full-scale cleanup construction at the top of the canal in 2018.

“I don’t know if it’ll be completed in my lifetime,” Foote said as he paddled down the canal. “And I’ve been known to be optimistic.”

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