As the remnants of Hurricane Ida pummeled New York this week, the storm was also unleashing millions of gallons of raw sewage in the city’s local waterways. Nowhere was that icky fact more evident than Newtown Creek.
The tributary between Brooklyn and Queens, long known as one of the city’s most polluted bodies of water, was overtaken by a brown discharge “bomb” on Thursday — startling even the most experienced water quality experts.
“You could see a clearly demarcated line of brown water surging out of the creek,” said Rob Buchanan, the community science manager at the Billion Oyster Project. “I’ve been out on the harbor every week for ten years and I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Buchanan takes weekly measurements of enterococci, a type of bacteria present in fecal matter. When the results of Thursday’s sampling came back on Friday afternoon, they showed that most of Newtown Creek had maxed out the testing technology. The proportion of fecal matter was about 240 times higher than what’s considered safe for swimming.
Reaching the upper limit of the test is not uncommon after heavy rainfall; it happened last month after Tropical Storm Henri as well. But the “solid mass” of filthy liquid created by Wednesday night’s deluge, and the distinct contrast it formed against the East River’s blue-green water, was essentially unheard of, Buchanan said. He likened it to the infamous “shit tsunami” on the Gowanus Canal in 2010.
“[Ida] really was a different kind of storm,” Buchanan added. “Some of it was sewage, but it was also just stormwater that had given all of Bushwick and Maspeth a huge rinse.”
New York’s combined sewage system means that storm run-off and human waste share pipes in most of the five boroughs. When intense rainfall events overwhelm the city’s 14 sewage treatment plants, millions of gallons of untreated sewage flows into the local rivers and tributaries.
While New York Harbor is the cleanest it’s been in a century, the climate change-fueled increase in heavy storms represents a growing threat to the waterways.
“When there’s more intense storms, you have more frequent rainfall that overwhelms the dry weather capacity of our sewage plants,” said Eric Goldstein, the NYC Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s one of the biggest water pollution challenges in the years ahead.”
Raw sewage also presents a variety of threats to would-be swimmers, such as eye infections, stomach infections, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal illnesses.
Though the Department of Health hasn’t conducted water sampling since Ida hit, the agency seemed unconcerned about dangerous contaminants the city’s public beaches this holiday weekend. Health officials recommend that beach-goers keep an eye on its portal of water samplings at individual beaches.
A handful of beaches remain under a water quality advisory, but Michael Lanza, a spokesperson for the NYC Health Department, said the notices would be lifted in time for the holiday weekend. “Once the advisory is over, beach water is considered safe to swim in,” Lanza said.
Despite what he witnessed on Newtown Creek, Buchanan agrees.
“Even after horrific rain events like the one we just had, the ocean-facing beaches clear really quickly,” he said. “I would be not worried about swimming at beaches like Coney Island, Orchard Beach and the Rockaways.”