The East River is not a true river. It’s really a sewer.


The East River, separating Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn, is many things, but river is not one of them. Basically speaking, it’s a sunken valley. Realistically speaking, it’s a sewer.

By David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small/Special to the Roosevelt Island Daily

The East River Over Time

Sewage flows into the East River with enough force to send foam a hundred feet into the current. On a clear weather day, two outlets from around East 74th Street release into the already polluted waterway.

Born over 2.5 billion years ago, the East River came into being as a sunken valley carved out of the last ice age. As glaciers shrunk north, melt-off forced sea levels to rise. Saltwater filling up areas around present-day New York City created a tidal strait, this one unusually pushed and pulled by three sources.

A huge factor in turning the East into an open sewer is the triple forces entering the waterway from the Atlantic Ocean, the Harlem River — also not a river — and Long Island Sound. The East changes direction as frequently as every two hours with the power of the current changing too. That’s a novelty, a curiosity, but it also wipes out its ability to flush itself. Conflicting tides block whatever’s in the water from clearing out efficiently.

A range of solutions have been offered, the most useful being a damn at the western end of the Long Island Sound. That would allow more natural flushing, coordinated with the Ocean. But the trouble always is money. Nobody is willing to spend enough, contributing to the failure of other solutions floating around.

Mired in the 19th Century, Flooded with Failure

Living on Roosevelt Island with a view facing Manhattan, I’ve been long aware that the stories told about stormy weather overflows into rivers, straits and canals were incomplete. Under clear blue skies on a summer day, water gushed into the East River, visible above the waterline at low tide. But that never squared with the official story.

Every time it rains in New York, millions of gallons of sewage-laced stormwater flows into the city’s waterways. Instead of being diverted to a wastewater treatment plant, what goes down your toilet ends up floating along rivers, canals, beaches, and waterfront parks. All told, more than 20 billion gallons of feces-polluted water is flushed out onto the city’s coastline every year.”

Curbed New York

Wastewater systems for New York, built in the mid-1800s, did not anticipate today’s population density. And at the time, the worst damage came from factories and plants on the shorelines. They dumped wastes directly into the water untreated because the ocean is vast. It could absorb all those chemicals not yet recognized as toxic.

And then, there is this…

Curbside drains around the city remind us that a lot more than rain drains into rivers, canals and straits. There’s urine from animals, cigarette butts and discarded food scraps.

That’s how the East River got hurt in the first place, but increasingly, a prime contributor was whatever went down your sink, bathtub and toilet. The conversion to sewage removal by municipal pipes from that of men carting it away from outhouses overnight increased convenience. It also delivered untreated human wastes into the water.

Feeble water treatment efforts, according to NYC Department of Environmental Protection numbers, now allow 11 billion gallons of human waste into various city waterways every year. But no one’s counting the unexplained releases like the one shown above. They contradict the official story, releasing who knows what into the river.

A Perspective on the East River

Roosevelt Island is unique because it sits in the middle of the East River, witnessing raw sewage outflows from both Queens and Manhattan. Along with Manhattan gushers, we get four more sewage releases between Astoria and Queensbridge Parks.

The trouble, of course, is that nobody really knows the full effects of being surrounded periodically by raw sewage. Take a walk around the Roosevelt Island shoreline on a good day. You won’t see the East River’s bottom at a depth of more than a foot. The water is too foul, already. On a stormy day, it’s worse.

The local community is not alone but may serve as a general example. Nobody ever discusses evaporates rising out of the water. Or contaminates brought out by steady ship traffic. Asthma, recurring headaches and other potential, less apparent long-term risks are certainly at play. And not on anyone’s official radar.

The Future

Do not expect any improvement. In early 2020, the National Resources Defense Counsel (NDRC) severely panned a remediation plan put forward by DEP. After seven years of study, the city agency came up with a method of eliminating only 2% of the waste. Even at best, it allows 11.5 billion gallons pouring into NYC waterways, including the East River.

That leaves the sunken valley an open sewer for years, probably decades ahead.

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