How the East River Became So Polluted and Why It Still Is

How the East River Became So Polluted and Why It Still Is

The East River, a 16-mile-long tidal strait in New York City. It has a long history of pollution that dates back to the industrial revolution. Despite its name, the East River is not a true river but a saltwater tidal estuary where seawater meets freshwater from the Hudson River.

Over the years, it has faced many environmental problems due to various factors. Let’s delve into how this vital waterway became so polluted and why it remains so today.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

The Historical Downfall of the East River

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, New York City was rapidly industrializing. Factories lined the banks of the East River, discharging industrial waste directly into the water. The city’s growing population led to an increase in sewage, much of which also ended up in the river.

This combination of industrial waste and untreated sewage degraded the water quality, leading to a decline in the river’s biodiversity.

The Impact on Residents and Ecosystems

The pollution of the East River has had significant impacts on both residents and local ecosystems. High levels of harmful bacteria from sewage pollution have made the river unsafe for swimming for many years.

Fish populations have also been affected, with species like the Atlantic sturgeon becoming critically endangered. Furthermore, the degradation of natural habitats has led to a decrease in the diversity of marine life in and around the river.

Government Response and Clean-up Efforts

In response to the pollution problem, the New York City government has taken several steps to improve the East River’s water quality. The Clean Water Act of 1972 led to new regulations on industrial waste discharge and funded the construction of modern sewage treatment plants.

More recently, the city has implemented green infrastructure projects, such as rain gardens and green roofs, to reduce stormwater runoff, a major source of pollution in the river.

Despite these efforts, the East River still faces significant challenges. Aging sewer systems can overflow during heavy rain, leading to combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which discharge a mix of rainwater and untreated sewage into the river.

Moreover, legacy pollutants—harmful substances from past industrial activities—are still present in the river sediment and can affect water quality and marine life.

The Future of the East River

Looking ahead, the future health of the East River depends on continued investment in infrastructure upgrades, pollution prevention, and habitat restoration. Current plans include further reducing CSOs, remediating contaminated sediments, and restoring oyster reefs, which can filter water and provide habitat for other species.


The story of the East River serves as a stark reminder of the lasting impacts of pollution and the importance of protecting our waterways. While significant progress has been made, there’s still much work to be done.

As residents, we can support policies and initiatives aimed at cleaning up the East River and advocate for responsible practices that will prevent further pollution. Together, we can help ensure a healthier future for this iconic New York City waterway.

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