Meet the Gowanus Canal: It Might Be America's Dirtiest Waterway

Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal slices through 1.8 miles of urban sprawl and Industrial misadventure before dumping its load into New York Harbor.

 Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

Locals are quick to make fun of the Canal. From a famous author ("the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns") to a Whole Food Market shopper ("I can smell it when the wind is blowing and even when it's not") to a local cop ("a fisherman pulled a suitcase of body parts out of there in the 1990's")--nearly everyone has had a go at the Gowanus.

Maybe humor helps: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the entire Canal is a Superfund Site desperately in need of remediation.

Dozens of polluters from the U.S. Navy, to the City of New York, to Brooklyn Union Gas Company (now succeeded by National Grid) have turned the Canal into a contaminated cocktail spiked with cement, sewage, mercury, lead, oil, gasoline, coal tar, trash, and PCBs.

 Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

Gowanus Canal. Copyright 2015, Christopher Swain.  All rights reserved.

The bottom of the Gowanus sports a layer of toxic sludge ten to twenty feet thick. Someday the EPA hopes to remove over 500,000 cubic yards of this muck and transport it to an offsite hazardous materials facility.

In 2013, a dolphin wandered into the Canal, became trapped, and died.  An autopsy suggested the dolphin was in poor health before it entered the Gowanus. But swimming through a water column packed with pathogens--including gonorrhea--probably didn't help either.

 Photo: btv news

Photo: btv news

A lack of natural inflows (such as creeks and streams) makes the Gowanus prone to stagnation, which allows unhelpful organisms that enter the Canal via stormwater runoff or sewage, to gain a foothold when they might otherwise be flushed downstream by tides and currents.

These organisms, which include bacteria, viruses and protozoans, have contributed to the low level of dissolved oxygen in the Gowanus, which in turn makes it extremely difficult for the Canal to support healthy populations of fish and other aquatic life.

It is not surprising that the Canal cannot come close to meeting federal or state safe bathing standards. One could argue that based on sheer density of pathogens alone, the Gowanus Canal is one of the world's least swimmable waterways.