By Costa Constantinides
Special to the Eagle
There I was: eye level with a combined sewer outfall — one of New York City’s infamous “poop pipes” — in a low-lying dragon boat at the mouth of Flushing Creek, just 15 minutes before it was supposed to rain.
Had the winds pushed last Thursday’s thunderous clouds east a little faster, I and 30 other paddlers would’ve been covered in sewage spit out by an overburdened system.
This isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. In fact, a stormwater-and-excrement cocktail gets pumped into Flushing Bay — as well as Bowery Bay, Alley Pond Creek and a host of other Queens waterways — whenever it rains more than half an inch in one day. And, if you haven’t noticed, we’ve recently experienced the rainiest years on record.
That’s taken a toll on Flushing Bay and the Creek, which I had the pleasure of touring with the Guardians of Flushing Bay last week. Water from this treasured body, once a prospective commercial port at the turn of the 20th century, splashed into our dragon boat, which held over a dozen people. Regardless of the toxins shown to be in this slimy water, we paddled on toward the creek.
The stench grew as the bay narrowed into the mouth of the creek. For once, you can’t blame it on the Mets, who were on the verge of sweeping Cleveland. It could only be the sewage floating along industrial sites, an asphalt plant, and the baby osprey perched on towering wooden ballasts. About 2.5 billion gallons of stormwater, garbage and sewage get flushed into these two waterways each year, according to Riverkeeper, which is about 10% of the entire City’s output. In a particularly rainy year like 2018, those figures can easily double.
Treating this sewage currently involves a complicated process. Our beleaguered sewer system has no other choice but to pump it into the sea whenever the City’s 14 treatment plants are at capacity. We then use chlorine to scrub the toxins out of the sewage. The human waste is still floating around, however, and we’ve poured more harmful chemicals into the waterway. Birds might frequent marshes of Flushing Creek — it was stunning to see young osprey beginning their lives above the water — but the habitat isn’t so hospitable beneath.
The City’s recent investments to revive the Bay and Creek will have been in vain if we don’t come up with a better solution. The Department of Environmental Protection has done some good work to make our waterways substantially cleaner, but we are not where we need to be here. My colleague, Council Member Peter Koo, has called for another wastewater treatment tank on the creek, which would help tremendously alongside a greater green infrastructure investment.
I’ve also suggested building a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant on Rikers Island once the jails close. Such an investment lets us close facilities on either side of this waterway, at Bowery Bay and Tallman Island, both of which opened 80 years ago when 1 million fewer people lived in New York City. Another plant on Wards Island could also close.
A new wastewater treatment facility on this 400-acre piece of uninhabitable land also frees up acres of space throughout waterfront Queens for public use. Imagine boosting our existing efforts to reconnect New Yorkers with the water if we have opportunities for them to boat, swim, and fish in accessible, clean creeks and bays.
I thought about this potential Thursday night, long after I’d showered off the top layer of slimy bay water, as I went through my emails. The smell lingered on both my mind and my skin. I needed to take a second shower.
Constantinides represents Astoria, Rikers Island, as well as parts of Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Woodside in the New York City Council, where he chairs the Committee on Environmental Protection.