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The Gowanus Canal: Plans for Restoration

As both a Brooklynite and an aspiring Environmental Scientist, I find the tale of the Gowanus Canal a truly fascinating one. While it was once used as a major industrial transportation route, it now ranks among the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.

Photo: Nathan Kensinger

In the mid-1800’s, the Gowanus Canal was a site of bustling commercial activity. As South Brooklyn rapidly industrialized, the issue of maintaining clean water wasn’t addressed. The overwhelmed sewer systems overflowed into the canal, polluting it with sanitary waste. In addition, nearby factories, such as manufactured gas plants, tanneries, and paper mills, dumped their hazardous waste into the Gowanus Canal.

The Gowanus Canal is currently so toxic that no life could spring from it. For aquatic life to grow, the minimum concentration of oxygen in water is 4 parts per million – the concentration in the Gowanus was only 1.5 parts per million in 1999. Also, the opacity of the water prevents sunlight from penetrating more than a few feet, rendering it impossible for plants to perform photosynthesis.

Not only can life not originate from the Gowanus Canal, but the canal is also a death trap for the already living. Contaminants such as carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, mercury, copper, and lead are all found at high levels in the canal. Nilofaur Haque, a professor of biology at the New York City College of Technology, had her students analyze water samples from the Gowanus, and one group of students actually found gonorrhea. The extreme water pollution also presents danger to animals. Tragically, in 2013, a dolphin lost its way and ended up in the Gowanus. It was first spotted at 9:30 in the morning, and it was declared dead by six in the evening. While its exact cause of death wasn’t determined, it repeatedly became tangled and stuck in the garbage.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in 2010. The agency has an extensive plan to restore the site, which can be read in detail here. Overall, they estimate the cost of the cleanup to be $500 million, and they plan to begin their efforts in 2017.

However, Diana Balmori, Ph.D., FASLA, IFLA, created her own experiment to help clean the water. She told the Wall Street Journal, “The reason we picked the Gowanus Canal is the attempt to show that plant material can clean water.”

Photo: Fast Company

Balmori Associates, founded by Dr. Balmori in 1990, is a landscape and urban design company which focuses on sustainability. In 2015, they launched a floating landscape into the Gowanus Canal and named  it “GrowOnUs.” Funded in part by the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, the experiment is designed to filter the contaminated water like a sponge. The project is testing nineteen plant species and even used planters made out of recycled metal culvert pipes – the same type of pipe used to pour pollution and sewage into the canal in the first place. GrowOnUs will be continuously monitored to determine how effective this type of approach is in filtering contaminated water. More information about GrowOnUs can be read in their press release.

Right now, the Gowanus Canal is a cocktail of toxic contaminants, untreated human waste, and pollution. However, with the help of the EPA, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, and independent companies like Balmori Associates, the canal may once again be full of life.

Editor: Rachel Levy