City of Water Day: Special Highlights

Interview with Gary Francis, Captain of Gowanus Dredgers

July 19, 2023 Lucien Clough
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EAGLE: Can you talk a bit about the pollution in the Gowanus Canal?

FRANCIS: So there are two types of pollution in the canal, there’s the historic pollution from the late 1800s: industry, heavy metals, coal tar, etc. That is the tough part of our cleanup and is under the EPA’s jurisdiction. They have the authority to act on that. The other pollution that happens on a regular basis, the continuing pollution, is the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), so that’s like last night, after a thunderstorm. There was a lot of rain in a short period of time. It flooded the sewer system, which means it overflows into the nearest waterway, which is the Gowanus Canal, for our neighborhood.

EAGLE: Is this the neighborhood that suffers the most from the Combined Sewer Overflow? As I understand it, that those systems are not designed for the kind of rain that we typically get.

FRANCIS: No. These old designs have difficulty with the new climate changes that, literally, make more water. When this sewer system was installed in the early 1900s, it was an amazing, state-of-the-art system. But the growth of our city has long overwhelmed that infrastructure. Some of the original brick sewer tunnels, as beautiful as they are, remain untouched and still in service, not upgraded for a number of years. So the residential population growth here in Gowanus, which used to be light industrial (fewer people living here and a limited number working here), has simply created a bigger load than the old system can handle.

EAGLE: So this is exacerbated by more rainfall?

FRANCIS: Yes, like last night: we had an intense rain storm in a short period of time, causing overflow in the canal. Because the canal is a cul-de-sac and is built up all the way around, there is a lot of Combined Sewage Overflow. I think there are 12 or 16 CSO outlets that dump right into the canal.

EAGLE: So what is the actual effect? Isn’t there a Flushing Tunnel that moves the water back into the bay?

FRANCIS: When it rains, it’s really nasty in the canal right away, just like what happened last night. And, it’s horrid, but that’s why there’s a big fish die-off today; they’re not in water, they’re in thick sewage. The Flushing Tunnel has been turned off in recent weeks because of the capping that’s happening right above Third Street. And, this is complicated. They’re completing a dredging process, and in order to let that capping material settle after the dredging, they’ve turned off the tunnel.

EAGLE: This IS complicated…

FRANCIS: Yes, the water is full of fine particulate from that capping material. So it’s cloudy water that affects the oxygen content and the CSO on top of that means that there was enough of a dip in oxygen in the canal to cause a die-off. The fish have suffocated, basically. The crabs are mostly fine, and the birds are fine, picking up and eating the fish — so they won’t go to waste, they’ll biodegrade and get eaten. 

EAGLE: Is there a movement to rebuild these systems because of the effect they’re having on the canal, or is that just impossible?

FRANCIS: There’s a gradual effort. Right now it’s such an heroic project to rebuild our sewer system. It’s being upgraded in areas to increase the capacity and volume. But, now because of the cleanup and potential for the CSO issue to undo some of that cleanup, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are mandating tanks that will mitigate the damage. For example, the CSO gets pumped into a tank instead of the canal. It then goes through a baffle system so that it removes most of the solids. So even when the overflow is potentially overwhelming, what does come out at the end is much better than raw sewage going into the canal.

EAGLE: Does the Flushing Tunnel help? When was that created?

FRANCIS: One of the things that really affected the health of the canal was getting the Flushing Tunnel turned on in the early 2000s. That made a huge impact on the oxygen content, which came up steadily and was high enough and consistent enough that life — shellfish, everything — came back in the canal. And then the canal was very diverse and had a lot of biodiversity within it. All kinds of birds, Kingfishers, Cormorants — they’re still here now, just less so, especially the Kingfishers. There’s not much scrub land on the side, because it’s being redeveloped due to new zoning laws. So there’s not as much life as there used to be, but the canal itself is getting a lot cleaner, and the next thing that will change is when the CSO tanks come online in 2032, and then we’ll see another huge leap in the cleanliness of the water. And potentially the canal will be cleaner than other parts of the harbor at that point. It’s gonna be amazing.

EAGLE: Wow. And, how will that change this area? I read that as it’s getting cleaner, property values are going up in the neighborhood, but in 2032 when that drastic change happens that increases the cleanliness of the canal, what will that look like for the neighborhood?

FRANCIS: What I hope will happen then is that all the developments along the canal will have their 45 feet of park and public access and water access. There’s still a lot of controversy around what water access is. Much of it is just being able to see the water.

EAGLE: Is that considered access?

FRANCIS: We at the Gowanus Dredgers say no, because it isn’t true water access. Getting on the dock, getting in a canoe — that’s water access. So we’d like to see more real water access along some of these developments. There are no requirements for that yet with the zoning, there’s potential and possibility, but maybe by 2032 when developers do realize how valuable the space is, it will help. We believe in the inherent value of this “blue way,” taking a water route right into Downtown Brooklyn. We believe people want to engage in this as long as it is safe. It’s in the city’s interest and developers’ interest to provide water access with canoe clubs, and maybe even a kids sailing club at some point.

EAGLE: It would be amazing to have so much true water access.

FRANCIS: Yes, this is the safest water that I’ve paddled in across New York City, conditions-wise. There’s no windage, no traffic, on most of the canal. Yes, right here it gets busier, but we have radios and take precautions with security calls — all by the book — so that everyone is aware of the movement in the water.

EAGLE: And could you talk a little bit about the value of being on the water while living in the city? What does that mean to you?

FRANCIS: Well, New York City was founded on the harbor, the harbor was everything, water was everything, and it still is everything. The more awareness and engagement and appreciation for water, the more we use it and understand it and care for it, the better we’re gonna be prepared for climate change and sea level rise and all the issues that are gonna become very very evident in the coming decades. I think the way for us to survive healthily is to be able to be part of our harbor and work with the harbor and grow with the harbor. It is gonna be in charge of us. When the next storm comes, the water’s gonna control us.

EAGLE: Yeah. Sandy definitely showed us that. 

FRANCIS: There are more storms coming, we just don’t know when.

EAGLE: That’s terrifying.

FRANCIS: There’s a big plan for superstorms that’s hugely controversial —

EAGLE: Why controversial?

FRANCIS: It tries to protect the most valuable areas, and that’s really hard to quantify — valuable for whom? Is it just money, or is it cultural, or community? It becomes really hard, and a lot of that infrastructure to protect against flooding is just building a giant wall, a barrier between us and the water. So it almost makes it harder for the most impacted communities to engage with the water. And, it might not work, so there’s that, too. If you stop flooding in one place, it’s gonna cause flooding in another.

EAGLE: It’s ultimately a Band-Aid?

FRANCIS: It’s a Band-Aid on a huge problem and it’s not really the solution. Building sea walls is not an answer. Divesting from fossil fuels and changing the root causes of climate change is how we solve this problem. But sadly, I fear that we have some harder lessons to learn before we get there.

EAGLE: And, how can people proactively fight climate change, specifically in relation to this canal, but also generally New York City’s waterways? 

FRANCIS: What we’re trying to do is get people to care about their environment, and get them to use that as a lever in the way they activate and vote. They need to get involved in the political process. The political process is the only way to make change, so our job is to give people the information and tools to connect with the environment and do this.

EAGLE: We’re ending on a bit of a gloomy note, but it IS a gloomy situation.

FRANCIS: It’s tough. It’s taken 30 years to get to this point in the cleanup of the canal and in another 30 years we don’t know where we’re gonna be, climate wise. It is so much more of a global problem. This tiny thing right here, on the relatively small Gowanus Canal, is a metaphor: If our efforts here — both public and private — can show how to address the situation and hold corporations and polluters responsible, then it could show what actually works.

EAGLE: On that strong note, we can close the interview.

FRANCIS: Yes, thank you.


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