The Gowanus Canal

The Gowanus Canal

TheGowanus Canal is located in Brooklyn, New York City. It is about 1.8 miles long and is also known as theGowanus Creek Canal. It is bounded by Long Island on the east and is connected to Gowanus Bay inUpper New York Bay. The canal is bounded by the Red Hook and South Brooklyn neighborhoods on the west. There are about five bridges crossing over the canal in the direction east to west and are located at Union Street, Carroll Street, Third Street, Ninth Street and Hamilton Avenue. TheGowanus Expressway(Interstate 278) and theIND Culver Lineof theNew York City Subway, the only above-ground section of the originalIndependent Subway System, are the other structures passing over the canal.

Early Developments

The Gowanus Canal was built in the mid-nineteenth century by enlarging the creek at the Gowanus town. The area around the Gowanus Canal, earlier known as the town of Gowanus was established in 1639 by the Dutch. The first instance of development in this area was a mill, built and operated by Adam Brouwer, a soldier in the service of theDutch West India Company. A second mill in the same area, called the Denton's mill or the Yellow mill, was built after being granted permission toexcavate bottom soilfrom the creek to the mill pond once located between Fifth Ave and the present day canal at Carroll and Third Street. Several Brooklyn residents recognized the importance of this creek and under the leadership of Mr. Brouwer filed a petition on May 26, 1664 for permission to dredge a canal at their own expense. At this period of the history, the function of the canal would be to supply water to the mills. The petition was approved by the city council on May 29 of the same year and this led to the early developments of the Gowanus Canal. The following years resulted in establishment of a Dutch farmers' community along the marshland.

The main canal

The mid 1800's was an era of exponential population rise in Brooklyn, and it soon became the third most populous city in America. The 19th century industrial revolution was having its effects in Brooklyn and it soon became inevitable that the city would require a larger navigation and docking facilities to be in pace with the revolution. Hence, to meet the demands of the inland industries,Daniel Richards, a successful local merchant, advocated the building of the canal. Draining the water from these marshes made the land habitable and increased property values. The New York Legislature, after considering the high economic returns of the Gowanus canal project, authorized its construction in 1849. The project included the deepening of the Gowanus Creek to form the canal and to make it a commercial waterway to connect to the Upper New York Bay. Due to legislative delays, the process of removing silt from the bed of the creek, also known as dredging, could only begin in 1867. Since the sole purpose of the canal was economic benefit, a low cost design was chosen for it. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) Major David Douglas was hired to design the canal and it was complete by 1869. The cost of construction of the canal was shared between the residents in the area and the state. In order to flush the canal with sea-water and so that the water doesn't stagnate, a 6,200-foot underground tunnel called the Flushing Tunnel was built. The tunnel was fitted with a seven-foot propeller.

Although the canal was not so big in length, it was the main centre for Brooklyn's navigational and commercial activities. The opening of the canal led to new vistas of opportunity in the Gowanus area. It resulted in opening of a number of factories and many residential complexes sprouted in the area as a result. The activities taking place in the canal were; transportation of grain from the Erie Canal, shipping of brownstone from New Jersey and upper Hudson to the neighborhoods surrounding the canal. The industries feeding off the canal included: stone yards, flour mills, cementworks, tanneries, factories for paint, ink, and soap, coal and gas manufacturing plants, oil refineries, machine shops, chemical plants, and sulfur producers. With industrialization taking place at such a rapid rate, no one was concerned of the environmental degradation caused by these factories all of whom emitted substantial water and airborne pollutants.

The downfall

Although with such an effective usage, there were some key defects in the management and planning of the canal that led to its degeneration. There were significant design flaws in the construction of the Gowanus Canal. The canal was open at only one end and it was hoped that the tides from the New York Harbor would flush the canal. But the canal's wooden and concrete embankments did not allow the tides to enter and hence, it was one of the major concerns.“Water qualitystudies have found the concentration ofoxygenin the canal to be just 1.5 parts per million, well below the minimum 4 parts per million needed to sustain life.” With the development increasing day by day the amount toxic waste being dumped into the canal by the factories also increased. Since there was no fresh water coming, the depletion of oxygen created breeding ground for many microbes and pathogens responsible for the canal's odor. The Flushing Canal mechanism that attempted to draw dirty water out of the canal never worked well enough for the canal needs. Its effectiveness was hampered by a number of operational malfunctions in the 1960's. For example a city worker dropped a manhole cover into the system, which completely destroyed the pumping system.

On the other hand the South Brooklyn area was growing at a remarkable rate with about seven hundred new buildings constructed every year. The employment opportunities had brought many people to this area. The water sanitation in the area was not built to handle such an exponential growth of population. As a result all the sewage from the new buildings was dumped in the Gowanus canal. The building of a new sewage system didn't help either because it dumped the waste further up the canal. The unbearable odor if the canal was a result of combined products from industries, sewage and run-off water. “AfterWorld War I, with six million annual tons of cargoproduced and trafficked though the waterway, the Gowanus Canal became the nation's busiest commercial canal, and arguably the most polluted.” There was a constant need of digging the silt out of canal, which would increase time and again, to maintain navigability. By the early 1960's the canal was no longer considered useful for transportation of goods. The container shipping had taken USA by storm and it was much more effective and economic that the waterway. This was the beginning of the end of life at the Gowanus.

The relief efforts

By the late 1970s, “more than 50%” of the property land at the Gowanus was considered useless and was left barren. This led to a much more conscious effort of cleaning up and revitalizing the canal to prevent further degradation. A number of attempts to clean and develop the Gowanus canal and its surrounding area were made, which are as follows:

* The Gowanus Industrial Renewal Plan- This was introduced in 1975 by the City of New York and was supposed to run until 2011. This plan included the repairing of The Flushing Tunnel system. Although the plan to repair the tunnel system was proposed in 1982, it could only be started during the year 1994 by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). It was finally repaired in 1999 and “the newdesignemployed a 600 horsepower (450 kW) motor that pumped an average rate of 200 million gallons a day (9 m³/s) of aerated water from Buttermilk Channel of the East River into the head end of the canal.” Although water was circulating through the tunnel, water quality only faintly improved due to major obstacles like the limited current in the canal, and the predominate low tide.

* The Red Hook Water Pollution Plant was constructed in 1987 to help in removal of wastes and pollutants from the canal. The plant was worth 230 million USD. The machinery and technology used in this projects wasn't sufficient to keep up with the sewage of the canal.

* In 1999, a 100,000 USD grant was given to the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC). The grant was to fund an extensive study of the canal and to develop public awareness. The same year also led to authorization of another study by US House of Representatives subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

* In 2000, though the New York City's Green Street Program, GCCDC received a sum of 270,000 USD to help facilitate public spaces for recreation. The following year GCCDC received the same amount of money from the governor to create a plan to revitalize the Gowanus area. Another 100,000 USD were received by GCCDC in 2002 for a pilot project.

* 2002 also saw the US ACOE coming to an agreement with DEP to work on a 5 million USD project. The project was called Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study of the Gowanus Canal and it facilitated the study of eco-system restoration of the area. In the same year, another project called the Gowanus Canal Use and Standards Attainment project was started by DEP to meet the demands for clean water.

* The grants for the development of the canal further increased in 2003, when Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez helped in arranging funds up to a tune of 225,000 USD. This fund was used create a comprehensive community development plant.

* In 2009 Toll Brothers Inc. were granted permission to build a super-block residential project along the canal.

Considering the huge amount of funding and efforts made by the City Council of New York, expectations that the canal would be restored were high. However, the situation didn't seem to improve and after successive failure to clean the canal the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed that the canal be listed as a Superfund site in the year 2009. Superfund is a common name for the CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability)Act of 1980 in the United States. The CERCLA Act provides the federal authorities full control of the cleaning up process of a place having substances hazardous to human population. This proposal came as big blow to the Bloomberg administration, which claimed that its plan was faster and as efficient as the one proposed by EPA. This proposal of Superfund listing also led to announcement that the Toll Brothers Inc. were backing out of the multi-million dollar residential project. Superfund listings have always raised a few eye-brows and its process is very slow. Furthermore, the EPA plans to claim money from the polluters of the canal as opposed to the Bloomberg Administration, which plans to use money from the council. Whether or not this Superfund listing will do any good to the canal is still to be seen, however it was high time that the federal authorities took control of it.

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