It’s our canal, and we love it.
Join your neighbors in celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to keeping the historic, 1.8 mile Canal “open, clean and alive.” The GCC will host its annual meeting and party this Thursday, December 1st, at 501 Union Street, from 6:30 to 9:30pm.
Everyone in the community is welcome at Thursday’s event, says the GCC. You can RSVP here.
Over the last decade, the Conservancy has advocated for a more comprehensive clean-up of the Canal, educated hundreds of area students about local environmental issues, and mobilized thousands of community “environmental stewards” to care for the green areas surrounding the Canal.
Decades of industrial pollution led to the Canal’s designation as a federal Superfund site. The State of New York is overseeing a separate, long-term City plan to reduce sewage pollution in the Canal, and ensure its compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
Moving forward, the Conservancy will be working with community members to develop a vision and plan for the open space around the Canal, Executive Director Andrea Parker told us. There are “incredible opportunities…to take action,” she added, referring to ongoing work to reduce pollution in the Canal and to create greener, more livable neighborhoods.
The “next great New York park” could emerge from the clean-up of the Gowanus, Parker said. The park would be created by developing green corridors, which would extend from the Canal all the way up to Prospect Park. Sponge Park, at the end of 2nd Street, shows what could be built on a larger scale, she said.
The Conservancy is gathering feedback from local residents about the kind of park they want, and will host a design competition, Parker explained. The park could be jointly built by developers and the City. Parker said that the Conservancy’s efforts to develop a park will dovetail with Bridging Gowanus, a neighborhood plan which had significant community involvement, and the City-led rezoning that is coming to the Gowanus area.
Reducing Pollution in the Gowanus Canal
While the Canal’s historic industrial pollution is being tackled by the federal government, the Conservancy and other environmental groups are pressing the City to do more about ongoing sewage pollution.
Every year, around 370 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater are released into the Gowanus Canal, Parker said. The sewage comes from homes and businesses in the Canal’s “watershed,” a two-square-mile area, stretching from Prospect Park into Prospect Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and even part of Red Hook.
The culprit is our outdated sewage system, which is “combined,” meaning that sewer mains carry both raw sewage, and stormwater that drains from streets. When overwhelmed during rainstorms, the mains release raw sewage and stormwater into local waterways across the city.
“Green infrastructure” — such as rain barrels, green roofs, and bioswales along city streets — can be used to absorb rainwater before it overwhelms local mains. A critical part of the Conservancy’s work has been to expand the use of green infrastructure throughout the Gowanus Canal watershed, Parker said.
The City is “making a good faith effort,” to reduce the combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into the Canal, Parker observed, and has agreed to build a sewage holding tank. But she agreed that the cost of overhauling the area’s sewage system is daunting. Green infrastructure can make a real difference, she maintained. Eleven bioswales have been built in three clusters, from 2nd to 4th Avenues.
The City should consider creating stronger incentives for green infrastructure on private property, Parker stated. That could include raising water rates, but giving property owners a rate reduction if they have a rain garden or other green water-management tool. Developers of new buildings near the Canal should be required to manage their sewage and not release it into City mains during rainstorms, she added.
The upcoming City rezoning of the Gowanus area is an important opportunity to create meaningful green infrastructure requirements for new developments, Parker said.
Training the Environmental Stewards of the Future
Parker was especially animated when speaking to us about the Conservancy’s work with young people, teaching them to be environmental stewards. The Conservancy also has a special STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) curriculum for 7th and 8th graders.
“We’re training the next generation of young people in urban planning, site analysis & design, and climate science,” she said. This coming May, the Conservancy will host a science fair featuring student designs at the Thomas Greene Playground, near Nevins Street and Third Avenue.
This Thursday’s celebration will be a great way for community members to learn more about the Conservancy’s programs, and to think about the Gowanus area’s next ten years, Parker said. “It’s time to get involved.”