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Stories from DEP is a collection of feature articles
published in DEP's internal newsletter, Weekly Pipeline.
This article was originally published November 16, 2010.

Survey Says: Harbor is Cleaner Than Ever

In 1609, a ship belonging to the East India Company sailed into what is known today as New York Harbor. Commissioned by the Dutch, the Half Moon was captained by the English explorer Henry Hudson who was on a quest to find an eastern passage to China. Three hundred years later, the Hattie Bell was also on a scientific quest in New York Harbor, but this was part of a new study of wastewater discharges and her crew was conducting water quality surveys.

Now, 100 years after the city began monitoring the quality of New York Harbor, DEP has published the New York Harbor Survey Program: Celebrating 100 Years, 1909-2009.

Throughout its history, New York City has been intimately connected with water. The first European settlers relied on water for transportation and sustenance. Industrial development took advantage of the natural, deep-water harbor and commerce flourished. Progress, however, came with a catch. Initially, tides and natural flushing action of the harbor allowed waste generated by the ever-growing population and industry to disperse naturally. However, by the mid-to-late 1800s, this natural flushing was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of humanity. In the late 1800s, the city took the first steps to manage the collection, treatment and disposal of wastewater and to restore the harbor. At the turn of the 20th Century, engineers and scientists from the newly formed New York Metropolitan Sewage Commission began to characterize wastewater discharges and develop recommendations to improve sanitary conditions. This effort led to the establishment of the New York City Harbor Survey Program in 1909. The scientific research and the data it provided resulted in the development of the first master plan to quantify, investigate and develop solutions to address pollution in the harbor.

For the last 100 years, the city has invested billions of dollars to build and upgrade 7,400 miles of sewer lines, 95 pumping stations and 14 wastewater treatment plants located in all five boroughs that treat an average of 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater that New Yorkers generate every day. The city has also invested in the construction of four CSO retention facilities — two of which, Paerdegat and Alley Creek, will come online shortly — that reduce the discharge of combined sewer overflows into surrounding waterways. These facilities hold combined sewer flows from sanitary wastewater and stormwater until rain events subside and then send the combined flow to wastewater treatment plants for processing. According to BWT Air, Energy and Harbor Water Quality Chief Luis Carrio, “This investment to protect public health and enhance the quality of the receiving waters has resulted in the harbor being the cleanest it has been in the last century.”

Although the Hattie Bell no longer collects water quality samples from the original 12 monitoring stations around Manhattan today, the harbor survey vessel Osprey and its Marine Sciences staff collect 39,300 samples a year and analyze data from 65 stations harborwide, and up to 85 within a few years. Marine Sciences staff validates the efforts of the dedicated engineers and scientists who have developed and implemented New York City’s master plan of wastewater collection and treatment started with the first harbor water quality survey one hundred years ago. And with new recently announced initiatives like the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan, we know the next 100 years will be even better.

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