THE BLOG

On World Water Day, Splashing for a Swimmable NYC

03/22/2007 10:22 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Today, March 22nd, has been declared World Water Day by the United Nations. This year's focus is coping with water scarcity, an increasing and scary phenomenon. One report estimates that as much as 1/3 of the population, mostly in the "developing" world, is now short of water.

In this country, there are regions where water is becoming more and more scarce. There have been increasingly heated feuds in the southwest in states like Arizona and California, where competition for a diminishing water supply and who gets it has become a key issue.

But for many in the US, especially in urban areas, the problem isn't so much lack of water but dirty waterways. Decades of industrial and other types of pollution, including overflow from sewers, have rendered the rivers, canals, lakes and streams in our cities virtually useless, even for boating, never mind for swimming.

The ever-expanding environmental and environmental justice movements, however, are not only engaged in cleaning up waterways themselves, they are increasingly demanding that local, state and federal governments get serious about waterway clean up.

In New York City, more than 30 local, city-wide and national organizations have gotten together to form S.W.I.M. (Storm Water Infrastructure Matters) and, today, as part of the 15th anniversary of World Water Day, they are having their kick-off event at a small Manhattan park, Stuyvesant Cove, on the East River to send one big message to Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council: make NYC's waterways swimmable.

Dozens of folks from all five boroughs will gather at 1 pm to kayak, wade into the East River, monitor the water quality, enjoy some water toy races, splash around, and generally make a clearly physical statement about how much city dwellers need to get back in touch, literally, with the bodies of water that flow through and around their neighborhoods.

When it rains, storm water often overwhelms the sewage system in NYC, pouring an unbelievable 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted water into the waterways through Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) every year. The City is currently in the process of "envisioning" the City in PLANYC 2030. The plan calls for making 90% of the waterways safe for recreation - but, there's a catch. "Recreation" doesn't include primary contact with the water - no swimming, in other words.

S.W.I.M. advocates say the City can do better. And they've produced a five point platform they want the City to adopt called "Swimmable NYC:"

•Capture storm water and green the city's neighborhoods with street trees, green streets, greenrooms, community gardens, rainwater harvesting and rain gardens.
•Incorporate natural, sustainable storm water management into the city's Long Term Control Plan for CSO pollution.
•Involve the public.
•Provide incentives for private developers to capture storm water on the land.
•Institute government reform to require collaborative city-wide watershed planning.

They also have advice for everyone - not just New Yorkers - about what each person can do to help mitigate dirty waterways. Here's a quick rundown:

Don't pour harmful detergents, chemicals or oils down your sink or storm drains.
Conserve water.
Reduce or capture runoff.
Take care of your garden and lawn naturally.
Pick up trash that you might see lying around.

So think globally and act locally today. Drop by the event if you're in NYC. Find out about the waterways in your own city. Start a S.W.I.M. Coalition in your own city. Be creative.