Scene — From the March 2016 issue

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

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From behind a parapet on the tower of Litchfield Villa, the Italianate mansion that marks the western edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I was barely able to make out — over treetops and tall buildings — a glint of Gowanus Bay, roughly two miles away. Edwin Litchfield, the railroad and real-estate tycoon who built this house in 1857, would have had no trouble seeing the bay and much of his landholdings out of a second-floor window, from the hilly and largely treeless farmland outside his front door all the way down to the grassy banks of Gowanus Creek, which by the late 1860s had been dredged and straightened, at his behest, into a shipping canal.

Situated at the bottom of a topographic bowl, the Gowanus marshlands were once nourished by more than a dozen sparkling streams. Most of these rills and freshets haven’t been seen for 150 years; following modern convention, engineers either buried them or corralled them into pipes as they extended the city’s streets. But one of these waterways, I learned after climbing down from Litchfield’s roof and placing my ear atop a manhole cover, still seemed to be flowing, right under my feet.

Photograph of Brouwer’s Brook by Miska Draskoczy, whose monograph Gowanus Wild will be published this spring

Photograph of Brouwer’s Brook by Miska Draskoczy, whose monograph Gowanus Wild will be published this spring

“This was the middle branch of what becomes Vechte’s Brook,” said Eymund Diegel, an urban planner, Gowanus gadfly, and self-described pipe geek, as we crossed Prospect Park West at 2nd Street, not far from Litchfield Villa. In his hand was a copy of the 1782 British Headquarters map, over which he had superimposed a 1767 map by the British cartographer Bernard Ratzer, a map of the modern street grid, and his own approximation of the area’s historical streams and springs.

Diegel and I headed downhill, following the blue lines on his map and noting slumping pavement and sudden changes in lot size — all of which suggested clues, if you were in a certain frame of mind, to colonial-era streams that are still asserting themselves today.

The people who live at the lower elevations of this 1,700-acre watershed aren’t always charmed by its hydrologic history. During large rainstorms, those streams contribute to basement flooding, they cause manhole covers to shoot up into the air, and they force a brown froth of sewage up out of tubs, sinks, and toilets. Down at the canal, conditions are even worse.

Like more than 700 other U.S. cities, New York has a “combined” sewage system, which means that rain from the streets joins sewage in underground drainpipes. When the system was designed, more than a century ago, those pipes discharged into local waterways. These days, the flow is pumped to wastewater-treatment plants for filtering and disinfection. But in some areas, as little as a quarter-inch of rain can drown the system. Pipes fill up, plants reach capacity, and untreated sewage, along with storm water, gushes into our rivers and bays.

The Gowanus may be a tiny, filthy place, but its problems with water — too much in the wrong place at the wrong time — are nearly universal. The world over, deluges blow out pipes and culverts, overwhelm treatment plants, contaminate drinking-water supplies, and flood low-lying areas. As cities grow and pave, and as the climate warms — unleashing stronger storms — the drainage crisis will only worsen. But while New York bureaucrats inch through both established and innovative frameworks for taming urban floods, Diegel has come up with his own scheme for using the forces of nature to unpervert the hydrology of the Gowanus and to reanimate a canal long written off as dead.

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’s most recent book is Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America’s Drinking Water (Bloomsbury).

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