Scene — From the March 2016 issue

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

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Wandering along the presumed course of Vechte’s Brook, Diegel repeatedly dropped to the ground to listen at manhole covers and drains. He blurted out contextual clues: that anomalously large tree hinted at a steady water source; a discharge pipe protruding from a school basement spoke to regular flooding. “That’s as good as a chalk outline on a sidewalk,” Diegel said.

When I suggested alternative explanations for these phenomena, Diegel quoted James Joyce: “His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Diegel bases his streambed predictions on historical maps and paintings, modern flood reports, and computer modeling. He plans to refine his hypotheses by sending remote-controlled cameras underground, injecting dye into known seeps to establish whither they wend, and sampling upwellings for fluoride, which would indicate a leaking city pipe rather than a natural flow.

Diegel told me he was 80 percent confident about the blue lines he had marked on what he called his ghost map. “The massive amount of landfilling and hill cutting makes it difficult to give an exact center to streambeds, plus there were natural meander patterns and fluctuations,” he said. Of the springs he had pinpointed on the neighborhood’s lower slopes, he was closer to 100 percent confident. Soon I would see why.

Map by Eymund Diegel

Map by Eymund Diegel

Several blocks north of Vechte’s Brook, and a stone’s throw from the canal, Diegel and I slipped down a dank and narrow alleyway — think Oliver! — then climbed into the freight elevator of a nineteenth-century factory building. With the turn of a brass wheel, we dropped nine feet below street level and entered another world. The basement was cavernous, musty, and — I was astonished to see — riven by a flowing stream.

“This is Brouwer’s Brook,” Diegel said. He dipped his finger into the current and licked it. “It’s fresh springwater.” According to his 1767 map, the Brouwer spring emerged behind a farmhouse in a nearby meadow. In the 1650s, the brook fed a pond that powered one of the first flour mills in the region. (During the Battle of Long Island, at the start of the Revolutionary War, the colonists burned down the mill to prevent it from falling into British hands; it was later rebuilt.) Today, Brouwer’s Brook rushes across the floor through eight-inch-wide channels hacked into the concrete, before flowing into a pump that shunts the water into city pipes, 24/7, and thence to the Red Hook wastewater-treatment plant.

The stream affirmed Diegel’s cartographic skills; it also illustrated why his work matters. Remove Brouwer’s Brook from city pipes and reconnect it to the Gowanus, and you could reduce sewer overflows and basement backups, lower the canal’s concentration of pathogens, and lighten the workload at the Red Hook plant. The idea has enormous practical appeal. Why pump and filter water that is already clean when gravity would, with a little help, return the brook to its historical outlet?

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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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