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Boat Captain Dreams of Gowanus Canal Teeming With Life, Not Pollution

By Leslie Albrecht | October 2, 2015 2:53pm | Updated on October 4, 2015 8:16pm
 Riverkeeper's John Lipscomb patrols the Gowanus Canal looking for polluters and signs of wildlife.
Boat Captain Dreams of Gowanus Canal Teeming With Wildlife, Not Pollution
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GOWANUS — John Lipscomb loves boats, open water and the scent of fresh ocean air, but on a recent humid evening at low tide, he couldn't wait to steer a bathtub-size aluminum vessel onto one of America's most polluted waterways.

"Shall we?" Lipscomb asked with a hint of glee as he fired up the motor and set a course for the Gowanus Canal, home of water so dirty that humans are warned not to touch it.

Lipscomb is the in-house boat captain for the clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper.

He pilots Riverkeeper's patrol boat and monitors water quality on the Hudson River and its tributaries. Lipscomb visits the canal once a month to take water samples and hunt for signs of illegal dumping by polluters who sometimes end up getting sued by Riverkeeper and fined by state agencies.

September marked Lipscomb's 15th year with Riverkeeper, and DNAinfo New York joined him on his Gowanus Canal patrol to hear his vision for the troubled waterway's future.

Lipscomb said he's proud of Riverkeeper's victories against polluters in places such as the Catskills and, locally, Newtown Creek, but the Gowanus Canal worries him.

"There’s been great progress [on Newtown Creek]," Lipscomb said, as his boat bobbed in the canal's filthy water. "Here, I don't feel it. This is as disgusting as it was when I started patrolling here...It's a really discouraging body of water."

There is some cause for hope — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is leading a $506 million multi-year cleanup of the canal — but Lipscomb wants more.

While some say the EPA cleanup will usher in Gowanus' future as the Venice of Brooklyn, Lipscomb says that vision is too centered on how people will use the canal for recreation and as a backdrop for new development.

Lipscomb wants to make sure wildlife gets taken care of too.

"It's a limited vision," Lipscomb said. "We're worried about whether we're getting a nice walkway next to that new building," he said, referring to the waterfront esplanade that will be built near the Lightstone Group's canal-side housing development. “We’re cleaning it up for ourselves.”

In Lipscomb’s ideal world, there would be habitat for aquatic creatures built underneath that esplanade.

As he steered his jon boat through water topped with blue flecks of toxic coal tar and dun-colored foam, Lipscomb pointed out signs of animal activity. "You're going to see a couple of examples of where life is knocking at the door," he said as his boat passed under the Ninth Street bridge.

The canal smelled like an oil slick being sprayed out of an aerosol can, but schools of silver fish flitted energetically back and forth just below the surface. A cormorant cruised by near the Third Street bridge.

Lipscomb has seen people fishing for striped bass on previous patrols, and during September's trip he found a homemade trap for fish or crabs dangling in the water. On one bank were birdhouses that the Gowanus Canal Conservancy helped install several years ago.

Mussels nestled in some sections of the canal's bulkhead — the wall that keeps the earthen edges of the man-made canal from collapsing back into the water.

Built in the 1860s, the 1.8-mile canal was once surrounded by factories, tanneries and manufactured gas plants that used it as a dumping ground for their waste.

Lipscomb wishes that more people knew that long before it was an industrial waterway, the area was a salt marsh with a diverse ecosystem.

"People will come in here and say, 'Oh so this was originally an industrial waterway,'" Lipscomb said of visitors he takes to the canal. "Actually, no, it was a gigantic machine of life."

Lipscomb wants to bring some of that wildness back.

His "big dream" is to see the canal's turning basins — the inlets where barges turn around — become soft marsh again. "Kids from Brooklyn could come down and look at sea birds fishing," Lipscomb said excitedly. "They would get a charge out of it!"

He'd like the canal to have floating habitats where egrets could fish from and mussels could hide. Right now mussels nest in crumbling sections of the canal's bulkhead, and Lipscomb worries that a new state-of-the art bulkhead being installed near the Lightstone site won’t provide the same refuge for critters.

Lipscomb's monthly patrols help the canal inch toward a more natural state in two ways, he said.

First, the trips help protect the waterway from new pollution. The September patrol didn't uncover any illegal dumping, but in July Lipscomb spotted muddy water spilling into the canal from the Lightstone construction site, and in 2011 a bus company was fined almost $500,000 after Riverkeeper spotted employees dumping concrete and other trash into the canal.

But almost as important as busting polluters, according to Lipscomb, is the fact that he always brings guests with him on the patrols. Often politicians or their representatives join him in his little boat, and journalists frequently tag along.

His theory is that the more connections he makes between people and the canal, the better chance he'll have of one day finding a "good dictator" — preferably a powerful government official — who shares his dream and will fight for the waterway.

"We're going to need a visionary here," Lipscomb said. "He or she is going to look at the opportunity to rebuild a living marsh environment in the heart of Brooklyn... It's going to take a leader at an agency to be inspired, and then say, 'Make it so.'"