By Christopher Swain
Clay Cooley grew up in coastal Rhode Island, bull-raking shellfish on the flats of Narragansett Bay. Even in semi-retirement, he retains the bulk of a man who never shied away from heavy work. He also has an eye for detail: at our first meeting he guessed my weight within one pound.
In the army, Clay kept watch over the Soviets along the East German border. After he left the service, he put in ten years with Winchester Arms before starting his own construction business. From his bedroom in the house he built for himself in East Lyme, Connecticut, he can see his sailboat riding at anchor in the Niantic River, a tidal waterway that empties into Long Island Sound.
“Everybody around here is on septic,” he says. “When it rains, I can smell the sewage coming downriver. Closes the shellfish beds too.”
According to The Long Island Sound Study, a partnership made up of New York, Connecticut, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and various other state agencies, user groups, and local organizations, “In both Connecticut and New York…shellfish bed closures…appeared to be primarily caused by stormwater runoff, failing septic systems, and boats and marinas… Sewage treatment malfunctions may also have been significant on a local basis.”
Pathogen-related closures like these often occur after significant rainfall events, and every year they keep hundreds of thousands of people from swimming and fishing in the harbors and beaches of Long Island Sound.
(As a longtime open water swimmer, I have firsthand experience with swimming through other people’s waste. Over the years, I have stroked past the toilet paper, turds, condoms, tampons, and baby wipes that my fellow citizens have flushed down their toilets. And I have suffered skin rashes, swollen glands, and ear infections as a result.)
Most folks assume that when they flush their toilet, the local sewage treatment plant will take care of the rest. Unfortunately, during wet weather, this is rarely the case. It’s a plumbing problem: Rainfall rushes down streets into storm drains that empty into pipes shared by the sewage produced by homes and businesses. Within minutes of a downpour, the volume of combined liquid overwhelms sewage treatment plants and millions of gallons of untreated wastewater get vented directly into nearby waterways, contaminating the water with harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and forcing beach and shellfish bed closures in an effort to protect human health.
During my 130+ mile swim from Montauk to New York City, I am calling for a permanent end to the dumping of raw sewage into our waterways. My thinking goes like this: We live in the most technologically-advanced nation on Earth. If we can put people on the moon, split the atom, and build an iPhone, we can find a way to make our waterways safe for swimming every day.
So what’s the hold-up? People say the plumbing fixes would be costly and disruptive (which isn’t necessarily the case), but I wonder whether the real problem isn’t something else entirely.
Perhaps the issue is that the idea of pumping sewage into nearby waterways has become normalized. We are so accustomed to beach closures and shellfish bans—they have become such an integral part of our summer experiences—that we no longer feel the loss and outrage that should accompany the knowledge that we can’t swim today because we have chosen to pump poop into our bathing water.
Adults may be desensitized to this fact, but not so the K-12 students I speak to during my school visits. When I tell kindergarteners that the reason beaches get closed is that we are flushing our poop straight into the ocean, they look at me as if I am crazy. They think I am joking. Their disbelief morphs into surprise and shock when they realize that there is no joke, that this is the plan the grownups came up with.
Maybe it’s time to make a different plan.
Clean Water Advocate and New York Native Christopher Swain has already swum the entire lengths of the Hudson River, the Gowanus Canal, and Newtown Creek. Now the 48-year-old father of two plans to swim more than 130 miles from the easternmost tip of Long Island, to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. His route includes the entire lengths of Long Island Sound and the East River.
“I was born in New York City. I love the water, and I want it to be safe for swimming every day,” Swain said in an email to National Geographic Voices.
“I believe that every waterway in New York should be safe for swimming every day,” Swain explained in a news statement about this venture. “The point of this swim is to call for a permanent end to the illegal dumping of raw sewage into our waterways.”
Swain aims to spend 4-6 hours a day in the water during the 18-20 days that he reckons it will take him to complete this swim. He will be escorted by a safety boat throughout his journey, and he will take occasional days off to spend time with his family, and to make presentations to schools and other organizations. Swain estimates he will reach New York City in early November, possibly sooner if he enjoys favorable ocean conditions.
Throughout his swim, Swain will be collecting water quality data, documenting conditions he finds in photographs and video clips, and monitoring his own physiological parameters like hours of sleep, calories consumed and burned, and heart rate. All of this information will be made available for free to interested teachers in the region. Educators interested in classroom visits are encouraged to contact Swain by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swain’s swim also serves as a fundraiser for his Campaign For Swimmable Waterways in NY. He plans to post regular updates on his progress.