From Jersey Trash to Ivy League Treasure

May 8th, 2012

I took some great liberty with this headline (as I do with most things, really)–what was once a landfill in Jersey is now used by Columbia for rowing practice!

Near the junction of the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 80, not far from the conga line of traffic grinding toward New York City, lies a body of water that was once a garbage dump.

It was a murky soup of reeking refuse, home to a flotilla of plastic bottles, tires and even refrigerators. The land around it was good for only two things, some longtime residents say, and that was illegal dumping and trapping muskrat.

But after a recent renaissance, that body of water, Overpeck Creek, and the new park abutting it have become a destination for a much more refined hobby. The creek, nearly all 134 acres of it in the upper region of the Meadowlands, has become the newest hot spot for rowing in the New York metropolitan area.

It does not have a boathouse. Nor does it have a secure place to keep boats or oars. But some crews are willing to overlook that.

This quote sums up Jersey quite well:

“Yep, we’re standing on garbage,” Reinke said recently as he stood along the Overpeck, which has been capped on only one side to control seepage from the landfill. “But this is heaven for us. And, of course, it’s much, much better than the alternative.”

The alternative, the Passaic, sounds evil:

Although garbage still occasionally pops out of the uncapped ground on one side of the creek, the water is much better than the Passaic River for rowing, Reinke said.

On the Passaic, rowers glide in their boats along an old commercial route lined with concrete walls. The river bends, making it difficult for a coach to keep an eye on his squad and ensure its safety. Bridges, barges and floating objects like chunks of wood also make navigating the river especially dangerous for rowers because they are in light, thin-skinned shells.

The water quality on the Passaic, though, can be far more distressing. Oars disappear into a caldron of darkness below the river’s surface. The state Department of Environmental Protection has called the Passaic “one of the most toxic waterways in the world.”

Teaneck’s Fisher said she dreaded being splashed with Passaic River water and would try not to gag if it hit her mouth.

“If it went into your ear, it was pretty gross, too,” she said. “You just hoped you weren’t going to need antibiotics.”

Overpeck Creek, a tributary of the Hackensack River, does not rival mountain spring water in its purity, but it is much cleaner than the Passaic, said Bill Sheehan, the founder ofHackensack Riverkeeper, an advocate for the river. He said Overpeck’s water had improved markedly since the park project began in 2002.

Sheehan added that sewage overflow into the Passaic was common. “If you swallow the water, you’re definitely going to come down with something, maybe dysentery,” he said. That is not the case with the Overpeck.

Like many waterways in the New York City area, the Passaic floods with flotsam from sewer overflows when it rains. From their seats just inches above the water, rowers have a close-up view of floating objects like condoms, tampon applicators and dead, bloated animals.

Dysentry? Is this Jersey or the Oregon Trail???

The author, Juliet Macur, grew up (where else) in Bridgewater, N.J., a place I know well. She rowed at Columbia. She knows what she’s talking abot.