Can Rivers Be Used for Swimming Again?

The sculpture
Image: The sculpture "First Generation" by Chong Fah Cheong depicts the Singapore River as in olden days, via williamcho, Flickr

As July practices heat waves in preparation for some real hot August, one cannot help but yearn for the olden days, when people would jump into the nearest river to cool down. But that was before industrial wastes made the water too dirty for swimming. Before we protested, passed laws, and cleaned up much of that point-source waste. But still the river is not safe to swim.

The problem today is much harder to combat: pollution comes from everywhere. Heavy metals grinding off brakes, lampposts, highway barriers; abraded tire particles; pesticides; fertilizers; oils and soaps...all the drips and drops that land on the ground get picked back up again when it rains. The rainwater quickly overwhelms the treatment capacities; it overflows straight into the rivers, untreated. Polluted. Berlin's Bold Plan
That is all about to change in Berlin. Thanks to one man, Ralf Steeg, and his vision of returning the river Spree to earlier glory: before authorities closed the river to swimming in 1925, there were 30 public baths along Berlin's main river.

But currently, approximately 45 tons of zinc alone flow into the Spree every year from widely dispersed sources. The banks of the river remain restricted to the trendy beach bars and tour boats until the pollution problem can be solved. That is where Ralf Steeg comes in.

Steeg completed a study of the stormwater pollution in the Spree in 2001 for his engineering diploma. The seed was planted. Since then, the study and Steeg's proposed solution has been reviewed, confirmed, and supported by one expert after another, finally gaining respect, and most importantly, funding. The project generated excitement in the German presentations at the expo 2010 in Shanghai.

The concept that could be used on any river in the world if it proves successful in Berlin. Under the name Spree 2011, the first pilot installation will soon be completed. Although the Spree2011 website is only available in German, a short film shows the pilot stormwater collection island concept.

How Steeg's Stormwater Concept Works
Steeg proposes to build over 60 "islands" along the river bank. Each island consists of three long, wide diameter fiberglass pipes anchored near the riverbank. The fiberglass pipes act as receiving vessels for stormwater overflow, cost-effectively containing excess rainwater until treatment capacity is once again available. At that time, the water is pumped out, and a valve on the upstream side of each of the three pipes opens to jet-clean the reservoirs. The cleaning water is also treated, and the containment system is once again ready to use. Steeg's study suggests these pipe islands will fill about 28 times per year.

But it gets more fun. The pipe islands can support platforms for many uses: riverside tenting, reed beds, swimming platforms, or pavillions for cafes and bars, among others. The already popular banks of the river through one of Europe's hottest cities are about to get cooler, way cooler.

More on River Pollution:
River That Killed Athletes Cleaned Up
Guy spends 165 days swimming in Columbia River, has aquatic epiphany
Seahorses Ride Again in the Thames
Brown Rivers Actually a Good Thing?
A Picture is Worth... Nature Creates a River
Pollution that Glows

Tags: Berlin | Blue August | Rivers | Water Crisis

Best of TreeHugger