Wild and Dirty

Hemmed in, polluted, under police guard, the New River is still as untamed as it gets in Fort Lauderdale

"I figured, what the hell, I'll go down and do it," says Zenga, sitting under the shade of a palm tree, water dripping from his hair, after completing a triathlon on the Fort Lauderdale beach. Zenga's eyes possess Al Pacino intensity, and he speaks rapidly. His back is broad and heavily muscled.

Zenga works out in the pool at the International Swimming Hall of Fame almost every morning, and it was there that he was coaxed into the New River Race by friends who assured him they'd take the plunge too. "So everybody who said they were going to do it and talked me into doing it didn't show up," he said. "They all chickened out. My wife dropped me off with my bathing suit and cap, and that was it." Only three swimmers actually entered the contest, which began at Colee Hammock Park and ended at the Hall of Fame. "More people signed up and dropped out than showed up," he said.

"I had a kayaker go with me to use as a pace," recalls Zenga, who's also raced in the bone-chilling, hazardous waters flowing by Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. "I didn't want to be alone in the water. There's 200-foot boats going by, and you're swimming right next to them."

Jungle Queen passengers witness a  splash-down at Swing Rope Bend.
Colby Katz
Jungle Queen passengers witness a splash-down at Swing Rope Bend.
Shirttail Charlie's captures a little  of the river's storied past.
Colby Katz
Shirttail Charlie's captures a little of the river's storied past.

The water near the retaining wall where the three swimmers jumped in was filthy, he said. In general, the current was warm, murky, and smelly, but it became considerably cleaner toward the end.

"I told the guide, 'Listen, stay away from the walls; don't let me get into the slime; stay away from the columns; keep me in the middle between the columns.' I wanted to go where the water's really moving. Stationary water is where the bacteria level will be the highest."

As best he could, he kept his head out of the water. When he was down to the final quarter mile, the kayak guide picked up the pace, and Zenga completed the 1.5-mile race in first place. He rinsed his ears with alcohol.

Despite the New River's often murky look, it's not as dirty as it used to be. Still, it's a mere shadow of the waterway it once was.

Back in 1838, Jacob Motte, an Army surgeon, described the river as "alive with fish of every description, immense in numbers." The river and its scenery "appeared to wear a different aspect from the rest of the world." Charles Pierce, whom the 1880 Census tallied as the sole inhabitant on the New River, described a fisherman's bonanza: "Rushing in and out with the tide at New River, fishes can be seen by the thousands, which snatch at anything, even a bit of rag tied to the hook and thrown to them by a strong landline. We took crevalle from ten to thirty pounds, always large ones here, never less than ten pounds. By anchoring a boat in mid-stream they can be speared or grained as they swim by, often pursued by sharks and porpoises."

The river was feared by swimmers then, not for pollution but for its wild and capricious currents -- which diminished with the onslaught of development and Everglades destruction. By the 1960s, the New River had not just been tamed -- it had been beaten and defiled by boat sewage, city wastewater, industrial chemicals, insecticides, and filthy runoff from city streets. In 1968, a headline from the Miami Herald delivered the prognosis, "River Is Dying, Biologist Warns." Plants and animals were vanishing from the river, which had pollution levels rivaling rivers in the New York City area.

During the next two decades, the city phased out dumping water into the river from wastewater treatment plants, but levels of fecal coliform, a type of bacteria that indicates raw sewage pollution, remained high. Then the city passed an ordinance in 1997 that requires landowners who allow boats to moor at their docks to install sanitation pumps at the pier. Habitable boats must be hooked up to these pumps while docked. Coliform levels have dropped, but they are significantly elevated after rainstorms, says Kevin Carter, who oversees river monitoring by the Broward County Department of Planning and Environmental Protection.

In April, several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, filed a suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for approving Florida's plan to remove 161 "impaired" bodies of water from its cleanup program. Among them is the New River, which is considered impaired because of high coliform levels.

"The state is trying to avoid setting limits on pollution," asserts Linda Young, director of Clean Water Network, based in Tallahassee. "The [federal] Clean Water Act says that the state has the responsibility for assessing and listing all of the waters that are not meeting the state water quality standards. But EPA has the responsibility of making sure that happens. If the states don't do it properly, then the EPA is supposed to step in and make an accurate list."

Zenga, though, speaking from the face-in-the-water perspective, says the New River won't make a full comeback unless people begin to understand they live in a river town. "They're not really aware of it, to be quite honest with you," he says. "Unless they live on it, I don't think they have any knowledge of what the river is."

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