Splashing In New York's Hudson River

As the rivers around New York City recover from decades of pollution, New Yorkers are once again taking to the water to swim. "Floating pools," tethered safely to the shore, let swimmers enjoy the waters of the might Hudson without worrying about dangerous currents.

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In New York, some people are working to revive an old form of summertime recreation: the river pool. For 60 years, starting in 1870, New York's Hudson and East Rivers were lined with floating pools. Overheated urbanites came by the thousands to swim safely in the currents. But eventually, water pollution forced the pools to close. Well, Jim O'Grady of member station WNYC reports on the effort to bring them back.

JIM O'GRADY, BYLINE: It's noon on a hot summer Saturday on the riverbanks of a town called Beacon, New York. Pete Seeger, the 94-year-old folk singer, is stretched out on a grassy hill leaning on his elbows. He's watching people climb out of the Hudson River after swimming a mile across it.

...on a grassy hill, leaning on his elbows. He's watching people climb out of the Hudson River after swimming a mile across it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I know. The water was fantastic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The most perfect day.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I know.

O'GRADY: About 200 swimmers raised $50,000 to keep operating a circular, kid-sized pool, about eight feet in diameter, that floats in the Hudson River. The pool uses mesh nets to filter the water that flows through it. Organizers are planning to install a similar but larger pool for adults.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Another triumph.

(LAUGHTER)

O'GRADY: Seeger likes what this means about the river.

PETE SEEGER: It's safe to swim in now.

O'GRADY: Pete Seeger is the Moses of the movement to reclaim the Hudson for recreation. He says 40 years ago, he called a meeting to talk about what the river had become: a receptacle of sewage and industrial runoff and to organize a group that would steer it back toward what it was in the 1800s: sublime, dotted with sloops, the inspiration for a famous school of nature painting. But the night of Seeger's first meeting, only three people showed. Then his wife, Toshi, had an idea.

SEEGER: My wife said: Don't call it a meeting, call it a potluck supper.

(LAUGHTER)

SEEGER: And now, 30 people came.

O'GRADY: Forty years and a lot of organizing later, the Hudson is not pristine. But in the mid-Hudson Valley, it's clean enough to draw families to the Beacon River Pool. Ten-year-old Joe Jacobs likes the pool but isn't quite sure what to make of it. Where are we right now?

JOE JACOBS: We're in the Hudson River.

O'GRADY: It's a pool, but it's a river.

JACOBS: Yes.

O'GRADY: Isn't that mind-boggling?

JACOBS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

O'GRADY: Until the 1930s, New York City had as many as 15 river pools that floated on pontoons, but they closed when the water got gross. Now, the river pool might be coming back to the city. A private group called Plus Pool wants to install a large floating pool in the shape of a plus sign in the East River, tethered by a walkway to the shore.

ARCHIE LEE COATES IV: The goal is to get it to the same water quality that is in a typical city pool.

O'GRADY: That's Archie Lee Coates IV, a designer with the project. He says that installing a safe-for-humans swimming pool in New York harbor will be hard because during storms, city sewers overflow into local waters, which then become contaminated by...

IV: Human waste.

O'GRADY: ...fecal coloform. But Coates says Plus Pool's series of screens and a built-in layer of disinfectant will purify the water without adding chemicals to the river. He's hoping to get Plus Pool in the water by the summer of 2016. For NPR, I'm Jim O'Grady in New York.

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