By Vladimir Brezina
As we paddle along the Hudson River past the piers on Manhattan’s West Side, we pass there, on Pier 66, a large water wheel. Sometimes it is slowly turning as its blades dip into the tidal current that is streaming past. It is a work of art.
It is in fact Long Time, by Paul Ramirez Jonas. The concept is simple: The wheel is connected to an odometer that counts the wheel’s rotations. But the piece has large ambitions. The artist is quoted as saying he wanted to create a piece to represent human existence. “It was created with the improbable goal of marking the duration of our lives, species, civilizations and even the planet… [but] its more immediate intent is to place human existence within a geologic time frame… The wheel will rotate indefinitely until it breaks down, or the river changes course, or the seas rise, or other unpredictable circumstances stop it.”
And those unpredictable circumstances have already occurred. After only 67,293 rotations since the wheel was installed in 2007, in 2011 the floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy stopped the odometer. Repairs are not high on the priority list.
However, the wheel itself “is pretty darn sturdy. It was actually happy during Sandy, because it likes the deeper water. You should’ve seen it spinning.”
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The Long Time wheel had to be made sturdy enough to resist, among other things, the impact of trash floating in the water. So why not go a step further, and use the rotation of the wheel to pick up the trash?
Last weekend, we visited Baltimore, Maryland. And, walking around the Inner Harbor, we spied from a distance a familiar shape—a water wheel. At first we thought that, like Long Time, it was an artwork of some kind. But when we came closer, we realized that it was something more practical.
This water wheel is a trash collector.
It’s mounted on a floating platform moored at the point where Jones Falls, a river that drains quite a large watershed to the north of the city—and brings down a corresponding amount of floating trash—empties out into the Inner Harbor. The river current drives the water wheel. (There is also solar power for days when the river current is too weak.) The wheel in turn drives a series of rakes and a conveyor belt. The rakes rake the trash, already concentrated by floating booms, up onto the conveyor belt, which deposits the trash into a floating dumpster. Simple!
And yes, it is also a work of art.
More detailed photos of the trash collector are here, and here is a video of it in operation:
The trash collector can collect up to 50,000 lbs of trash per day. By all accounts, although it hasn’t been operating long yet, it’s already made a very promising contribution toward solving Baltimore Harbor’s trash problem. It’s been much more effective, at any rate, than the old way of picking up the floating trash with nets from small boats. “After a rainstorm, we could get a lot of trash in Baltimore Harbor. Sometimes the trash was so bad it looked like you could walk across the harbor on nothing but trash.” Last weekend, as we walked around it, the harbor looked remarkably clean.
Much cleaner, in fact, that some parts of New York Harbor. And we can think of a number of rivers draining into New York Harbor where such a trash collector could be ideally positioned.
Take the Bronx River, for instance. It already has a floating boom to hold back the huge amount of trash that floats down the river—trash that must be periodically removed. A water wheel would do the job effortlessly.
So, let’s hope there are more water wheels, not merely decorative but also practical, in New York’s future!
More details about Baltimore’s water wheel can be found here: