Harbor Water Wheels, Decorative and Practical

By Vladimir Brezina

As we paddle along the Hudson River Long Timepast 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.

Long Time

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.”

*   *   *   *   *

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.

Baltimore water wheel 1
Baltimore water wheel 2

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.

Google Maps: Skim Boom in the Bronx RiverTake 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.

Skim boom in the Bronx River

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:

35 responses to “Harbor Water Wheels, Decorative and Practical

  1. Phoenix Tears Healed

    it’s fantastic, I love it; the water is helping people to clean it :)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an excellent idea! Will the unions in New York kill it because it may mean fewer jobs collecting trash?


  3. The water wheel trash collector seems amazingly effective. Nice example of adapting existing technology to new purposes. It is also interesting to watch too – who’d’ve thought rubbish collection could be so fascinating. Nice one, Vlad.


  4. What a fascinating concept. Hopefully it catches on worldwide.


  5. Great post, and idea! Someone(s) might make certain appropriate officials see this… seems like some great funding sources would also like to hear about it…
    And if you’re ever contemplating a kayak down the Potomac, give me a jingle, you two & maybe I can supply refreshments at the finish.


  6. oh how neat that these water wheels can be decorative and useful at the same time! awesome!


  7. Fantastic! Love watching all that stuff tipping over the conveyor belt. Kinda scary, too… who knows WHAT you’ll see??


  8. It really is a nice looking garbage collector. Really interesting post, I never heard of this type of river cleaning. Good video too.


  9. Beautiful and functional, fantastic…


  10. Fantastic idea and a great post to show how an ancient structure can be used in a modern way to remove pollution. I wonder when the first water wheel came into existence? Maybe that info is in the video, I have to wait for some idle time to watch the video. Have been mostly without internet for months and months so am catching up on a lot of emails and blogs.


  11. Fantastic idea!
    Although, I’d love, such wouldn’t be necessary.


  12. Great pics, Vlad, and that trash collector is a wonderful innovation. :)


  13. Interesting water wheels. I like the one that collects trash and keeps the water clean.


  14. Amazing engineering invention! Thanks for sharing!


  15. Am i wierd to admit I watched the youtube twice? Utterly fascinating!
    The NY wheel = “beauty is only skin deep”;
    The MD wheel proves “it’s what inside that counts!”
    Great post!


  16. Pingback: Tugboat Races, Take Three | Wind Against Current

  17. In Vietnam, trash is collected by hand, in rivers and on Ha Long bay. I’m sure they’d find use for trash collecting wheels :)


  18. Amazing. We could use one of these at the mouth of the Grand River where it empties into Lake Michigan.


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