Falling Water

A look at the hidden costs behind New York City's new "waterfalls."

By "Tern" Alexa Schirtzinger: Today, for the first time ever, New Yorkers can feel the spray of a waterfall without so much as leaving the city. In a $15.5 million project designed by Olafur Eliasson, the feted Scandinavian artist known for stunts like dyeing rivers green and installing a giant indoor “sun” and weather system at the Tate Modern in London, four artificial “waterfalls” ranging from 90 to 120 feet tall will grace Manhattan’s East River. 

That’s cool, right? Who doesn’t love a waterfall?

Um…I don’t. Yes, I’m a waterfall-hating, anti-artistic expression, bah-humbug environmentalist. But seriously: Between a generous arts feature in New York magazine and a short but admiring piece in The New Yorker, the only mention of the environmental costs of the project have to do with the purchase of renewable energy credits by the Public Art Fund, whose fundraising efforts support the majority of the project’s costs.

Now, that’s all well and good, if you believe you can buy your way out of environmental responsibility. Of course, I’m being a bit harsh here. The real question raised by Eliasson’s majestic and/or monstrous project is a fundamental one: Art, at what cost?

L’art pour l’art, sure—but I want to know how much power is being used to pump 7,000 gallons of water up 120 feet every minute of every day from June until October. And how much to light the waterfalls at night. I want to know how much energy went into the production and installation of these hulking metal structures, and how much will be expended to take them down again. And, most intriguing of all: How much did the Public Art Fund spend on those convenient little carbon offsets?

Particularly paradoxical is that Eliasson’s project is intended to echo the natural form of a waterfall—so much so that he insisted that a toothlike barrier be installed at the top of each waterfall to make it look “more natural and frothy,” according to New York. But as any good hydrologist knows, the frothier the water, the more it’s broken up into smaller droplets—which, in turn, are more likely to be taken out of the river by wind and evaporation. Not that this is a huge concern in New York, where the air itself is humid enough to steam asparagus and there’s water all around. But the irony remains: In pursuit of art that approximates nature, Eliasson’s design has taken from (destroyed just sounds too morbid) the very nature that supports it.

It’s not all bad. The project has taken special measures to make sure fish, and even their larvae, don’t get sucked into the turbulent pools below the falls, and at night, the waterfalls will be lit with power-saving LEDs. In fact, an increase in public interest in the conservation of New York’s waterways—or even an awareness that they’re there—may offset whatever expenses the waterfalls incur in energy and materials. We can’t all be dour, energy-conserving Scrooges all the time. So go out and enjoy the New York City Waterfalls—you can even take a boat tour—for their essential beauty, the thundering cascade of falling water that has long captivated artists and environmentalists alike. Only consider: Is it art for nature’s sake? Or are we forsaking a bit of nature for art?

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