Celebrate City of Water Day with waterfalls, free boat rides and more

City of Water Day is back on July 13, with many free and refreshing ways to beat the heat.

Celebrate City of Water Day with waterfalls, free boat rides and more
The Morningside Park waterfall in 2007, soon to be full of falling water again. (Photo by /Flickr)

In the 1960s, construction crews blasted away huge chunks of Morningside Park, breaking up mounds of glittering schist, the bedrock that underlies the island of Manhattan. It was meant to be the home to a controversial Columbia University gymnasium, until students and Harlem residents united in protest to stop it. Now, instead of “Gym Crow,” the crater in the rock became home to something every neighborhood needs: more water, in the form of a pond and 20-foot-tall waterfall. That waterfall has been dormant but is finally about to come back to life, with new pumps being installed right now. (It was constructed in 1989 but hasn’t been operational since 2018, and only worked sporadically before that.)

“Most people think of it as the most memorable feature in the park,” Brad Taylor, president of Friends of Morningside Park, told The Groove. “There are buses that run up and down Manhattan Avenue. I’ve heard from people on the buses who look out the window and say they can’t believe they’re looking at a waterfall in Manhattan.”

The deluge of excitement around the waterfall’s return is part of the annual City of Water Day celebration taking place across the city and region this coming Saturday, July 13 [editor’s note: as we were writing this story, the park announced it had to delay the waterfall’s reopening due to technical issues, but would update a new date on its Instagram].

Now in its 17th year, City of Water Day, organized by the Waterfront Alliance and New York–New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program, returns this Saturday as a way to appreciate, and bring attention to, the fact that our concrete city is really an archipelago that owes just about everything to the water. It’s a free, day-long Woodstock of wetness, a Bonnaroo of boating, an Electric Zoo of estuary education, all designed to remind New Yorkers to appreciate all the ways to get on, in or around water.

The sight of a surprise waterfall is enough to make you think that we really can have it all here in the city, from our ever-cleaner waterways to our absolutely thirst-slaying tap water. 

So with that in mind, we combed through the City of Water Day events offerings (see the full list here) to find some of the best things to do on our refreshing waterways, both on the actual day, and all year round. Most of these events are free, though some require registering in advance, and they take place throughout the day on Saturday. Click through each link for details:

Sail the secrets of Jamaica Bay

A free chance to be on a sailboat in Jamaica Bay, need we say more?

Help save Van Cortlandt Park from invasive water chestnuts

To fully appreciate our waterways, we must defend them from all threats. A lot of events on City of Water Day involve going out and literally picking through the shoreline to remove the many, many, many plastic bags that are supposed to be illegal but that stores still try to foist on you to carry one six pack of beer one block from the bodega. But in some cases, it’s a natural threat too. The Bronx Coalition for Parks and Green Spaces is seeking volunteers on Saturday to help remove invasive water chestnuts from the pond in the park. Removing them helps protect water quality and protect native plants, and unlike plastic bags, there’s no law banning them that everyone ignores. You really get to get into the water here: they provide waders and gloves for you too.

See what lives in the East River, and then throw it back

Save your hack jokes because the East River is cleaner than it’s been since the Civil War. Head to Brooklyn Bridge Park and see what happens when you drag a big ol’ net through the river to take a peek at all the critters that keep the estuary healthy, including fish, jellyfish, crabs and more. Organizers say the fish are humanely caught and then thrown back, which is what you do when you don’t want to eat the fish but just want to make it late for something

Hang out on Randall’s Island in a salt marsh

There’s a lot going on on Randall’s Island for the celebration: kayaking, guided marsh tours, pickleball and quick pickling with fresh cucumbers made from the farm. I’m not much for racket sports but I’d have a ball doing some quick pickling, personally. 

Canoe dig it? Get on a boat on the Gowanus this Saturday. (Photo via Gowanus Dredgers)

Brave the Gowanus by boat

The Gowanus Canal is still a sluice of eerily alluring rainbow pollution, despite all the cleanup effort and jerkos who have bought condos along its banks. Throw yourself into (metaphorically, we cannot stress that enough) the history of its pollution, its potential future and its current cult-like appeal with the Gowanus Dredgers, who will canoe along the canal with a musical experience “inspired by the stories of its contamination, resiliency, and road to recovery.”

Live every day like it's City of Water Day

Learn to swim 

Do not be shy if you don’t know how to swim, there are lots of adults like you in the city. Your life is literally at risk, and we’ve already had too many tragic incidents this summer already. No jokes here, just do it before the water comes to you. 

Seize the city by sea 

For just $16 you can visit every borough by ferry, taking in the skyline from a new perspective as cool breezes wash over you. Double check the ferry schedules, but we laid out how to do this in our very first issue. 

Stay on a houseboat 

You can rent a houseboat in Rockaway Beach’s Marina 59 and elsewhere to experience a whole new way of living among the water rats of the city. We will link to none of these because Airbnbs and the like are basically illegal in New York City these days. Just know that it can be done, and it’s pretty fun, but you will have to navigate those waters on your own. 

And now, Jess Joseph — our community manager and in-house city history savant — explains why we celebrate City of Water Day, and what water has meant to the city over the years: 

  • Water defines us; it’s the reason we became the center of the world. New York City has 520 miles of shoreline, a distance you can run while listening to the entire audiobook of The Power Broker.
  • Hustle Harbor: New York Harbor is one of the world’s best natural harbors. When Henry Hudson first discovered it on behalf of the Dutch West India Company, it helped establish our identity: unlike other colonies that people fled to for religious reasons, people came to New York for our lucrative waterways, seeking trade and commerce. It led to the diversity we have today; unlike the prim religious enclaves of New England, everyone was welcome here, as long as you could make a buck. 
  • Our waterways also keep us at a nice healthy distance from the rest of America, whatever they’re up to: we’re an archipelago region, and The Bronx is the only borough connected to the rest of the mainland, U.S.A.