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Berlin's Spree River Floats Towards a Clean Future

A giant pontoon will be installed in Berlin's Spree River. The pilot project aims to improve water quality and make the river swimmable again by stopping sewage from pouring into the Spree.

People swim in a pool floating in the Spree River

Berliners might someday be able to swim in, not just on top of, the Spree

The German Ministry of Research and Technology recently announced that it will finance a 2-million-euros ($3.1-million) giant floating pontoon. Construction will get underway this fall.

When finished, the 1,000-square-meter (10,800-square-foot) platform will have space for pavilions, gardens and a boat rental facility. As many as 14 additional pontoons might be installed if the pilot project proves successful.

A dangerously dirty river

The river Spree travels almost 400 kilometers (250 miles) through industrial wastelands, forests and fertile fields before reaching the German capital. And, as city rivers go, this one has an elegant, tame feel to it. But the look is deceptive, for within its slender curves, the Spree plays host to a barrage of bacteria.

The Oberbaum Bridge on the Spree River

When it rains, the Spree fills with sewage

The problem is not the result of unethical industrialists pumping factory waste into the water, since for the most part industry on the banks of the Spree dried up many years ago. The pollution actually arises through the continued use of an old-fashioned, inadequate sewage system.

In much of the city, "combination" drains, which are over a century old, are used to transport both rain water and household waste. The sewage system simply can't contain the sudden, violent downpours which fall over Berlin up to 30 times each year. The rainfall mixes with the city sewage and it all spills into the Spree.

It's a rather disgusting problem that most people would prefer not to think about, except those who have taken it upon themselves to change it.

Setting an example

Ralf Steeg, an engineer for landscape architecture and environmental planning, has been working on a way of improving not only the quality of the water in the Spree, but consequently the quality of life for those who live on or near its banks.

His pontoon solution, called "Spree 2011," is quite simple. The floating pontoon will serve as a large overflow tank, preventing human waste from overflowing into the river and giving the water a chance to regain its natural balance.

A graphic rendering of a pontoon with people swimming

The pontoons could have many different uses

Steeg has long argued that cleaning the Spree was an important signal that Germany, as an industrialized country, cares about the environment.

"And apart from that, I want to see Berlin and the Berliners thriving, I want them to have the chance to jump into the river to cool off," Steeg told Deutsche Welle in 2005, back when his plan was considered a pipe dream by many.

Not only about swimming

Traditionally, the Spree was a bathers' paradise. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the river was dotted with bathing facilities, and until 1925, when they were all closed, Berliners made good use of what they had. Steeg's plans aims to make the Spree cleaner than it's ever been.

The project has been championed as an aesthetically pleasing addition to the changing face of a European capital. The floating pontoons could be used as cafés, restaurants, campsites, bathing houses or even open-air cinema, all of which would generate income for the city.

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