The East River is dangerous to people who fall in or attempt to swim in it, although as of mid-2007 the water was cleaner than it had been in decades. Anyone in the channel would find there are few places from which to climb out. According to the marine sciences section of the city Department of Environmental Protection, the channel is swift, with water moving as fast as four knots (just as it does in the Hudson River on the other side of Manhattan). That speed can push casual swimmers out to sea. A few people drown in the waters around New York City each year. The strength of the current foiled an effort in 2007 to tap it for hydroelectricity.
Historically, the lower portion of the strait (separating Manhattan from Brooklyn) was one of the busiest and most important channels in the world, particularly during the first three centuries of New York City's history. The Brooklyn Bridge, opened in 1883, was the first bridge to span the strait, replacing frequent ferry service. Some passenger ferry service remains between Queens and Manhattan.
The Bronx River drains into the East River in the northern section of the strait.
North of Wards Island, it is joined by the Bronx Kill. Along the east of Wards Island, at approximately the strait's midpoint, it narrows into a channel called Hell Gate, which is spanned by both the Triborough Bridge, and the Hell Gate Bridge. On the south side of Wards Island, it is joined by the Harlem River.
Newtown Creek on Long Island drains into the East River, forming part of the boundary between Queens and Brooklyn. The East River contains a number of islands, including:
- Upper section
- Rikers Island
- North Brother Island
- South Brother Island
- Mill Rock
- Lower Section
- Wards Island and Randall's Island (joined by landfill)
- Roosevelt Island
- U Thant Island (Belmont Island)
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