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In many spots, Hudson is unsafe for swimmers and boaters, according to Riverkeeper

August 18, 2014
A report by the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper says that 23 percent of 74 locations

they tested along the Hudson River fail to meet recommended safe swimming guidelines by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The report also states that 61 percent of the sampling locations fail EPA criteria for recreational purposes, which includes boating, canoeing and kayaking.

The report, titled "How's the Water? 2014" is a summary of results from monthly samplings of Hudson River waters at 74 locations between New York Harbor and Waterford in Saratoga County between May and October every year since 2008.

The organization works in collaboration with scientists at Queens College and Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Riverkeeper members and scientists look for the appearance of enterococcus bacteria in the samplings, which indicate sewage and other fecal contamination in the water. This contamination can cause a variety of illnesses, some severe and life threatening.

"Illnesses associated with contact with pathogens in recreational water vary from skin rashes to eye and ear infections to stomach ailments to serious life-threatening infections," said Dan Shapley, water quality program manager at Riverkeeper. "Most illnesses reported from contact with recreational water are gastrointestinal; diarrhea, vomiting, upset stomach, etc. Examples of serious illnesses that can result from exposure include encephalitis, meningitis or liver disease from viral infections."

The source of the contamination comes from overflows and leakage from sewage systems, contamination of groundwater and overflow from septic systems, fecal-contaminated sediment, wildlife and runoff from both livestock and crop farms.

Another important factor is rainfall, which can trigger a three-fold increase in water safety failure rates. According to the report, 12 percent of water samples that passed safety inspections during dry weather failed after a rainfall.

Several communities along the Hudson have older sewer systems that were designed to overflow in heavy rains, including New York City, northern New Jersey, the Capital District, the cities of Hudson, Kingston, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie and Yonkers, and the villages of Waterford and Catskill and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. These systems are known as "combined sewer overflows" where storm water and sewer pipes are combined so that when rain water runs off into storm drains, it enters the same pipes that carry sewage. As storm water overwhelms the capacity of the pipes, raw or partially treated sewage is diverted directly into the water.

 Shapley noted that, even in communities with separate sewers and storm water systems, rain water can trigger sewage discharges because groundwater infiltrates and inflows into pipes.

According to the report, the highest failure rate of the 74 sampling locations is at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers in the town of Waterford.

Riverkeeper says these sampling locations will continue to fail safe swimming requirements without increased and preserved investments in wastewater infrastructure.

"The public is using the historic data we provide for guidance on the water quality at locations where they recreate and to learn how those sites vary over time and how often rainfall degrades water quality at those locations," said John Lipscomb, director of Riverkeeper's water quality program. "We are confident that the public, when informed of water quality problems, will demand and support waste water investment."

There have been recent infrastructure investments in several locations along the Hudson River and surrounding watershed. More than $3 billion has been committed to improvements in infrastructure in recent years in New York City, the Capital District and other locations. The pump station in Tarrytown recently saw a $9.9 million upgrade.

"Our data suggest there is great and widespread need for infrastructure improvements, ranging from addressing septic systems in rural communities to fixing aging sewers in our cities," Shapley said. "A recent Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress survey found that more than half of Hudson Valley municipalities expect wastewater infrastructure will require major work in the next three years."

The funding gap across New York state for water and wastewater infrastructure has been estimated at $36 billion.

Riverkeeper is pushing New York state to implement new, more protective standards for recreational water quality that better comply with the EPA's 2012 recreational water criteria. New York's standards are nearly 30 years old, the group notes.

These criteria include using a short-term and long-term measurement of bacteria levels used together to ensure that water quality is properly evaluated; implementing stronger recommendations for coastal water quality so public health is protected similarly in both coastal and fresh waters; creating a new rapid testing method that states can use to determine if water quality is safe within hours of water samples being taken; using an early-alert approach for states to issue swimming advisories for the public; and developing criteria for specific beaches.

Riverkeeper also wants the state to fully implement the Sewage Pollution Right To Know Act of 2012, which requires publicly owned wastewater treatment plants statewide to report discharges of raw or partially treated sewage to waterways within four hours.

According to Shapley, more than 1,660 discharges were reported in the first year of reporting, totaling hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage discharged to waterways.

"The Hudson River and its tributaries are the public's beach ― and the public deserves clean water," said Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay. "That right is enshrined in the Clean Water Act, and it's our job to stop the pollution that too often makes the water unsafe for swimming."

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