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Testing the Water on the Hudson’s Largest Tributary

Many people launch their boats at the Rondout Creek at Kingston, and many enjoy the swimming beach on the Hudson River at Kingston Point, but few know that more than half the water samples Riverkeeper has taken at the Rondout public dock, and nearly one-quarter of those taken at the beach indicate sewage levels that are unsafe for swimming.

Soon, that could change, as Riverkeeper helps local citizens organize to test their water and call for changes that will improve local water quality.

Nearly 30 people concerned about the quality of the Hudson River and tributaries in the Kingston area turned out to hear Riverkeeper’s Patrol Boat Capt. John Lipscomb and Water Quality Consultant Tracy Brown present “How’s the Water: A Presentation and Call for Volunteers,” Feb. 16 at the Town of Esopus Library, a stone’s throw from the confluence of the Rondout and the Hudson.

Attendees heard about lessons learned from Riverkeeper’s 6-year (and counting) water-quality study. They learned about sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) and combined sewage overflows (CSOs) that in many Hudson River communities allow untreated raw sewage to flow directly into waterways when rainwater overloads sewer pipes. They learned that only four points on the Hudson River – public beaches in Ulster, Dutchess, Rockland and Westchester counties – are tested for sewage contamination, that half of those points are tested infrequently, and that even at those designated beaches the public isn’t always warned to avoid the water when conditions are unsafe. They learned that New York defines water-quality failures only based on the average of multiple tests, not a single test on a day when water quality is unsafe – and that the state budget for testing sewage in our waterways is zero, a fact that one attendee called “appalling.”

Most importantly, they learned that the Rondout Creek, the largest tributary to the tidal Hudson, is like many tributaries on the Hudson, often contaminated with sewage. While nearly half of Riverkeeper’s samples, taken monthly during boating season over four years, at the public dock and the nearby sewage treatment plant outfall, failed safe-swimming guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency, one-third of samples taken at the Eddyville dam, upstream of both the city of Kingston and the sewage treatment plant also failed. In other words, the sewage treatment plant outfall or the CSOs in Kingston aren’t the only, or necessarily the major source of pollution. That general failure rate is common to the Hudson River’s tributaries, and represents one of the surprising findings of Riverkeeper’s study to date.

That finding is also why Riverkeeper is working with the public to test the water upstream on five tributaries–-the Pocantico in Westchester County, the Sparkill in Rockland, the Esopus in Ulster, the Catskill in Greene and the Stockport in Columbia.

This spring, Riverkeeper hopes to add the Rondout Creek and Wallkill River, which meet upstream of the Eddyville Dam on the Rondout in Kingston, to the list of volunteer-led water-quality monitoring efforts. A grant from the UPS Foundation is making the effort possible. More than 20 Ulster and Orange County residents have expressed interest in volunteering. As the largest tributary in the tidal part of the Hudson, the Wallkill and Rondout together drain much of Ulster and Orange counties. The volunteer effort represents geographic and logistic challenges that Riverkeeper and its local partners will have to meet together. But the findings could – as they have on other tributaries – lead to public awareness and public investment in the fixes necessary to stop the flow of raw sewage into the Hudson and its tributaries

For information about volunteering, contact Dan Shapley at [email protected].

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