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Using the Clean Water Act To Address Pathogen Pollution

As of 2015, Riverkeeper is working with 80 individual community scientists, many associated with local groups, advisory boards or boathouses, to sample 160 locations in Hudson River tributaries, and at New York City-area water access points.

The goal is to generate data that can help assess how close we are to meeting the Clean Water Act goal of having water consistently safe for swimming. Where sewage or other fecal contamination is present, pathogens associated with this contamination are present, and the risk of getting sick from swimming or other water recreation increases.

As our 2015 annual report “How’s the Water?” shows, the failure rate against federal safe-swimming guidelines, based on the fecal-indicating bacteria Enterococcus, is higher in these locations than in the Hudson River Estuary generally.

In the Hudson River Estuary, 23% of samples taken by Riverkeeper, CUNY Queens and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory failed the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended safe-swimming guideline.

At New York City-area access points, 48% samples taken by New York City Water Trail Alliance the River Project, and their partners, failed.

In Hudson River tributaries, 72% of samples taken by Riverkeeper’s community science partners failed.

In tributaries, particularly, the sources of fecal-indicating bacteria are likely diverse, including some combination of failing sewage infrastructure, failing septic systems, agricultural and streetwater runoff, and wildlife. (There may also be non-fecal sources of Enterococcus, which is one of several areas in need of further research.)

Pinpointing and prioritizing the sources of contamination in our tributaries is a challenge.

The Environmental Protection Agency has identified a number of success stories for reducing pathogen pollution in creeks and rivers. Here are some of them:

Cane and Little Cane Creeks, South Carolina: Sewer overflows, failing septics and agricultural runoff were all addressed to improve water quality.

Chehalis River, Washington: Sewer plant upgrades, septic system repair and maintenance, and implementing agricultural best management practices all contributes to water quality improvements.

Etowah River, Georgia: Green infrastructure for streetwater runoff, agricultural best management practices, septic system maintenance, and a public education campaign all contributed to water quality improvements.

Tchefuncte and Bogue Falaya Rivers, Louisiana: Repairing failing septics and a municipal septic inspection ordinance, plus educational efforts to improve operation of small “package” sewage treatment plants, resulted in water quality improvements.

Cub Creek, Virginia: Agricultural best management practices, such as cattle-exclusion fencing at stream banks, tree-planting of stream banks and planting of cover crops are credited with significant reductions in fecal-indicating bacteria downstream.

Indian Run, West Virginia: A septic-system maintenance and pump-out program, and tree-planting effort, is credited with reducing fecal-indicating bacteria.

Enoree River Watershed, South Carolina: Septic system maintenance and implementation of best management practices on farms, such as fencing to exclude cattle from the water, are credited with water quality improvements.

Carter Run, Virginia: Septic system maintenance and agricultural best management practice implementation, together with a public outreach campaign, are credited with reductions in contamination.

Willapa River, Washington: Agricultural best management practices, particularly on dairy farms, are credited with water quality improvements.

Flat Creek, Virginia: Implementing a series of agricultural best management practices is credited with water quality improvements.

Rubes Creek, Georgia: Bio-swales to reduce agricultural runoff, and repairing failed septic systems were the focus of restoration efforts.

Rocky Creek, South Carolina: Septic system maintenance and implementing best management practices to reduce agricultural runoff improved water quality.

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