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5 clean water lessons from Newburgh’s ‘boring machine’


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City seizes critical opportunity to invest in sewer infrastructure – an example for others to follow.

On Thursday, January 12, Riverkeeper joined the City of Newburgh staff and city council members, New York State Assembly Member Jonathan Jacobson, state Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Director Kelly Turturro and a host of workers for a press conference to mark a milestone in Newburgh’s long term effort to reduce sewage overflows into the Hudson River: The arrival of a custom-built tunnel boring machine that will tunnel under the city’s riverside hill in order to carry higher volumes of sewage and stormwater to the city’s treatment plant on the city’s southern waterfront.

Together with other investments, the 35,000-pound, $1.5 million tunnel boring machine will reduce sewage overflows into the Hudson River by 56 million gallons – every year.

Here are some lessons from the event:

Water workers matter. They aren’t celebrated often or enough – for instance, remaining unacknowledged as “essential workers” during the early stages of the pandemic – but water, sewer, engineering staff and related public works staff in communities up and down the Hudson River are on the front lines of protecting and restoring water quality every day.

Every day, they make sure the waste we flush reaches treatment plants and is cleaned up before discharge. Riverkeeper often argues for higher standards for those discharges, and we know that the folks charged with meeting those standards will do their part. Critically right now, these staff are key to planning for the projects that can win state and federal grants in years to come.

Newburgh’s team – notably Jason Morris, DPW commissioner and Wayne Vradenburgh, Water Superintendent – are exemplary in this regard, and are incredible assets to their city. Their work ranging from sewer improvement projects like this, to lead service line replacement and drinking water source protection planning is wide-ranging and highly impactful, if often unseen.

Votes matter. The $32 million tunnel boring project in Newburgh is only one in a series of multimillion-dollar projects in this city, and there are projects like it ongoing and planned in almost every river city from New York City up the Hudson to Glens Falls, out the Mohawk to Utica, and throughout the watershed. These projects are taking place because New York State lawmakers worked with advocates like Riverkeeper to establish grant programs starting in 2015 to help communities make these investments.

The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – which was passed last year with leadership from New York’s congressional delegation, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer – is the calvary to that advanced guard. Read more in the Governor’s news release: First Clean Water Infrastructure Project Funded by the Federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law In New York State.

These infrastructure investments happen ultimately because of voters, like those who came out in strong support of New York’s Clean Water, Clean Air, Green Jobs Bond Act in November, ensuring that investments like these will continue for several years to come.

Money – and timing – matter. Not for a half-century, since the federal Clean Water Act investments, paired with New York’s Pure Waters Bond Act, has there been this much money available to communities to make investments in aging water and sewer systems. The money arrives at a critical time, as the need is great, with Hudson River Watershed communities having identified $2.2 billion in needed sewer improvement investments they are seeking state and federal support to implement.

Now is the time for communities to plan for and implement investments, as there’s no guarantee that the money available for the next few years will be available ongoing. Riverkeeper and a coalition of like-minded organizations are grateful that Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed another $500 million investment in our Clean Water Infrastructure Act, but with the need so great – and the availability of federal matching funds at historic highs – we are calling for a doubling of this annual commitment to $1 billion.

Laws – and their enforcement – matter. Without the Clean Water Act, New York State Environmental Conservation Law, and the federal and state agencies that enforce those laws, few if any of these investments would be taking place. The river would not have enjoyed the remarkable recovery that it has already achieved, and we would have no promise of future improvements.

The investments Newburgh is making, for instance, are under Department of Environmental Conservation permit, requiring reduction of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to meet Clean Water Act benchmarks. Right now, Riverkeeper is engaged on a number of fronts to ensure that the progress we make today is followed by progress into the future. While roughly 80% of the samples Riverkeeper and Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory have drawn from the Hudson River Estuary have met federal safe swimming criteria – but 20% have not, and the failure rate in areas affected by CSOs and other sewer leaks and overflows is much higher. Newburgh has 13 CSOs that discharge raw sewage combined with streetwater runoff when it rains.

Newburgh isn’t alone. Utica, Little Falls, Amsterdam and Cohoes on the Mohawk; Glens Falls, Washington County (Fort Edward and Hudson Falls) and Waterford on the Upper Hudson. Albany, Green Island, Troy, Watervliet, Rensselaer, Hudson, Catskill, Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Westchester County (Yonkers) and New York City all have CSOs, as do a half-dozen Hudson River communities on the New Jersey shoreline. All are working on projects to reduce overflows under the same set of laws that prompted Newburgh’s investments. Achieving the Clean Water Act goal of a “swimmable” Hudson takes continued vigilance.

That’s why, for instance, Riverkeeper is working to ensure that New York’s saline waters – from the Bear Mountain Bridge south and all around New York City – are assigned high standards under the Clean Water Act, and sewer releases are reduced to meet those standards. Future progress is built on advocacy to set high standards today, and enforce those high standards tomorrow.

Clean water matters. The Newburgh Rowing Club helps students and community members ply the shoreline, and to teach youth kayaking skills. The Great Newburgh to Beacon Hudson River Swim puts about 200 people in the water each summer for its annual swim event – and has now for 20 years. Beacon, across the Hudson from Newburgh, has River Pool, the brainchild of Pete Seeger, envisioned as the first of a constellation of pools that could invite bathers in all our river cities. Plum Point beach to the south of Newburgh was identified in a 20-year-old state study as a potential public beach site. Newburgh Bay, the broad expanse of the Hudson at Newburgh’s waterfront that stretches to a stunning view of the Hudson Highlands, is a critical striped bass spawning area.

Whether for aquatic life or the communities of people along its shores, clean water is the essential ingredient to thriving in this incredible spot on Earth. These projects are our gift not only to this generation, but the next.

Read coverage in the Times Herald-Record: What to know about Newburgh’s $32M sewer infrastructure project

Dan Shapley is Riverkeeper’s Co-Director of Science and Patrol.