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Climate extremes and beach closures on the Hudson

WeatherService-total-rainfall-July-2021

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As the climate warms, we’ll need beaches more than ever. Extreme rains will overwhelm sewers that can’t handle even routine storms today. If we don’t upgrade our sewers, we’ll find the water unfit for recreation just when we need it most.

In July, twice as much rain fell in parts of the Hudson River watershed as in a typical year.

Total rainfall July 2021

Stream flow animation

Hat tip for this USGS stream flow animation to John Garver at Union College, one of our exceptional partners on the Mohawk River. Blue and black dots indicate stream flows “much above normal” or higher. 

Coupled with a heat wave and the apocalyptic haze from Western wildfires drifting across the continent, it’s all too easy to see the impacts of climate extremes on our region.

While sea level rise, flooding and heat are the impacts most people associate with climate change, we’re seeing many other impacts from extreme rain, including mobilization of toxic PCBs from a Superfund site on the Rensselaer Plateau, and drinking water quality degradation as excess sediment, nutrients and other pollutants are washed into reservoirs and rivers that serve as drinking water sources. And, the rain met our aging and antiquated sewers with predictable results: dozens and dozens of sewage overflows.

These sewage overflows are primarily from communities with combined sewer systems that are designed to overflow into rivers when rain flows from street-side stormwater drains into the same pipes that carry the waste from our toilets. More than 400 pipes overflow from New York City alone, and hundreds more throughout the Hudson River Watershed. Sewage Pollution Right to Know reports have made it plain that the Hudson is the waterway most burdened by sewage overflows in New York State. Other systems are overwhelmed by excess rain, because groundwater or stormwater fill cracked sewer pipes, causing an overflow.

Water quality in our rivers and streams predictably suffered, putting recreational users of the river at greater risk of illness even days after the rain stopped – and just when summer heat prompts us to seek water to cool off.

Two of the Hudson’s four public bathing areas – at Ulster Landing and Kingston Point – were closed temporarily due to poor water quality. The other two – the Westchester County beach at Croton Point and the River Pool at Beacon – remained open.

For every official public bathing site, Riverkeeper has documented almost 10 sites where people are engaged in swimming and other in-water recreation. No one but Riverkeeper and our partners tests water quality at these sites. Our testing data from July show many sites in the Hudson River and its tributaries exceeded Environmental Protection Agency criteria for safe swimming. Almost every site sampled in a 70-mile stretch of the Hudson from Norrie Point to Troy exceeded EPA criteria on July 21 and 22, for instance.

Beaches are few and widely spaced on the Hudson. There is no public beach access in the southernmost 37 miles of the estuary, nor in the northernmost 58 miles, and stretches of at least 30 miles separate most beaches. The pattern is in contrast to other major recreational waters. For instance, Westchester County has 19 private beaches and four public beaches in 36 miles of Long Island Sound shoreline, but just one private and one public beach in 49 miles of Hudson River shoreline.

While there are some local efforts in and around Manhattan and Ossining to expand access for public bathing, so far none of the 17 potential new Hudson River beach sites identified by a 2000 New York State study have been developed. In the meantime, sea level has already risen 6 inches in the last 50 years on the Hudson, and future sea level rise complicates the management of many existing public access points on the Hudson River.

As the climate warms, we’ll need beaches more than ever. Extreme rains will overwhelm sewers that can’t handle even routine storms today. If we don’t upgrade our sewers, we’ll find the water unfit for recreation just when we need it most. (Not to mention, there’s evidence that the sewage that overflows produces greenhouse gases that fuel further climate change!) New York State has the greatest documented need for sewer upgrades of any state, and the Hudson and the people who love it would be huge beneficiaries of meeting that need. Lawmakers, take notice.

Blog Posts in this Series:
Do people swim in the Hudson River? >
Event swimming returns to the Hudson >


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The Bronx River Alliance is looking for volunteers to help out with sampling. If you are in the Bronx / Westchester area and would like to participate in sampling please reach out to Christian Murphy at: [email protected]

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