Blogs > Water Quality > NY plans to shrink its list of polluted water bodies. Here’s why that’s wrong.

NY plans to shrink its list of polluted water bodies. Here’s why that’s wrong.


Map courtesy: Ulster County Department of the Environment
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For each impaired water body on the state’s ‘303(d)’ list, the state must develop a plan to limit pollution.

The Clean Water Act requires New York State to maintain a list of water bodies where certain uses – drinking, recreation, fishing, etc. – are “impaired” by pollution. For each impaired water body on the list, the state must eventually develop a plan to limit pollution. The list names hundreds of waterbody segments, many of which are located in the Hudson River Watershed, and it must be updated every two years.

Lower Hudson water bodies

Map courtesy: Ulster County Department of the Environment

In this year’s update, New York State proposed to remove nearly 300 known impairments from the list, not because the pollution problems have been remedied, but because the agency essentially moved the goalposts for including them. The state changed its methodology for listing waters, stopped testing for certain pollutants, and ignored clear evidence of severe impairments.

The “303(d) list” is important not only because it identifies waters in need of cleanup plans. The list documents the “worst of the worst” based on a vast database of information about waters across the state. It is vitally important for this database to be accurate, because it qualifies water bodies for many New York State programs, including the state’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure grant program, drinking water source protection funds, septic system replacement, and more.

Unfortunately, DEC has eliminated some sampling parameters outright, even as it has cut back the number of data sources it uses, meaning that for some pollutants, the state has no information that it can use to assess water quality. Waters affected by sewage contamination, PCBs, and other forms of pollution may not be listed because there is simply no information being collected.

The state proposed delistings for:

  • PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other toxic contamination. DEC stopped routinely testing for PCBs in 2013, but the EPA has required testing showing ongoing contamination of the Hudson River, a Superfund site for 200 miles from Hudson Falls to New York City. Meanwhile, the state has a fish consumption advisory in place for the waterway. There is ample evidence to show the PCB impairment remains ongoing, throughout this 200-mile-long stretch of the Hudson River. The same can be said for many other waterways around the state where the Department of Health advises against eating fish due to PCBs.
  • Dioxin and mirex contamination. Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and interference with hormones. Similarly, mirex poisons aquatic organisms and can bioaccumulate and potentially cause human health impacts. Without new data, de-listing these waters will put human health at risk.
  • All waters listed for “biological impacts,” or impacts to macroinvertebrates. Benthic (or bottom dwelling) macroinvertebrates are small aquatic animals. The presence and abundance of specific types of macroinvertebrates can be a strong indicator of healthy or polluted water conditions. In fact, it is one of the most comprehensive indicators of the health of the waterway, which in turn is an indicator of the capacity of that waterway to support fish survival and propagation. While it is important for DEC to set strong criteria for biological health, there is no excuse to de-list waters that have poor macroinvertebrate data without first confirming an improvement in conditions.
  • All waters listed for silt/sediment. For the listed waters, the causes of high levels of silt and sediments have been identified as human, rather than natural background conditions. These waters, in addition to having high levels of silt/sediment, remain in violation of the state narrative water quality standards for turbidity, which negatively affects aquatic plant growth and water temperature in aquatic habitats.

It is true that New York State should update its sampling and assessment techniques from time to time, to reflect advances in science and technology. In fact, Riverkeeper for years has advocated that New York State should update its water quality standards for nutrients and sewage indicators. However, when changes are made, the state must collect new data and confirm improvements, rather than simply deleting waters from the 303(d) list.

Riverkeeper submitted comments on New York’s proposed impaired waterbodies list, and nearly 400 people supported these comments with letters to Governor Hochul. Now, the EPA must decide whether to approve New York State’s list.

Read our formal comments here >

Tell Gov. Hochul to block invasive species at the Erie and Champlain canals
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