Blogs > Water Quality > Two years later, Newburgh’s water supply remains just as vulnerable

Two years later, Newburgh’s water supply remains just as vulnerable


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Two years ago this summer, Riverkeeper responded to the revelation of toxic PFAS contamination in the City of Newburgh’s primary reservoir by calling for a comprehensive plan for protecting the drinking water at its source.

Two years on, despite some important planning at both the local and state level, the city’s reservoirs remain at risk from the same threats as then. Not only does the unabated flow of firefighting foam chemicals from Stewart Air National Guard Base continue, but the reservoirs remain at risk from phosphorus and other contaminants present in the runoff from roads, parking lots, homes and businesses throughout the watershed. Protecting watersheds that supply drinking water sources such as Newburgh’s reservoirs requires the full use of state and federal legal authorities, and cooperation among municipalities and agencies at the local levels.

Let this be a call to action to save Washington Lake and restore it to health, so that city residents have confidence in their primary source of drinking water.

It’s important to note that the City of Newburgh’s tap water is, and has been, running free of PFAS chemicals since the city first declared an emergency and switched water sources in May of 2016. Currently, that alternate source is New York City water, flowing from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskills through a pipeline known as the Catskill Aqueduct. While the taps run clean, here is stark evidence that the city’s reservoirs remain just as vulnerable today as they were two years ago:

1. Department of Defense hasn’t stopped the flow of toxic pollution from Stewart Air National Guard Base

The toxic pollution  affecting Newburgh is a mixture of different polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These related chemicals were used in mixtures, including PFOS and PFOA, and several are known to be present in water contaminated by the Air National Guard Base.

The largest source of PFAS associated with firefighting foams used at Stewart Air National Guard Base are outfalls that discharge stormwater to Recreation Pond. From here, water flows through a small unnamed tributary and into Silver Stream, one of the two main tributaries typically diverted to fill Washington Lake. We’ve known this, and much more detail about the sources of contamination on the base, from the early months of the crisis, thanks to the investigations by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. But the Department of Defense only this summer confirmed with its own redundant investigation what we already knew. Unfortunately, we knew to expect this, because its plan was duplicative, deficient, inadequate and arbitrary. The bottom line is that Department of Defense is barely a step closer to stopping its pollution more than two years later.

In the short term, an “interim remedial measure” must be put in place to filter water at Recreation Pond before it flows downstream. The Air National Guard has sought to install just such a filter — for the polluted wastewater it sends to a local sewer plant, but not for polluted runoff that flows toward Newburgh’s drinking water. In the longterm, a multi-year (likely multi-decade) remediation of groundwater will be needed to slow the migration of pollution in groundwater and reduce its toxicity.

2. Runoff from commercial and residential development continues to contaminate city reservoirs, and new developments are being proposed in the absence of input by the city

A spate of storms this summer resulted in a rush of stormwater runoff into the city’s reservoirs, and the streams that feed them. Runoff can carry a number of trace contaminants, including heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and salts from roadways and parking lots. One of the most damaging is an excess of phosphorus, a naturally occurring and needed nutrient that can cause problems with algae, disinfection byproducts and other drinking water quality problems. Phosphorus sources may include sewage, pet waste or manure; lawn and farm fertilizers; as well as sediment, grass clippings and leaves. Stormwater pollution can be hard to control because it happens everywhere all at once, as rain washes over the landscape, resulting in small amount of pollution from a large number of sources being concentrated downstream. But particular sources can and must be controlled to protect water quality. Green infrastructure can help restore the kind of filtration that natural landscapes provide, by allowing stormwater to slowly infiltrate the ground, rather than rush off quickly into the reservoirs, or the streams that feed them. Stormwater must also be controlled at construction sites.

Case in point: Construction at a subdivision in the Town of New Windsor sent muddy water into wetlands adjacent to Browns Pond, Newburgh’s backup reservoir, in July of 2018.

DEC must assess penalties that will be sufficient to act as a deterrent. Not only this developer, but others, must know that failing to prevent pollution will result in heavy fines. Fines must be greater than the “cost of doing business.”

Further, without notification to the City of Newburgh, additional developments are being proposed in the neighboring Towns of Newburgh and New Windsor, which could degrade water quality by replacing the natural filtering process provided by trees and open lands, with runoff from pavement, rooftops and other impervious surfaces. 

Signs of Progress in Source Water Protection

Despite the fundamental lack of progress on the ground, there have been significant steps forward in the state’s investigation of contamination, and in planning for protection and restoration. These include:

Grassroots advocacy. Most promising, perhaps, is the activity of the Newburgh Clean Water Project. Saturday, August 18, the local grassroots group hosted a Watershed Tour, providing a chance for residents to learn how the water flows to the reservoirs, what pollution source are of concern, and how they can get involved to protect and restore the city’s drinking water supply. Ultimately, this tour should be a prerequisite for any official holding or seeking public office at the local, county, state or federal level – including planning and zoning boards, and those empowered to make economic development and master planning decisions.

Land Conservation: A $1.7 million state grant awarded to Orange County Water Authority and Orange County Land Trust. The state money is available because of Riverkeeper’s advocacy to establish source water protection as a priority in the state’s $5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act. The money is only useful, of course, when it’s spent to conserve lands that provide a natural filter to the water flowing through the watershed.

Phosphorus Impairments: As advocated for by Riverkeeper, New York State has proposed listing both Washington Lake and Browns Pond as impaired under the Clean Water Act, due to an overload of phosphorus. When finalized, this formal recognition of an important pollution problem would ultimately put more tools on the table to restore water quality in the city’s reservoirs.

Source Water Protection Plan. A Source Water Protection Plan, which Riverkeeper has advocated for since the early days of the crisis, is in development. While progress is slow, and transparency is an ongoing concern, the state Department of Health is completing an updated Source Water Assessment to characterize water quality risks to the city’s reservoirs, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation is developing a plan with targeted actions to reduce those risks. (A draft map from this effort appears below and can be downloaded as a pdf.) Any plan, however, will require substantial cooperation from the neighboring towns of Newburgh and New Windsor, which each have land use decision-making power over significant watershed lands, including both Washington Lake’s tributary streams. Fundamental changes need to be made to ensure communities like the City of Newburgh have real authority to protect their drinking water supplies and their watersheds, when those watersheds are located outside of their municipal borders. The key fundamental change must start at the state level; the NYS Department of Health must revise and update the City of Newburgh’s outdated Watershed Rules and Regulations, or the NYS Legislature must act to authorize other means to protect drinking water supplies. Otherwise, City of Newburgh will remain essentially powerless to protect waters upstream in neighboring municipalities.


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