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Riverkeeper’s Year on the Hudson, Part I: Testing the Water


Photo Courtesy Rob Friedman
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Riverkeeper’s patrol boat wrapped up another season on the Hudson Friday, Dec. 2. It was one of the most remarkable yet, with major milestones in water quality testing and cooperative law enforcement, high-profile investigations of sewage releases and other polluters, and the honoring of Capt. John Lipscomb with the EPA’s Environmental Quality Award. In the next two weeks, Lipscomb will build a temporary structure around the Fletcher so that critical winter maintenance can take place in time for the first 2012 patrol in early April. “For me, I hate getting off the water,” Lipscomb said. “The local deli is as far away as I get from the river during our patrols. I’m very sad to be off the water, but the boat needs care and maintenance, the idea is to fix stuff before it breaks.”

As he looks to the next few months of maintenance, we asked Capt. John to reflect on the 2011 season, his eleventh. He logged about 3,600 miles – enough to cover the full length of the tidal Hudson from New York Harbor to the dam at Troy more than 25 times.

The Water Quality program hit a milestone this year with the publication of How Is the Water? Sewage Contamination in the Hudson River Estuary 2006-2010. You now have access to five years of data on sewage contamination at dozens of sites throughout the tidal Hudson, and six years of data for the lower Hudson. What have we learned about sewage contamination in the Hudson that can make it unsafe for swimming?

There were a lot of surprises. The question I get is, “How far north of New York City do I have to go before the water quality gets good?” That’s not the way to think about it. We found that contamination is extremely variable by location and over time. From village to village, side to side, and side to middle, the quality is variable. And, at many locations, it varies over time, from test to test, month to month.

When I get asked, “Can I swim here or there,” I say, let’s look at Riverkeeper’s database. The fact is, the best information available to the public is on our website. We don’t want to pretend it’s adequate, more sampling is needed The idea all along was to use our program to find hot spots and to demonstrate that: A, there is still sewage contamination; B, that it’s not where or when you think it is; and C, even a small organization can create a public website that provides easy access to this information. If Riverkeeper can do this, then counties up and down the river, and the State of New York, can do this.

The end goal isn’t just to notify people when it’s safe to swim. We are really trying to get people invested in the river. We hope the information we provide will lead to a call from the public for improvements. The goal of the program is to improve water – for the river. We are Riverkeeper. We take that charge seriously, and wastewater is one of the big problems we and the river face.

You’ve also partnered with several groups of citizens to coordinate the sampling of tributaries – the Pocantico in Westchester County, the Sparkill in Rockland, the Esopus in Ulster, the Catskill in Greene and the Stockport in Columbia. Why is testing the tributaries important, and what are you finding?

We sample in the tidewater mouth of a trib, and into a trib as far as we can get with the boat. Our data through 2010 showed that 34% of our tributary samples failed to meet the federal guidelines for safe swimming, whereas 21% of samples failed overall, Estuary wide. Just as it took four years of data for us to publish a report about the Hudson and begin to see patterns, the trib initiatives that started this year will take time to reveal trends, maybe til the end of 2012 or 2013. I’m looking forward to the day when my water quality team walks into a county executive’s office, or a town supervisor’s office, behind 20 local water quality partners and the locals present a local water quality problem to the local official and we are there to back them up.

Your experience with water quality monitoring proved to be very needed several times this year, when Riverkeeper responded to sewage releases in Beacon, Ossining and – most spectacularly – in Manhattan after the North River Sewage Treatment Plant fire. What did we learn from those incidents?

With an onboard lab, a practiced team and scientific partners, we’re in a position to deliver actionable, meaningful information to the public about the extent of contamination. Although these releases got a lot of attention, when we compare the contamination they caused to the chronic releases that regularly occur during wet weather from a variety of sewage overflows in many river communities, the chronic releases are the bigger problem. That was a surprise to the public and the media covering these accidents

One good thing that came out of the North River release was that DEP was somewhat embarrassed to have the public and the media going to Riverkeeper for information. The DEP has now begun posting weekly updates of their harbor water quality data, rather than annual reports that only showed the averages of tests throughout the harbor over the entire year. The people– the public– made happen what a lawsuit probably couldn’t make happen. We had gone years asking them to post their data. Even though there are many tweaks that the DEP still needs to make in their reporting, the significant thing is that they acknowledged that the public deserves an answer to their question: How’s the water? That’s a huge step forward.

Get Informed: Learn more about Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Program, and look up testing data for your community.

Do Your Part! Make a donation to support Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Program.

Continue Reading: Riverkeeper’s Year on the Hudson, Part II: Cleaning and Restoring the River.

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