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What’s worse for water quality than a 500,000-gallon sewage leak?

What’s worse for water quality than a 500,000-gallon sewage leak?

Results of Mohawk River sampling by SUNY Cobleskill, July 27, 2016.
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A broken pipe in the City of Amsterdam spilled 500,000 gallons of raw sewage into the North Chuctanunda Creek, according to published reports. The press reports about the spill prompted concern from river users as far away as Newburgh, some 140 miles away.

That did life in the creek no favors, and may have put both aquatic life and people downstream on the Mohawk River at risk, as well.

But if you had to choose between a raging sewer line break and a torrential summer downpour, you’d be better off with the discrete sewer leak. Because when it rains, sewage pours out of countless cracked pipes, and dozens of overwhelmed pump stations and sewer plants; and manure cascades from farms lacking effective management.

Data gathered by SUNY Cobleskill, Riverkeeper’s partner in monitoring water quality on the Mohawk River, showed elevated bacterial counts in the days after the Amsterdam sewer spill at some locations. Data showed far greater impact from a summer thunderstorm.

The sewage leak was first reported publicly July 25 via NY-Alert under the state’s Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law. (You can sign up to receive alerts by text, email or phone.)

SUNY Cobleskill sampled on July 27, as the leak of at least 50 gallons per minute continued unabated. On that date, six out of 10 samples from Amsterdam to Waterford exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for safe swimming. A weighted average (geometric mean) of all samples taken was 130. (Really, there is no “average,” water quality. We look at averages only to make comparisons. As we often say, no one swims in “average” water: You swim at a particular location, with whatever contamination is present there.)

Results of Mohawk River sampling by SUNY Cobleskill, July 27, 2016.

Results of Mohawk River sampling by SUNY Cobleskill, July 27, 2016.

SUNY Cobleskill sampled again July 29, as the leak continued. On that date, four out of 11 samples, all in the easternmost part of the area sampled, between Aqueduct and Waterford, exceeded EPA guidelines for safe swimming. This sampling event also coincided with about 0.6 inches of rain recorded in the Capital District prior to sampling; that rainfall did not affect Amsterdam or Rome. The weighted average of samples from the same sites previously sampled was 60.

Results of water quality monitoring by SUNY Cobleskill in the Mohawk River July 29, 2016.

Results of water quality monitoring by SUNY Cobleskill in the Mohawk River July 29, 2016.

The sewage leak was stopped as early as July 30, when the broken pipe was bypassed to allow for its reconstruction.

SUNY Cobleskill sampled August 2. This sampling event took place after heavy rain in the eastern portion of the Mohawk watershed, with between 3.3 inches of rain recorded in Amsterdam and 3.9 inches recorded in Albany in the three days prior to sampling, including more than one inch overnight and into the morning on the day of sampling. Though Amsterdam has invested significantly to reduce overflows, the city reported discharges from its combined sewer system as a result of the rain. And, no doubt many leaks from other sewer and septic systems occurred, along with runoff of manure from farms and other sources of fecal contamination, whether or not they were reported.

The August 2 results showed that impact, with all 16 sites sampled by SUNY Cobleskill exceeding EPA guidelines for safe swimming, by at least one measure.

Results of water quality monitoring on the Mohawk River by SUNY Cobleskill on August 2, 2016.

Results of water quality monitoring on the Mohawk River by SUNY Cobleskill on August 2, 2016.

The weighted average of the same previously sampled sites sampled was 1,522 – compared to averages of 130 and 60 at the same sites as the spill continued.

VIEW AN INTERACTIVE MAP OF WATER QUALITY SAMPLING RESULTS FOR THE MOHAWK RIVER.

To put it in context, “average” contamination after the pipe was fixed, but after heavy rain was 11-25 times greater at the 10 sites sampled from Amsterdam to Waterford.

Imagine how much sewage must be spilled to flood the Mohawk with enough sewage to out-contaminate a raging sewage pipe break by 25 times!

That’s not to say that the pipe break wasn’t a significant environmental and public health issue that warranted immediate intervention. But the overall state of our infrastructure is so poor that a clear and present hazard such as that pales in comparison to the contamination that results from a summer thunderstorm.

We’ve seen this same pattern play out as we’ve sampled the Hudson and its other tributaries.

Both problems – the catastrophic sewer line break, and the routine rain-caused catastrophe – are the result of inadequate investment in the maintenance of our water infrastructure. As Amsterdam officials have said publicly, these investments are expensive, and small and impoverished communities struggle to pay for ongoing maintenance, leading to greater expense when the water main breaks, causing a sink hole to swallow a car and erode a canyon in a city street (as happened in Albany a few days ago), or a century-old sewer line finally ruptures.

The Governor and Legislature have put $400 million into a three-year grant program for drinking water and wastewater investments, thanks to advocacy by Riverkeeper and a coalition of partners. Our task is to increase the available funding, and make sure it is sustained into the future. According to the EPA’s latest Clean Watersheds Needs Survey, the documented need for sewer infrastructure fixes in Mohawk River counties alone tops $500 million.

We have documented excellent water quality at times in the Mohawk River. It’s our job to protect and restore it.

SUNY Cobleskill’s sampling is made possible in 2016 by a grant from the NYS Environmental Protection Fund, via the Mohawk River Basin Program.

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