Study shows a mostly swimmable Hudson River
U.S. Water News Online
NEW YORK — The Hudson River is scenic, historic — but swimmable?
Yes, much of the time, though dirty rainwater and raw sewage still contaminate parts of New York state's iconic waterway after decades of cleanup efforts, an environmental group said.
"The river is still safe to swim in most times in most places, but when it's not safe, it's very unsafe," said Alex Matthiessen, president of the Hudson preservation organization Riverkeeper.
The group is taking water-quality samples along the river and ultimately hopes to provide up-to-the-minute guidance on where and when it's safe to swim and kayak.
For years, those questions weren't worth asking. The picturesque waterway Henry Hudson explored in 1609 was fouled by cities and industries along its banks in the 1900s.
"The whole river was an open sewer," said Frances Dunwell, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Hudson River estuary coordinator. "Just about everything society wanted to get rid of or not think about would go to the shores of the Hudson because it was so polluted, and now it's just the opposite."
A 1965 state initiative and the 1972 federal Clean Water Act spurred better sewage treatment and other efforts to stanch pollution, markedly improving the river's health. Now, swimming races are held from Manhattan's Hudson piers. Dunwell takes dips at a Hudson beach in upstate Kingston.
Still, the river doesn't have a spotless bill of health. More than 7 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Hudson in Yonkers, just north of New York City, after a tree fell and broke a sewer pipe in May 2007.
And rain runoff tinged with household wastewater empties into the Hudson and related waterways when storms overload New York City's sewer system, which dates to the 19th century and combines stormwater and sewage. The city is working to lessen the discharges, which now total about 25 billion gallons a year.
Riverkeeper and Columbia University scientists took monthly samples from September 2006 to September 2007 along a 40-mile stretch of the river and some connected waterways, such as New York City's East and Harlem rivers. The 27 sampling spots stretched from New York Harbor to Peekskill, in northern Westchester County.
Riverkeeper has extended its tests this year as far upstate as Waterford, about 150 miles from New York City. The 2006-07 results show the water is "generally acceptable" on dry days in the river's midst, away from dirtier areas near the shore.
But more than three-quarters of the sampling stations failed federal safe-swimming standards at some times, often after rain. In the wake of a July 2006 storm, one reading under the George Washington Bridge hit 15 times the federal Environmental Protection Agency limit for a type of sewage-linked bacteria, Riverkeeper said.
Contamination lingered for as long as 10 days off Westchester after a record-setting April 2007 downpour drenched the area with more than 7.5 inches of rain in a day, the report said.
The study also found some chronic trouble spots, including Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, two infamously polluted waterways in industrial parts of New York City.
The city Department of Environmental Protection is upgrading a wastewater plant at the creek and working to trim combined rain-and-sewage releases into the canal and other waterways, Deputy Commissioner Doug Greeley said. Sewage generally accounts for 5 percent or less of the discharges, he said.
"We are taking a very hard look at trying to control (them)," Greeley said.
Riverkeeper's research doesn't establish where contaminants are coming from, but some possible culprits are clear. The study spotlighted consistent problems, for example, near the pier in the Rockland County community of Piermont. Two sewer plants dump treated wastewater by the pier, said Thom Kleiner, the supervisor in the surrounding Town of Orangetown.
Orangetown is finishing a $46 million overhaul of one of the plants. "Our expectation," Kleiner said, "is that when that's completed, the water quality will improve."
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