Hudson River tributaries chart from “How’s the Water?”. (Credit: Riverkeeper.)
Starting in 2008, the Riverkeeper of New York’s Hudson River Watershed began a research collaboration with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and CUNY Queens College. These core participants recruited individual scientists in various New York communities and partner organizations to aid them in their water quality mission. The team began taking water quality samples from the Hudson River Estuary—in total, more than 8,200 were taken over time. They also culled data on water infrastructure from the Environmental Facilities Corporation and the Department of Environmental Conservation.
After careful analysis of samples and other data over the years of this massive study, the Riverkeeper presented the findings of this undertaking in November 2017. The team found that 21 percent of their samples taken from the Hudson River Estuary failed to meet federal guidelines for safe swimming. 44 municipally owned wastewater treatment plants discharge into the Estuary, and untreated sewage is at times placing recreational users and drinking water at risk.
Although the water is safe in most places most of the time, failing infrastructure cannot handle wastewater demands, and this is resulting in leaks and overflows of raw sewage into the waters of the Hudson Estuary. The final conclusion: to ensure safe water in the Hudson River Watershed, a $4.8 billion investment into wastewater infrastructure is essential—an investment that will demand coordinated action at the local, state, and federal levels.
From the Adirondack Mountains in the north, the Hudson River flows over 300 miles toward the New York Harbor where it meets the sea. Throughout the lower portion, between the Harbor and Troy, New York, it is an estuary; the Atlantic Ocean’s tides hold sway over the waters. The watershed of the Hudson, which includes numerous smaller rivers and creeks and the lands they cover, cut through, and drain, also includes pieces of four Northeastern states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont—plus about one-quarter of New York State.
The Hudson River Estuary provides drinking water for more than 100,000 people. It lies at the heart of a vast coastal ecosystem, supporting wildlife and recreational pursuits throughout the region. It is also central to the local economy’s $4.4 billion tourism industry.
However, the Hudson and its surroundings have been struggling for years. For 30 years until 1977, General Electric dispensing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into its waters, harming wildlife and people who drank the water or consumed fish from the river. General Motors dumped paint into the water until the CWA was passed. Until 1986, 150 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into the Hudson River from Manhattan every single day.
The fact that the river has recovered to the extent it has is direct proof of the importance of regulation and investment into infrastructure. Polluters such as General Electric and General Motors have ceased their polluting activities in compliance with the law. GE dredged the river for PCBs for years as part of the cleanup effort. A court monitors these efforts, thanks in part to a Superfund designation. The North River Sewage Plant began operations, ceasing the flow of raw sewage from Manhattan.
Now, however, aging infrastructure threatens the Hudson Watershed, and this is the focus of the Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Program. Dan Shapley, the program’s director, coordinates this community science effort, which is the largest of its kind. As director, Shapley oversees sampling for water quality in hundreds of spots throughout the watershed, to ensure the public knows where and when they can safely swim, and to protect drinking water.
Along with the need for investment into infrastructure, one of the major takeaways from the 2017 Riverkeeper report, “How’s the Water?”, is that there is more than one way to answer this question. This suggests the dynamism inherent to water quality issues, especially those in a region like this one, where so many stakeholders are invested in the outcome.
“People care deeply about water quality where they live and visit, so they are generally eager to understand as much as possible about the water quality at particular places,” explains Shapley. “The fact that water quality varies from place to place also reinforces the fact that many of the water quality problems identified by our Hudson River Estuary study can be solved with local action. That is empowering. In our tributaries, the solutions are often much more complex, because they involve work at a watershed scale, with multiple municipalities. But where we have documented problems with water quality in the Hudson River itself, the solutions are typically near at hand.”
The primary main focus of the monitoring is Enterococcus (Entero), which are fecal indicator bacteria. This is a useful measure because there are well-established protocols for measuring Entero, and clear federal criteria that connect their presence to water quality. Sewage-related pathogens like those signaled by the presence of Entero are the top source of illness arising from recreational water use, although of course a host of other pollutants may be present in water.
To get a sense of just how much aging infrastructure contributes to the presence of Entero in the Hudson, and the impact that state of the art treatment systems, sewer pipes, and stormwater systems would have on the problem, Shapley describes the dual-edged sword that accompanies New York State’s history of taking initiative in this realm.
“New York State is home to both the nation’s first drinking water treatment plant in Poughkeepsie, 1872, and wastewater plant with secondary treatment in Gloversville, 1907,” Shapley details. “That speaks to the historic leadership New York State has shown on clean water issues—embodied also in the 1965 Pure Waters Bond Act, a $1 billion investment approved by voters that would be equivalent to $7.8 billion in today’s dollars, and most recently the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017.”
These are certainly impressive steps taken to protect the people and the water of the state—but they also signal another problem.
“This also demonstrates just how old some of our pipes and other infrastructure are,” Shapley points out. “Sewer pipes laid in 1907 will fail, and in Gloversville, they did just that in 2017, resulting in a spill that prompted the mayor to urge the public not to come into contact with the Cayadutta Creek for a period of time. The bottom line here is this: the infrastructure investments we made a generation or more ago were not built to last 1,000 years. Those systems must be rebuilt and rehabilitated, and the age of our wastewater infrastructure is one of the most important causes of discharges.”
Infrastructure overflows are an even more serious problem for the watershed. Some older systems overflow because the population growth that occurred was never anticipated; others overflow because of blockages, or because of unusually wet weather that is becoming more common with extreme weather events.
“The arguably larger cause of water quality problems comes from infrastructure that was designed to overflow,” Shapley remarks. “Many of our oldest communities rely on combined sewers that carry both stormwater and sewage, so when it rains, this mix of sewage and street water overflows directly to our waterways. New York City discharges at about 440 points, called Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), and another 210 CSOs are present upstream in river cities and villages on the Hudson and Mohawk rivers.”
These CSOs potentially contain stormwater, untreated human sewage, debris, toxic materials, and anything else that gets into the wastewater.
Ultimately, the collaboration between scientists, members of the community, and others will hopefully prompt the action needed to repair these failings.
“The ultimate goal is to galvanize the public and decision-makers to take care of our river and its tributaries,” Shapley clarifies. “The project helps to fill a data gap, and that data helps to prioritize infrastructure investments. But it’s really the people that drive change. Community science lets us both gather relevant data, and demonstrate that people desire better water quality. Those two, together, drive change.”
And while it’s never easy to convince policymakers to spend large amounts of money, the team is hoping that the extensive data contained in the report will speak for itself.
“Our scientists have always counseled us to ‘let the data do the talking,’ and in large part, that strategy has served us well, and the data has earned the respect of many decision-makers,” Shapley adds. “We still have challenges though.”
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges—and successes—is inspiring more citizen scientists to get and stay involved in the causes around them.
“Become compulsive about crossing bridges,” Shapley urges. “Get to know the streams and creeks that are part of your daily life, whether they are in your neighborhood or on your commute to work, or elsewhere. Figure out where they flow from, and where they flow to. Adopt them. Take care of them.”
Top image: Sewage “floatables” from overflow into Hudson River. (Credit: Riverkeeper.)