How’s the Water? Contaminated.

| August 9, 2011 12:10 PM

A pipe overflows during a rainstorm in Orangetown, N.Y. According to Riverkeeper, even half an inch of rain fall can overwhelm sewage treatment facilities on the Hudson. Photo courtesy of Riverkeeper.

You might want to put that kayak in storage sooner rather than later this summer.

Riverkeeper, a clean water advocacy group vice-chaired by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., released a report on sewage contamination in the Hudson River on Tuesday indicating that the waterway was contaminated from the New York Harbor to above the Troy dam, nearly 160 miles north of New York City.

Riverkeeper’s findings indicate the Hudson failed the EPA’s guidelines for what constitutes safe swimming conditions 21 percent of the time. On average, bodies of water in the U.S. do not meet the standard only 7 percent of the time.

The contamination report comes on the heels of fire at a sewage treatment plant on July 20 that spilled over 200 million gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson River on one of the hottest days of the summer. It took three days to stop the leak, which unleashed noxious smells across Manhattan’s west side and closed four city beaches.

But did you know raw sewage seeps into the Hudson every time it rains more than half an inch, and that, according to the Department of Environmental Protection, 800 million gallons spew into the river annually from the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant alone? To put that in perspective, one million-gallons of liquid is equal to a swimming pool about 267 feet long (almost as long as a football field), 50 feet wide and 10 feet deep, according to the United States Geological Survey. ”Eeeew,” among other onomatopoeic descriptions.

The recent 200 plus million gallon sewage spill in New York City is only a minor part of widespread contamination that regularly occurs in the Hudson.
—John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper

The Riverkeeper report is based off of a study that has been conducted annually since 2006, and involves collecting 2,000 samples from 75 locations throughout the 155-mile long Hudson River estuary.

“Our findings show that while water quality in the Hudson has greatly improved in recent years we still have a significant problem with sewage contamination,” said John Lipscomb, Riverkeeper boat captain, in the report. “The recent 200 plus million gallon sewage spill in New York City is only a minor part of widespread contamination that regularly occurs in the Hudson.”

Riverkeeper’s other findings include:

  • Because the Department of Environmental Protection averages its data seasonally, the announced results are cumulative, so specific incidents of severe contamination aren’t publicly reported.
  • The percent of unacceptable water samples increased from 9 percent in dry weather to 32 percent during wet weather conditions. It is unknown how long increased contamination remains following a rain, flood or snowstorm.
  • The DEP has classified the Hudson waterways north of the Bronx as safe for swimming, despite evidence which suggests otherwise.

Illustration of a Combined Sewage Overflow. During wet weather events, CSOs mix raw sewage with stormwater, a combination which gets poured into the river. Image courtesy of Riverkeeper.

        Water data has been collected in New York City since 1909, according to Riverkeeper, but there was no regular testing for sewage contamination that crossed county lines until this study began in 2006.

        It’s widely known that the Hudson has been severely contaminated since New York’s shores were still predominantly sites of heavy industrialism. But after the Clean Water Act of 1972, New York City set a goal of making the river swimmable by 2009. That goal has not been met, to say the least.

        In order to reach the new goal for a swimmable Hudson River– 2020 — Riverkeeper provided a list of recommendations for sanitizing the Hudson, which include:

        • All Hudson River counties should perform weekly testing and inform the public of the results.
        • The state should pass a law requiring immediate public notification of contamination.
        • The state and city governments should create stronger waste-water infrastructure.
        • Since contamination on the Hudson is often attributable to specific locations, it can often be dealt with at the local level. Communities should make efforts to pursue stronger water-sanitation initiatives.

        The report also identified the most contaminated tributaries of the Hudson, and Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek made this list. The winner, however, was Sparkill Creek in Sparkill, New York, which contained an 86 percent contamination rate.

        A considerable source of the contamination results from Combines Sewage Overflows (CSOs), early infrastructure which involves a large pipe-structure that mixes storm water with raw sewage and shoots it directly into the river in the event of a storm…or half an inch of rain. Replacing CSOs with more sanitary solutions, however, is extremely costly.

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