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River swim draws attention to fecal contamination in Hudson River waterways

Jenna Flanagan/New York Now/Innovation Trail

  The dog days of summer are sizzling New York making water recreation more tempting than ever. The Hudson River is much cleaner than it was and the Innovation Trail’s Jenna Flanagan talks to advocates working to help the public determine what contamination it left.

“New York State’s waterways have come a long way. What used to be casual dumping grounds for corporations and municipalities have slowly gotten cleaned up thanks to the pioneering efforts of environmental groups like Riverkeeper. But they’re not done yet, Riverkeeper is hoping to use the public’s squeemishness over the idea of sewage or fecal matter in the waters that they fish boat and swim in as a jumping off point to spur more state spending for river clean up.”

(Video after the jump. Starts at 17:00)

“If you get sick, you don’t get one kind of sick in one kind of poop or another kind of sick in another kind of poop, you just get sick.”

Captain Lipscomb doesn’t mince words when talking about sewage contamination. It’s the focus of Riverkeepers latest report titled; How’s the Water: Fecal Contamination in the Hudson River and its Tributaries.

Before you turn the channel in disgust, consider this; New York State’s creeks and rivers, especially the Hudson are becoming as much of a recreation and tourist draw as its land based parks. So ensuring their safety, for humans, is in everyone’s interest.

Lipscomb’s boat cruises up and down the Hudson River collecting water samples to test for contamination. Because the Hudson is only as healthy as its tributaries, I met up with Captain Lipscomb for Riverkeeper’s first ever sampling of the Mohawk River in Amsterdam.

“We’re looking for a specific microbe called enterococcus which is in all warm blooded animals and it has been designated by the EPA as the fecal indicated bacteria that you test for to see if water is swimmable.”

Riverkeeper, with the help of a team of volunteers, tests water samples from 74 locations within the Hudson River estuary and for the most part the river is safe to swim in. But results vary from location to location, and according to Riverkeeper one area has the most fecal contamination.

“The Capital District has been really bad. The number of samples that fail, our samples that fail in the Capital District exceeds New York City.”

If that’s hard to swallow, extenuating circumstances contribute to the poo.

The Troy Dam creates an estuarine effect in the river at the tri-cities and tributaries that pass through farmland and wilderness pick up animal feculence on their way to the Hudson. But it’s the combined sewer overflow that exacerbate the contamination.

“We’re certainly aware of the water quality in this region. We’ve done a significant amount of research to document where it’s highest and come up with a list of projects and programs to document those issues. We think we’ve got a really great and robust plan, the DEC accepted that plan in 2014, and they’ve been very successful at leveraging private and public dollars in investment in our waste water treatment facilities.”

Six Capital Region communities, Albany, Watervliet, Green Island, Rensselaer, Troy and Cahoes have come together with the Albany and Rensselaer County sewer districts to keep as much of the human excrement out of the river as possible.

At the Albany County Sewer District’s South Wastewater Treatment Facility, 23-million gallons of effluent is processed every day and if it rains the system can handle as much as 45-million gallons of wastewater before being discharged into the Hudson River.

Solid waste gets separated and incinerated at the North Treatment Facility and at the South Facility disinfection is done with state of the art Ultra-Violet light system.

“The disinfection goes a long way to improving water quality. The treatment plants being the largest discharger of water to the river, the bacteria count will noticeably decline with these systems coming on line. So this is a very good investment in water quality for the future.”

That investment of nearly 10-million dollars for Ultra Violet disinfection systems at both counties treatment centers was part of the ‘Pool’ communities Long Term Control Plan to clean up the river. The UV system is good at destroying 95-percent of fecal chloroform, also known as ecoli, but they don’t yet test for enterococcus, the bacteria Riverkeeper is looking for.

This system genuinely works except for when there’s a heavy rain and the treatment systems 45-million gallon threshold is overwhelmed causing a CSO or Combined Sewage Overflow, where treated and untreated waste water gets dumped into the river.

“By reducing the amount of CSO discharges we’re gonna play a significant impact into the health of the river. Not only for the bacteria that you mentioned but also what I call floatables, its garbage that enterers the system. It washes into the storm drain during a rain event there’s nowhere else to go and there’s no direct pipe to the land fill for the garbage so a lot of times it’ll get discharged to the CSO outfalls and it’ll end up in river, so we’re working to address that as well and significantly capture a lot of that garbage that would otherwise wash into our water bodies.”

Combined Sewer Overflows can happen to any community and are most common in cities like New York, were 426-million gallons street runoff mixed with untreated sewer gets dumped into lower Hudson, Long Island Sound and Jamaica Bay.

It’s because of these types of river dumps that the state passed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law in 2013. It requires public treatment works and sewer systems to alert the Department of Environmental Conservation and the public when sewage is released into waterways.

Public notification takes place through N-Y-Alert, an email system that would notify the public within 4 hours of a discharge.

Joe DiMura, DEC Director of the Bureau of Water Compliance is holding public meetings around the state to inform and take comment on the sewage alert system.

With 62 communities and 850 points of combined sewer discharge, New York will likely always have some sort of CSO’s but communities are now required to come up with their own overflow plans.

“We’re hoping that with the right to know awareness will build advocacy for funding of waste water treatment plant improvement, these sewage releases happen for a reason in many cases the combined sewer issue that we just chatted about, it takes a lot of money.”

In the meantime, Riverkeeper will continue to patrol the Hudson River and its tributaries for pollution.

“Our hope is that that engagement on that issue will lead to engagement on the other issues that the rivers actually need the public to care about, like chemical pollution, pharmaceutical pollution, traditional industrial pollution all those things that really don’t affect swimming so much but really affect the habitat value for aquatic organisms, which is what a river really is, it’s a living giant organism.”

TAG: To sign up to receive sewage spill notifications, visit NYalert-dot-gov. For Capital Region residents, who want to know more about the efforts of the 6 communities of Albany Pool, visit Albany-pool.org.

Jenna first knew she was destined for a career in journalism after following the weekly reports of the Muppet News Flash as a child. In high school she wrote for her student newspaper and attended a journalism camp at SUNY New Paltz, her Hudson Valley hometown. Jenna then went on to study communications and journalism at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ where she earned her Bachelor of Arts.
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