Wallkill River found to have high fecal pollution levels

wallkill HZT

The Wallkill River in New Paltz. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

On the wall in Town Hall in New Paltz are five charts emblazoned with a central scarlet column. Occasionally, but not often, those red lines are broken up by a glint of yellow or green. Next to the charts is a stern warning — the Wallkill River is not to be used for fishing, swimming, boating or drinking.

The chart, featuring data from 2012 on fecal pollution in the north-flowing river, was compiled by the environmental group Riverkeeper. According to John Lipscomb, the group’s water quality sampling manager, the results for 2013 to date are worse.


“The Wallkill results so far this year are dramatic and upsetting,” Lipscomb said. “Every single sample site — every single one — exceeded the ability of our onboard system to count.”

In two tests from June — one early in the month and one later on — the Wallkill River failed for fecal pollution at every testing site. The test looks for Enterococcus, a bacteria present in human and animal feces. The germ, which is easy to test for, works as a stand-in for other pathogens present in raw sewage or fertilizer runoff.

The Environmental Protection Agency asks beach managers to declare an official beach closure when a test shows 60 units of Enterococci per 100 milliliters.

Riverkeeper’s two tests in 2013 found that the Wallkill had at least 40 times that level of pollution. Their onboard system only measures up to 2420 units per 100 milliliters, so the results from June read “>2420” over and over again.

The group also tested the Rondout, Esopus and Catskill creeks, finding that they also suffered from fecal pollution. Like the Wallkill, the Rondout displayed shocking numbers.


New Paltz’s dirty secret

Lurking very close to Water Street in the village, winding all through town, is a river. That river is also a problem that local officials aren’t sure how to fix.

Mayor Jason West, who has long been troubled by pollution in the Wallkill, called it a “backward-running poison river.” It’s an unacknowledged, longstanding problem in the community — looming but not discussed.

“Everyone in New Paltz is terrified of that river,” West said. “The river’s poisoned by a death from 1,000 cuts.”

Unusual for many rivers, the Wallkill flows north to the Hudson. But that means it carries along with it any pollution — fecal and chemical — picked up from New Jersey to New Paltz and beyond.

In the village, problems with the sewer system aren’t anything new. Aged pipes have cracks or get backed up. Flooding like what happened after Hurricane Irene basically overtops New Paltz’s sewage treatment plant off of Huguenot Street, letting loose a deluge of excrement.

Heavy rain backs up pipes — like those on Water Street — causing what the mayor unceremoniously called “these geysers of shit.”

But New Paltz has also labored to correct that problem. Municipal leaders have done what they can with limited finances. They’ve searched for grants.

“We do about $500,000 in repairs a year — and have for years — but there’s still flow. I know we’re on top of it. We’re under a consent order with the DEC that Riverkeeper was a part of. We’re diligent about it,” he said. “I don’t know what the other communities are between here and New Jersey. There could be lots of situations.”

Kitty Brown, a town councilwoman, said she sees a big problem with the Wallkill but is unsure of what the local governments can do to correct it. She’s spent her career in government fighting for the environment.

“Contamination has been a problem for quite a while,” Brown said. “I don’t know. I just feel so overwhelmed by the question.”

Brown said she recalled swimming with her friends in the Wallkill back in the late 1970s near the grist mill.

“I remember once we were with a bunch of little kids — I was a little kid practically myself then — and they swallowed a bunch of water. And we were like, ‘Oh my god, what’s in this water?’ We took it up to the Ulster County Health Department and actually had a water test done. And it was perfectly potable,” she said.

It was shocking. Even at the grist mill, with heavy industrial use, the water was clean.

Cut to 1995, when Jason West first came to SUNY New Paltz as an undergraduate, and something about the perception of cleanliness had changed. “I heard ‘don’t touch it’ from the day I got here,” the mayor said.

Despite the river’s bad reputation and the jokes it prompts, New Paltzians rally once a year for the Regatta — an event during which people race oddball, homemade boats down the river. More often than not, they capsize.

“The Regatta is like some weird holiday where all the sudden everything is forgiven. You can go swimming in the Wallkill. No one’s bothered. Everyone’s in it,” he said.

People seem to gather at the Regatta not just for fun, but also for a bout of collective amnesia about the water’s cleanliness.

There are 15 comments

  1. Ron Turner

    The amount the village received in their successful grant application was $600,000 from the State and even then when they had the money and had used my stuff they took a powder? Small claims court, it was.

  2. Ron Turner

    As for Kitty Brown, all I can remember is how the Two Steves Project got stopped by the federal government for filling in wetlands. Who was that? Environmentalist? Not.

  3. Ron Turner

    As for the Town supervisor, she has no political will or integrity to scratch the town assessor King for being withoutcapacity and judgment; nor rid the board of assessment review of the members with conflicts of interest?

  4. Ron Turner

    As the town is complicit with defrauding the residential property tax payer, so is the Village of New Paltz concomitant. All the information sent by the Village Planning Board via the Village Building Department to the Town assessor is out and out fraud. I just published a list of 164 SBL numbers, all commercial lodging services with STAR exemptions granted by the incompetent assessor. That means thatnot only is the town committing fraud, they rely on the village to help them defraud the residential property tax payer. Did I say the word “fraud” yet?
    Am I the only person in the county who has read the entire folder in the Humidor at the Elting Private Library about “sewage” and also read the Ulster County Health Department Sewerage report of 1970 and also looked into the scatalogic rites of all nations, which is what your jumping into the waters with white mice and brown trout is all about? Must be.

  5. Ron Turner

    It was in Zimmie’s last term of the last century that the lady who owned a house with a parking space above the spouting manholes of Water Street across from Rugerr’s factory showed up at a Town board meeting to complain about the very same manhole being spouted about here. What kind of 10 year cycle are we on here? Every decade the same people Brown and Zimet and His Nibs say the same old thing: “What, us worry?”. They are there in office to protect the status quo and that is it. I think better to address the “Toilet Paper Gap Amongst All Nations” than local politicians wiping their collective ass with the State Constitution? Did I say that right?

  6. Ron Turner

    Regarding His Nib’s vulgar words of language: four letter words are easy; it’s finding your way around them that counts.

  7. Ron Turner

    Steve Vermille and Steve Ruelke, the Two Steves’ Project. Filled in the wetlands over by 32 south across from the university; a government agency stopped them from any more filling in of protected wetlands the assessed value dropped to $5,000 an acre until everybody forgot about the government intervention; and His Nib’s government approved Sifffre buildig 300 toilets to connect to a sewer system that overflows on Main Street at the Village line two blocks away. Vermille.And that was all within the last 10 year since the “Intent to sue” by the Riverkeepers.

  8. Ron Turner

    Next: extending the commercial lodging services to North Chestnut by tearing down old buildings and putting in more toilets down the rail trail because the sewer system in the street is under pressure originating at Town and County apartments next to town hall. Grants will be sought to put sewer lines in for the developers of more commercial lodging services which pay no commercial property tax rate, recreation fees and not assessed for value by income capitalization, as the Town assessor is too stupid anyways. Even the first entry of the first page of the first book, assessment book that is, is wrong. But don’t get me started? Too late.

  9. Ron Turner

    Cloacina, Goddess of the Sewers, should be the next farcical aquatic even in the New Paltz River as long as the fecal matter floats. “Cloaca Maxima”, Rome’s greatest sewer, can’t hold a tissue to the Walkill River these days.

  10. Ron Turner

    The article doesn’t say that on the the tributary that carries the raw sewage under Wurts Street to Rugger’s Hole, there is a black graveyard from the Mt. Zion Church. That’s where the first pipes for sewers always go in, right through many a black graveyard. Except the one on Huguenot Street I discovered last century by following the sewer lines that, well, that’s another story for another day. Good find, though, a real good find.

  11. Ron Schneider

    I bet the pristine (potable) waters where Kitty Brown swam in the 1970’s “near the grist mill”, was likely the Shawngunkill and not the Wallkill. In the 1970’s a swimming hole behind where Connie’s Bar once stood was a popular spot (near the Albany Post Road overpass of the Shawngunkill and near the grist mill).

    1. Ron Turner

      You are right. In fact, I believe she hit her head on rock at the time and the “New Paltz News” (the “other” New Paltz newspaper; now defunct) ran an article about it?

  12. Ron Schneider

    No commentary intended by me — just a nostalgic trip into the 1970’s. I’ve lost count of the number of folks who dunked in Connie’s swimming hole back then and incorrectly thought they were swimming in the Wallkill. Memories of a proximity to the grist mill is the give-away here – the grist mill operated from the waters of the Shawngunkill, not the Wallkill. And regardless of where she swam, I suspect Kitty’s head is just fine.

    1. ron Turner

      After 10 years of videotaping every town board meeting from 1998 to 2008, with Brown on it all the time, I can assure you, it is not. (10×52 meetings plus other events would be about 600 quorums. And that is just the Town Board video-tapings.)

  13. ray

    Shawangunk is the one by the Gristmill. Kids jump off the overpass into the water. Crazy. Cant fish with them punks there. Water’s green. I wouldn’t swim in it.

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