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.