Is the Wallkill safe? ‘It depends’, says Riverkeeper

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

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

Heavy rain events and seasonal changes all impact the safety of Wallkill River water. No matter where you dip your toes in near New Paltz, it is swimmer or fisherman beware.

Representatives from the water quality advocacy group Riverkeeper delivered a presentation to the New Paltz town and village board members on April 24.


Since May 2012, Riverkeeper volunteers have been taking water samples near the Plains Road boat launch, near Saw Mill Brook on the SUNY New Paltz campus, at the Springtown Road boat launch and in the stream near the Stewart’s gas station on Route 32.

While water quality was better on the Wallkill both north and south of the college town, for some unidentified reason New Paltz’s water has higher levels of fecal pollution.

The tests looked for enterococcus bacteria per 100 mL of water. The microbes indicate the presence of either animal or human feces.

Zero to 60 enterococcus bugs per 100 mL is fine for swimming or fishing. Beach advisories are set between 61-110 entero per 100 mL. And pretty much every scientific authority agrees that water with more than 111 entero per 100 mL is completely unacceptable.

Wallkill water — and the water of its tributaries — failed often. However, in general, the boat launches on Plains and Springtown roads had sometimes swimmable water on a handful of occasions. Days after rainfall of more than one-quarter inch were consistently worse.

Between May 26, 2012 and Oct. 26, 2013, water near the Plains Road boat launch fell into the “unacceptable” range nine times, one time it triggered a beach advisory and only two times did Riverkeeper’s data find it swimmable.

In the same period, Springtown Road boat launch water was unacceptable 10 times, had a beach advisory once and was safe to swim in just once.

Saw Mill Brook failed all 12 times, by earning an unacceptable status 11 times and a beach advisory status once.

The tributary to the Wallkill near Stewart’s failed consistently too. It earned one safe-water status but 10 unacceptable statuses between June 2012 and October 2013.

Normally, Riverkeeper’s testing equipment maxes out at 2,420-plus enterococcus per 100 mL. But a special test can be performed to see exactly how bad the problem actually is.

Water near both boat launches was found to have a 10,462 entero count when that special test was applied in September 2012. That’s bad, but Riverkeeper has found some polluted water to have a record 60,000 to 80,000 in entero count.

Representatives from Riverkeeper did not know where the sources of pollution stemmed from. It’s also possible that the tributaries have high pollution levels because they’re shallower and have less an opportunity to dilute the escaped fecal matter.

But the mystery isn’t solved: Riverkeeper told New Paltz government officials more testing and detective work is required to pinpoint polluters.

People in the audience expressed concern that New Paltz’s municipal waste treatment center on Huguenot Street might be to blame for the problems. Mayor Jason West said he doesn’t think that’s the case.

Village of New Paltz is under a consent order from the Department of Environmental Conservation to clean up its aged sewer system. However, they’ve been working to fix it for about 10 years. In 2012 and 2013 the village received two $600,000 grants from New York State to pay for sewer work.

In 2014, they’re going for another New York Community Development Block Grant — this time for $783,000 — again to repair the sewer.

“The sewer plant does flood when we get like Hurricane Irene-type storms or a couple of heavy thunderstorms,” West said. But those events aren’t every day.

Typically, when working correctly, the sewer plant is not a contributor to pollution. “It depends on how much rain we get. I know that in dry, normal operating weather, the water that leaves our plant is cleaner than what’s in the Wallkill,” the mayor added.

Trustee Ariana Basco told neighbors not to eat food from the New Paltz Gardens for Nutrition, which neighbors the sewer plant, if there has been a large flood where vegetables have been submerged in water. That food would likely be contaminated with fecal bacteria, she added.

Several concerned neighbors came to listen to the presentation. One group, Save the Wallkill, is trying to get the river recognized as polluted.

According to Richard Picone, of Save the Wallkill, that action could force state and federal officials to help remediate the river.

“It’s going to give us visibility at the EPA level. If for example, the Town of New Paltz may need to get funds to upgrade its treatment plant, by having it on that list it will be considered more important,” Picone said.

Town Councilman Daniel Torres volunteered to be the official point person for Wallkill River pollution. He’d like to get environmentalists in surrounding towns talking to each other to tackle the issue. Together the communities affected by Wallkill pollution can make a difference, he said.

“This is not something that we as a singular community can do,” Torres said. “It’s one thing for our community to do that, but it’s another thing to have 10 different towns that have different representatives that speak to that.”

To look at all the Wallkill River data for yourself, head to