Summer is heating up and the water is beckoning. A typical afternoon might see a group of kayakers cruising out of the mouth of the creek, a couple of people upright on stand-up paddle boards gliding across the surface of the water, a dog fetching a stick along the shore and children splashing in the shallows.
Recently, on a warm Friday afternoon, a handful of folks boarded the R. Ian Fletcher carrying coolers of ice. They were not embarking on a boat trip, and the coolers did not contain their favorite beverages. These were citizen scientists delivering water samples to the Riverkeeper patrol boat for lab analysis. They want to know the answer to the perennial question, “How’s the water?”
Environmental watchdog Riverkeeper is working towards the goal of a more swimmable Hudson River, one that is clean enough for recreation along its entire length throughout the year. To monitor water quality, the patrol boat is outfitted with a mobile laboratory, including an incubator for processing water samples. Once a month from May to October, patrol boat captain John Libscomb collects and analyzes samples at 74 sites along the tidal Hudson, testing for fecal contamination. Local volunteers extend the effort beyond the tidewater by sampling major tributaries such as the Esopus Creek. At key locations, they wade into flowing streams to fill small plastic bottles, which are handed off to Mr. Libscomb for processing.
In time for summer swimming and boating season, Riverkeeper has just published its annual report on the water quality of the Hudson River and its tributaries, a synopsis of its water sampling efforts. Expanding on the core study of the Hudson, it is the first-ever detailed reporting of results from samples gathered by community scientists in the Catskill, Esopus, Rondout and other major tributaries. The publication represents the coordinated efforts of concerned citizens from all walks of life who are passionate about their local waterways.
With results compiled from several years of sampling, there’s a lot of information to digest in the report. Fortunately, the findings are summarized for easy reference, and data is displayed in easy-to-understand bar graphs. Mr. Libscomb often repeats the mantra, “Let the data speak for itself,” a cautionary reminder not to speculate or prematurely jump to conclusions about test results. From a practical standpoint, the report is a helpful guide for anyone planning the where and when of a visit to a local waterway. It also identifies ways to improve the health of our favorite streams.
What does the report tell us? The good news is that our stretch of river is getting cleaner, but more work needs to be done to attain the goal of making our local waterways consistently swimmable. This latest report puts a finer point on earlier results showing greater contamination in tributaries than in the main stem Hudson and that stormwater runoff increases contamination. These findings emphasize the need for a watershed approach to clean water. A watershed vision looks at the entire drainage basin from river bottom to ridge tops to understand what is happening on the lands and streams that flow to the river.
Of the six tributaries samples by community scientists, Catskill Creek and Esopus Creek fared the best. That’s not to say that these passed with flying colors. For instance, several sites normally meet safe swim standards during the summer, but contamination levels often spike after heavy rainstorms.
The results rarely point towards a particular culprit or source of contamination. Potential sources of contamination are diffuse: street runoff, rural septic systems, livestock and wildlife. Additional testing may help to diagnose the problems and identify areas for improvement. Just as often, the testing raises as many questions as it answers. For example, failing samples near the confluence of the Saw Kill raise questions about what’s draining from farther upland and upstream. Again, this underscores the need for a watershed approach that looks beyond the river banks to the entire drainage basin.
This report offers a reminder about how we all can help keep our streams healthy and clean. Here a few things that we as individuals and communities can do: don’t flush anything but toilet paper so as not to foul up septic and sewer systems, clean up pet waste from yards, plant buffers of trees and shrubs along streams to filter pollutants, and schedule regular inspections and maintenance for privately owned septic systems. We can also join Riverkeeper in their call for the state to re-invest in the wastewater infrastructure and clean water enforcement.
Gradually, people are rediscovering their waterways. More folks are venturing into the water— paddling, swimming, splashing. All this renewed activity on the river highlights the value of clean water. It also creates momentum towards the goal of making the water safer and healthier for recreation. Hopefully, as more people enter the water, more will be inspired to become caretakers of this shared resource. To see the water sampling results and learn how to support this effort, visit riverkeeper.org.
Patrick Landewe is the Saugerties Lighthouse keeper. His column appears monthly.