Fifty years ago, most Hudson Valley residents thought that the river that runs through it was a lost cause. The closest they normally came to it was crossing it on a bridge in their cars. But then an unusual thing happened: People started using the Hudson for recreation, and started caring about it more as a result. In the ensuing years, cleanup efforts by thousands of concerned residents have yielded a river that is swimmable in many places and provides drinking water to some of the communities along its shores.
The state of the Wallkill River of today can fairly be compared to that of the Hudson River back in the 1960s, when the sloop Clearwater was launched and a huge valleywide environmental education campaign got underway. Paltzonians drive over the Wallkill regularly, perhaps noting the water level but never surprised by its murky color. Except for once annually at the New Paltz Regatta, most of us are careful never to stick a toe in the water. We’ve all long suspected that it’s irredeemably filthy and full of contaminants. There are smallmouth bass aplenty for the catching, but who would dare to eat one?
The environmental organization Riverkeeper did nothing to dispel that feeling of aversion when it recently released its annual summation of the state of the Hudson, the “How’s the Water?” Report 2015. While the River that Flows Both Ways keeps getting cleaner, its tributaries like the Wallkill are in big trouble, according to Riverkeeper’s regular water sampling and testing program. While only 23 percent of sites tested along the actual Hudson estuary were deemed unsafe for swimming, 72 percent of tributary samples failed the test.
In fact, the Wallkill is one of the most consistently polluted streams in the Hudson watershed, according to Riverkeeper, with 87 percent of its testing sites coming up unsafe for swimming, based on counts of Enterococcus bacilli. And the Saw Mill Brook, which drains the sluggish waterway known as the Gunk on the SUNY New Paltz campus into the Wallkill at Sojourner Truth Park, is one of five Wallkill feeder streams that flunked the tests 100 percent of the time.
Craig Chapman, the owner of New Paltz Kayaking Tours, spends a lot of time in and around that spot launching his rental boats or paddling the Wallkill himself, so he can tell you some hair-raising stories about what’s in that river. He has been volunteering to lead monthly investigative Boat Brigades as part of the new Wallkill River Watershed Alliance that is coming together in the wake of a symposium on “The Future of the Wallkill” at SUNY back in April.
The kayak-and-canoe team’s last foray on June 27 originally planned to head toward Rosendale, but didn’t get far before the boaters caught wind of some smelly evidence of contamination, presumably from some local farming operation: “As soon as we got to the river’s edge, there was chickenshit along the bank of the river, right there,” says Chapman, pointing to a spot close to the boat launch at Sojourner Truth Park. “It was maybe five feet by five feet, at least. It kind of connects together in one big glob.”
And how did he know that the floating mess was chicken excrement? “I own chickens, so I can kind of tell,” Chapman says confidently. “There was just one feather in the middle of the guck…It was a chicken feather.”
And that wasn’t the first time that Chapman had found such evidence of fecal contamination from poultry in the Wallkill. “It happens at least once a year around this time — usually at this point in the river, because there’s a bend. It collects in one spot.”
Chickens can’t be blamed for the Wallkill’s frequent high coliform count, he points out: “Entero has to come from a mammal.” Combined sewer overflows, sewage infrastructure and septic systems failures, agricultural and street runoff all rank high on Riverkeeper’s list of usual suspects for coliform contamination. But still, says Chapman, “I wouldn’t think that you’d want to swim in the midst of chicken poop. That’s why you’ve got to raise the red flag when things like that happen.”
But the winds of change are coming, driven partly by the rising popularity of waterborne recreational activities like kayaking. The more that people see what’s in the Wallkill that shouldn’t be there, the more they get riled and want to do something about it. The Wallkill River Watershed Alliance is attracting lots of volunteers and building up an impressive head of steam already, coordinated in New Paltz by former mayor Jason West. A steering committee meets monthly at Village Hall, and science, outreach, policy and geospatial working groups have spun off from it to tackle specific aspects of the “Restore the Wallkill” campaign based on members’ areas of expertise. A separate Orange County chapter of the Alliance has formed, and plans to hold its own “Future of the Wallkill” symposium in October.
Though he says that it “sets a baseline for at least one of the problems for the Wallkill,” West cautions that the “How’s the Water?” report’s focus on Enterococcus is “just the tip of the iceberg…There more in that river than the Riverkeeper report shows. We’re beginning to track those things down.” He cites DDT as “one of the things that Riverkeeper doesn’t test for” that could potentially prove a threat to human health and wildlife in the Wallkill Valley.
Neil Bettez, Ph.D., a visiting scientist at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies and the chair of the Alliance’s science working group, agrees that although “Riverkeeper paved the way,” much more data need to be collected. “No smoking chicken has been found,” he jokes. “I like the boat brigades, but the answers are going to be more complex than a pipe emptying into the Wallkill.”
“When we find the originator of the chickens, it’s not going to be the end of the problem,” adds another science working group member, John Gotto, a microbiologist who teaches at SUNY Ulster. “There are hundreds of farms that abut the Wallkill in the vicinity of New Paltz. Any one could be the one that dumps wastes into the river.”
Still, Bettez says that he’s “very optimistic” about the prospects for getting the Wallkill into swimmable condition before his two-year-old daughter goes to college. Calling the Alliance volunteers “an impressive group,” he says, “I think this thing has some legs. People are passionate about it.”
The next Boat Brigade sets out this coming Saturday, July 25, leaving from the DEC boat launch in Rosendale, with Chapman providing kayaks free of charge to volunteers. But he needs to know beforehand how many people plan to come along. If you’d like to participate, e-mail email@example.com or call him at (845) 594-6353. For more information about the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, visit www.facebook.com/wallkillriver. For regular updates on the group’s meetings and activities, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.