Not long after the Vernal Equinox, Earth Day and Arbor Day, environmental stewardship continues each spring in the Hudson Valley with an enormous community cleanup event that focuses on our precious watersheds. Scheduled for Saturday, May 7, the fifth annual Riverkeeper Sweep will mobilize thousands of volunteers to remove debris from streams, rivers, their embankments, parks and public lands. This regionwide day of service will also include the planting of native trees and grasses to replace invasive species, stabilize streambanks against erosion and create healthy habitats.
The Great River Sweep originated in 1998 under the auspices of Scenic Hudson, which coordinated the event annually for many years, until it appeared to have gathered enough momentum in enough communities to continue as a cluster of independently run grassroots initiatives. But the absence of central coordination resulted in ever-smaller annual Sweeps, until Riverkeeper picked up the organizing mantle five years ago. Once again there are cleanups happening at more than 100 sites throughout the Valley — a dozen of them in Ulster County alone.
The Riverkeeper Sweep works hand-in-hand with a program of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) called Trees for Tribs, which stands for “tributaries.” The DEC supplies free tree seedlings for stream-buffer planting and restoration initiatives in communities throughout the watershed of the Hudson River and estuary. So for the second year running, one of the centerpieces of the Sweep in New Paltz will be a tree-planting project at Sojourner Truth Park, organized by the Village of New Paltz Shade Tree Commission and the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance along with Riverkeeper.
“This is a fantastic event, following up on last year’s tree-planting,” says New Paltz Village Planner David Gilmour, one of the site coordinators for next Saturday’s event. “The park is a wonderful asset along the Wallkill River in the core of our community,” where “trees are natural assets and part of the green infrastructure,” he says. “Urban trees are key to a healthy community, aiding aesthetics, habitat, stormwater management and flood resiliency, while providing shading and aiding air quality.”
Gilmour notes that the planned planting area overlaps last year’s: the vulnerable delta where the Saw Kill Brook empties into the Wallkill. “Quite a bit of it is floodplain. Reinforcing that buffer is not easy,” he points out. “It’s all part of stormwater management planning. I’ll use this event to talk to people about that.”
A lot has happened in New Paltz to raise awareness about watershed protection issues over the year since the first tree-planting event, including the “Future of the Wallkill” event held on the SUNY New Paltz campus, which led to the formation of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance. Gilmour reminds us that our new village mayor, Neil Bettez, has a Ph.D. in ecology and did postdoctoral research at the Cary Institute for Ecosystems Studies. Both the mayor and village trustee Don Kerr have long been active on the Shade Tree Commission. So it seems likely that the Riverkeeper Sweep and tree-planting event will continue to build as an annual community tradition in New Paltz.
The tree-planting will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Volunteers will meet in Sojourner Truth Park at 55 Plains Road. Sweep volunteers are asked to wear sturdy shoes or boots and clothing that they can get dirty, and to bring a hat, work gloves, a reusable water bottle and snacks. Elementary school-aged children may participate with proper adult supervision. Volunteers for two other New Paltz-based Riverkeeper Sweep cleanups — one on foot along the banks of the Wallkill, and another by canoe and kayak — will meet in the same spot at 9 a.m.
Gardiner gets in on the act as well, with both a land-based Sweep and a flotilla of canoes and kayaks heading out from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Participants will meet between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m. at the Farmers’ Turnpike Fishing Access, just on the Gardiner side of the Route 44/55 bridge over the Wallkill. The boats will each carry two persons, “one to paddle and one to jump out,” according to Riverkeeper volunteer David Sides. Debris found both in the water and along the banks will be loaded into the boats, bagged and carried to three dropoff points accessible by road: at Farmers’ Turnpike, the end of Gibbons Lane and the Albany Post Road side of the Old Ford, where Gardiner Highway Department trucks will come to retrieve it.
“Last year we got as far as Gibbons Lane, and the boats were tipping over” from the weight of tires and other recovered trash, Sides says. “This year we’re hoping to get as far as the ford. We may just paddle as far as New Paltz!”
Like the Sojourner Truth Park cleanups, the Gardiner outings still had room for more volunteers as of presstime, with or without boats. Participants must preregister for their cleanup of choice on the Riverkeeper website at www.riverkeeper.org/news-events/events/rvk-events/5th-annual-riverkeeper-sweep.
“Gloves and bags are going to provided” in Gardiner, says Sides. “But people should wear boots and be prepared to get wet and muddy — because last year we sure did! Sometimes we end up standing in the water and dragging the boats. It’s quite an adventure!”