Boat brigade keeps watchful eye on Wallkill

Reporter Terence P Ward attempts to participate in a boat brigade with the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The Wallkill River, which begins its journey draining the artificial Lake Mohawk in northern New Jersey, flows northward to join with the Rondout Creek here. Plagued by high levels of bacteria and chemicals from sewage discharges and runoff, the poor health of the Wallkill was evidenced by a bright green, toxic algal bloom last summer which lasted some 80 days before dying off. That algae was first spotted by members of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, a group which looks out for the river in Ulster and Orange counties under the auspices of Riverkeeper.

A group of alliance members gathered at the Springtown Road DEC boat landing in Rosendale on July 20 to conduct one of their boat-brigade inspections of the river. These happen twice a month during the summer, once in Orange and once in Ulster, each on a different stretch of the river. The trips are considerably helped through the contributions of alliance member Craig Chapman, who operates a kayak-rental company at Sojourner Truth Park in New Paltz. Chapman drops off kayaks for whoever is in need at the launching point, and collects them at the end of the trip, free of charge.

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Doing what he can to make the river better is completely understandable for Chapman, who was hit hard by that algae. “We didn’t put anyone in the water” during that period last year, he said. He and others are hopeful that the bloom won’t return this year: it’s been rainier, and perhaps all the excess phosphorus was used up last August. All they know for sure is that there’s no sign of it yet. Chapman even saw some people taking a dip at Sojourner Truth Park, which in theory is safe. “Just wash off quickly,” he advised to any erstwhile swimmers. He’s not planning on joining them, at any rate.

The purpose of these inspections, according to alliance member Archie Morris, is to identify and document anything that’s flowing into the river which probably shouldn’t be. Brigade participants take a relaxing two- or three-hour paddling ride along the river, looking for anything that is issuing liquid — be it a pipe or something that looks like a spring or a stream. Determining if something isn’t quite right is not a difficult judgment call: liquid that is cloudy or colored is suspect, as is anything which carries an odor.

Some of the sites have signs clearly marking a state pollution discharge elimination system (SPDES, pronounced “speedies”) permit, which authorizes the discharge. That makes it easier to know who to call if the effluent — typically from a sewage treatment facility — is less than stellar in quality. Suspicious sites get documented with photographs, descriptions and GPS coordinates; the information is passed on to local authorities for investigation.

Even regulated sewer effluent isn’t as regulated as many people suspect, observed alliance member Brenda Cemelli: sewage doesn’t have to be treated during the winter months because state regulators have determined rivers aren’t being used by humans, therefore it’s not as big a concern. The result is higher bacterial counts come spring, which is why Cemelli would like to see year-round treatment become the norm.

There are also some chemicals found even in treated sewage, such as phosphates and pharmaceuticals, for which there is no requirement to test. The alliance has a citizen-scientist program, in which volunteers collect samples at specified locations and times to track all the dangerous and unnatural substances in the Wallkill.

Exactly what’s in the Wallkill is often on the mind of Arthur Cemelli, a regular participant in the boat brigades. He recalls scratching the back of his leg when getting out of the water during this year’s New Paltz Regatta, and how the scratch quickly got infected.

Alliance executive director Jason West knows what must be done in the long run to bring back the Wallkill. “One thing that is very important is to increase funding for wastewater infrastructure at the state and federal level,” he said. “It’s not just treatment, it’s making sure the facilities that do the treating are up to par. Since 2003, the Village [of New Paltz] has been investing millions (via federal/state grants) in fixing old leaking sewer lines for instance — making sure all the effluent reaches the plant to be treated and doesn’t end up in stormwater is obviously important.” That work has been a priority since West was mayor, and a consent order was reached with state environmental officials.

Under the original Clean Water Act, West explained, federal officials “funded the construction of lots of sewer plants around the country until the money ran out. And [community development block grant] funds are dependent on the political will of our elected leaders. So making sure funding sources are in place for municipalities to keep their systems in repair would go a long way towards improving water quality.”

While alliance members have identified issues and at least anecdotally made a difference with these inspections by kayak, the Wallkill originates in New Jersey, where they do not have a presence. “To my knowledge, there is no community group like the alliance in New Jersey, and it is unfortunately too far for us in the northern reaches to effectively organize there yet,” West said.

The boat brigades are helpful even above and beyond the reports that result. One in Orange County led to the discovery of an estimated 72 tires that had been dumped, which has been turned into an opportunity to burn some calories: the Wallkill River Tire Pull will take place on August 20 at 9 a.m. below the Orange Regional Medical Center. Questions and event registrations should be sent to wallkillrivertirepullinfo@gmail.com.

In the end, the July 20 boat outing was cancelled out of concern for lightning endangering participants. This reporter did not get to see the brigade in action, but anyone interesting in joining in on a future trip should visit facebook.com/wallkillriver for information.

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