Fighting dirty: Wallkill River Summit discusses ways to fight river pollution

View of the Wallkill River looking south from the railroad bridge on Springtown Road in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The tag line for the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance is “we fight dirty,” and the keynote speaker for the organization’s fourth annual Wallkill River Summit does so by swimming in it. Christopher Swain has swum more than 3,000 miles in waterways polluted with everything from raw sewage to dioxin, but the jury’s still out as to whether the Wallkill is dirty enough to merit a dip. To hear what other speakers on the docket recounted, there’s a lot of energy being put into that effort, and plenty of opportunities for more people to join the fray.

While the Wallkill is likely never going to be as bad off as the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which actually caught fire in 1969, it’s got more than enough problems of its own. Harmful algae blooms typically afflict lakes and ponds which have an overabundance of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate dumped into them, but a 30-mile stretch of the Wallkill was turned bright green in 2016. One benefit of that event is that it made many more people question why it’s no longer safe to swim in that river, much less drink it.


Christopher Swain is an expert in swimming in rivers that not only should not be drunk, but also in waters that should not be in contact with human skin. His first effort of the sort was in the Gowanus Canal, and the resultant publicity was a factor in getting that waterway cleaned up. He regaled the audience with tales of his experiences. The oil slicks of Newtown Creek make lovely rainbows, he said, and the real problem with swimming in raw sewage is that “sometimes you can detect food smells.” Swain has had to learn how to avoid sea lampreys and navigate log jams, all while wearing considerable protective gear to keep him from generally being poisoned by the experience.

The underlying point of these swims, he said, is to beg the question: why is it acceptable for rivers and streams to be so polluted that swimming in them is dangerous? “Our fate is somewhat tied up to the water,” he said, and cleaning it up would be easier if relationships were developed among “natural allies,” such as environmentalists and the “hook and bullet crew,” or fishermen and hunters. Recognizing that clean water is needed across political and social strata might make these “extraordinary coalitions” possible, he said.

John Gotto laid out the details about cyanobacteria, the organism formerly known as “blue-green algae” which turned the Wallkill roughly the shade of Kermit the Frog two summers past. Variables including nutrient levels along with the flow rate and volume of the water contributed to that remarkable event. While it’s believed that there have been blooms in the river in earlier years, no one was paying close attention. That state of affairs has changed. Samples were pulled regularly from a number of spots on the river in 2017, and since there was no repeat performance scientists now have important baseline data to study the phenomenon.

It may not be possible to identify a precise cause for the blooms. Runoff from streets and yards, farms and golf courses contribute all manner of pesticides, fertilizers, and other substances to the mix; “It all adds up,” Gotto said.

The issue is now also being studied at the state level, where scientists have gathered preliminary data about the river and several of its major tributaries. While not much can be confirmed at this point, A.J. Smith of the Department of Environmental Conservation noted that pollutant levels at the New Jersey state line are “not terrible,” suggesting that much of the problem can be managed within New York borders.

A signature effort of the watershed alliance are the boat brigades, patrols by kayak to document what’s flowing into the river, and what’s been left in its waters and along its banks. Archie Morris explained that the idea was in response to a suggestion by state environmental workers that they could act on reports filed with them. During the trips, volunteers check on authorized outflows, and take note of ones with unknown sources. They’ve also found litter on a sometimes massive scale, including a porta-potty, a motor boat, and hundreds of tires once placed for erosion control that were since washed downstream. 197 of those tires were recovered during an operation last year, and volunteers are being recruited to pull just as many this summer.

Enticing members of the public onto — and, eventually, into — the Wallkill is a critical piece of the cleanup puzzle. A river that is a go-to recreational venue is a river that does not get quietly dirtier. Dave Church, commissioner of planning for Orange County, spoke about grant funding that’s been received to create the Wallkill River Water Trail from Warwick into New Paltz. With funds from Hudson Valley Greenway, more and better access points will be created on public lands so people could “spend a day on the river,” Church explained, and hopefully become more invested in its health. The Wallkill is “surprisingly paddle-able” when the flow is high enough, he added; when it’s flooding, it “can be entertaining” to attempt it.

“Recreation connects us with the community,” said Ken Witkowski, who spoke about the Wallkill River Wildlife Refuge. Some 6,500 acres along the river in New Jersey and Orange County has a number of walking trails within, including a two-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail.

Craig Chapman, owner of New Paltz Kayaking Tours, announced to attendees that “the river is not as bad as you all think it is.” His knowledge of the Wallkill is intimate rather than scientific, he said, stemming from paddling it countless times throughout his life. “When you’re on the river, you don’t see the negatives,” he said, pointing out that even the headlining algae bloom of 2016 lasted for seven weeks in the past five years, “not a huge chunk of time.” Chapman is convinced that on many tributaries the sources of pollution are few, and that volunteers “can take it one tributary at a time.” He’s planning on investigating one himself this year.

Alliance board member Brenda Cemeli closed out the summit with a call to action. Cheer on members during their first foray in the New Paltz Regatta, she said, or pitch in during the cleanups scheduled for May 5 or the tire pull July 14. Attend public meetings, lobby for action and contact elected officials regularly. “Get curious,” she said, and visit to get involved.