At Wallkill River Summit, sources of contamination discussed and a plan for cleanup takes shape

The Wallkill River in New Paltz. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has taken a small step toward the eventual restoration of the water quality in the Wallkill River. At the fifth annual Wallkill River Summit held on Thursday, May 16, on the campus of SUNY New Paltz, DEC scientist Brian Duffy told the approximately 40 people in attendance that after intensive sampling of the Wallkill and its tributaries over the past two summers, they have identified both municipal wastewater discharges and agricultural runoff as sources of the Wallkill’s contamination.

As a result, the DEC will now initiate the development of a Total Maximum Daily Load analysis that quantifies each source of a pollutant and sets limits that would result in a healthy waterbody. “We’re in the very early stages of starting that process for the Wallkill,” Duffy said. “So where that leaves us is looking at the data and figuring out what we’re doing in 2019, keeping in mind that this is a process we’re beginning, and we need to figure out where we need data going forward as we look toward restoration.”


In 2018, the state DEC listed the Wallkill River and several of its tributaries on a draft version of its “impaired waters” list, under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. Impairment relates to a specific type of pollutant, such as the excess phosphorus that plagues the Wallkill — a contributing factor to the harmful algal blooms that the river experienced in 2015 and 2016 — or pathogens such as the Enterococcus bacteria that is widespread in the river. Once a body of water is declared to be officially “impaired,” it means the state must reduce the pollutant that is causing impairment. The first step toward restoration is to develop a Total Maximum Daily Load plan.

Duffy spoke at the summit as a program manager of the state DEC’s stream bio-monitoring unit. He followed a talk by Jen Epstein, water quality program scientist with Riverkeeper, who spoke about the presence of Enterococcus bacteria in the Wallkill that indicate fecal or sewage contamination. Since 2012, she said, 90 percent of the 937 samples gathered from the Wallkill and its tributaries have failed to meet the standard established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for safe swimming.

Epstein detailed the source-tracking efforts Riverkeeper made using DNA testing to determine whether the contamination was due to birds, cows, horses or humans. Ultimately they determined that wild birds are the greatest contributor to the waste material in the Wallkill with humans second, responsible for 47 percent of the Enterococcus bacteria in the water. Cows contributed a small percentage and there were no fecal markers indicating horses. The organization did not test for dog waste or other animals such as deer.

Several parts of the Wallkill River are particularly problematic, Epstein said. One area that Riverkeeper will focus on in the near future is Quaker Creek, a tributary of the Wallkill located near the black dirt part of the watershed, downstream from the Orange County Village of Florida wastewater plant that does not disinfect its effluent. “Their permit is up for review in 2020, so we’re trying to advocate for some tighter permit restrictions on this wastewater treatment plant so that disinfection can be put in place there.”

Another priority is the Orange/Ulster line in the town of Shawangunk, on Route 208. “This portion of the Wallkill is designated class ‘B,’ which is bureaucratic jargon for ‘it’s supposed to be safe enough to swim,’” Epstein said. But with human fecal markers detected there five out of six times they sampled, she added, it’s important to note that this part of the river is just two miles downstream from the Walden wastewater treatment plant. And the facility has a number of problems, she noted; it’s over capacity, has pipes more than 70 years old and a history of chronic effluent violations.

According to Epstein, the Village of Walden has plans to do an $8 million renovation to the plant, and are in the process of seeking grants from the state and other sources of funding to do those repairs. Continuing the water testing in that area is necessary, she said, to make sure that the repairs, when done, are adequate to meet existing problems.

Riverkeeper is also looking at “Trib 13” in New Paltz, a watershed area that runs along the boundary of a wildlife preserve, incorporating part of it, and a developed area of New Paltz where there is a combination of septic systems and centralized sewer systems. “Ninety-eight percent of the samples collected at this site indicate water quality unsafe for swimming,” Epstein said. “Some of the ‘entero’ in the water may be coming from wildlife sources, but further testing is needed.”

She noted the progress made last fall when the Village of New Paltz Environmental Policy Board and the Town Environmental Conservation Board formed a joint “Trib-13” stewardship group. Riverkeeper will continue to work with them on addressing the water quality issues at that site in the river, Epstein said. In addition, nine more sites have also been selected to monitor this year for signs of fecal indicator bacteria.

Community members can also help restore the Wallkill by contacting legislators, Epstein said: Senator Jen Metzger, or (845) 344-3311; Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, or (845) 338-9610; or Congressman Antonio Delgado, or (845) 443-2930. “Tell them why the Wallkill is important to you, and why you want to see more funding for wastewater infrastructure in the Wallkill watershed.”

And despite the obvious problems, it’s not all bad news for the Wallkill River. Over the past five years, state and local communities have committed $36 million to improve sewer systems in Middletown, Wallkill, New Paltz and Warwick. Community volunteers have removed 16,000 pounds of trash from the river and its shorelines (including nearly 300 tires), and 8,781 trees and shrubs have been planted along river and stream banks in partnership with the DEC’s “Trees for Tribs” program.

The annual Wallkill River Summit is hosted every year by the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, founded in 2015 to restore the river to its former health and in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Jason West, president of the alliance, opened the summit with brief comments, noting that the Alliance is taking an “everything AND the kitchen sink approach; whatever works, we’ll try it. If we heard it worked somewhere else, we’ll try it here, too.”

The three goals of the group, he said, are to achieve clean, swimmable water in the Wallkill River; to increase their ability to organize, partnering with other organizations to increase the capacity for change; and to encourage more public engagement with the river. “The more positive experiences people have with the river, the more they’ll fall in love with it. And frankly, we protect the things we love.”

For more information, visit