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How's the water? Quality issues arise for local creeks

At the Watershed Roundtable, held at SUNY New Paltz, on Friday, March 28, some disturbing evidence was presented regarding pollution of both the Wallkill River and the Rondout Creek.The roundtable heard presentations from three perspectives concerning the available data on the those watersheds.

First to speak was Dr. Stuart Findlay, of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. What emerged from his presentation that should concern the general public is that the state has virtually abandoned the practice of collecting data on water quality and what data exists is often twenty years old. Moreover, the pollutants that generate headlines — pesticides, PCBs and dioxin — are both "legacy contaminants" often tied to sediments, ready to be released in flood conditions or other disturbances, and also "wildly expensive" to measure. So, they aren't.

Alene Onion of the state Department of Environmental Conservation discussed "Macroinvertebrate Water Quality Data," or bugs. Insects and their larvae are clear indicators of water quality, she explained, noting how environmental stresses change the populations of these invertebrates; stoneflies are found in waters with high quality, mayflies persist in middling grades, while snails can endure harsher conditions with more pollution.

Someone in the audience made the point that many people believe that "someone is taking care of this," i.e. monitoring pollution and mitigating problems with our streams and rivers. But since New York State has abandoned the practice, the problem of managing something that we aren't monitoring is becoming acute.

These two presentations set the stage for Tracy Brown, of Riverkeeper, who began by mentioning the 1972 Clean Water Act, a federal act that sought to make all the nations' rivers and streams swimmable and fishable by 1983 and zero discharge of pollutants by 1985. Obviously, that didn't happen.

Brown noted how she has been building Riverkeeper's "citizen science program," which has ordinary folk out sampling the Hudson River and its tributaries. She is also one of the "architects" of the New York State Sewage Pollution Right To Know Law, and works on improving public transparency on issues related to sewage pollution and wastewater infrastructure.

She explained that the common target in these water quality sampling programs is Enterococcus, a bacteria that lives in the intestines of mammals, including humans. It does not survive long outside of that habitat, which means that finding it in water is a strong indication that there is sewage pollution nearby. "Acceptable" levels of Enterococcus for swimming safety are 0 to 60 per thousand milliliters. For Riverkeeper a finding of more than 111 is an unacceptable level.

Brown showed a map and data for the Hudson, which was mostly marked "acceptable" with low to nonexistent Enterococcus counts. However, she went on to explain that some of the Hudson tributaries, in particular the Wallkill River and the Rondout Creek, were sources of Enterococcus pollution. Both reached unacceptable levels, the Wallkill especially so with river samples from near Middletown and Goshen heavily impacted with Enterococcus. Brown added that some waste water treatment plants remove solids, but may only disinfect the waste water in the "recreational season."

She noted as well that rainfall increases the Enterococcus counts in both tributaries, and that animal sources must be included with human ones. She explained that one complication lies in the way that Enterococcus can be bound into sediments and survive there, then to be flushed out during rainfall and heavier flows of water.

For the Rondout Creek, a major source of contamination came at Napanoch, presumably from the waste water treatment plant shared there between the state correctional facility and the Town of Wawarsing.

In an interview, Leonard Distel, supervisor of the Town of Wawarsing, said that following a $600,000 grant, a long planned upgrade to the Napanoch sewer plant was about to begin.

"This is going to be needed if we want to expand," Distel explained, noting how the state, via the correctional authority, owns 87 percent of the plant and its capacity, and that the prison will take care of its maintenance. "We have a contract with the state for capacity. If we wanted to gain more capacity we would have to sit down with the state to get that. So, for instance, for the planned 80 units of senior housing down by the airport, we will have to consider increasing our capacity and we'll have to talk to Corrections about that."

Tracy Brown explained during her presentation that Riverkeeper seeks more citizen volunteers to do water sampling.

She also noted that the state's dismal record in this area continues. Last fall the DEC eliminated pathogen and PCB testing as a result of the "sequester" cuts raining down from Washington D.C.

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