How dirty is the Hudson River? Riverkeeper has the data

Photo from Riverkeeper's Facebook page.

Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group that advocates for the Hudson River, recently announced the results of a five-year study of water quality in the Hudson. (See Scribd document below for the full study.)

The good news? In the four decades since the Clean Water Act went into law, the river has gotten a lot cleaner. And Riverkeeper's extensive data show that most of the time, in most places, the Hudson is safe to swim. On average, 21 percent of the samples taken by Riverkeeper failed EPA guidelines for safe swimming.

The bad news? That's three times the average failure rate for water samples from the nation's beaches. And during rainfall and catastrophic system failures -- like the one caused last month, when a fire broke out at one of Manhattan's largest sewage treatment plants -- water pollution in the Hudson spikes dangerously, especially near the shoreline.

Most of the pollution is concentrated near the shoreline, and in specific areas, Riverkeeper says:

In many near-shore locations contamination is local and community specific. That’s good news for area residents because local contamination problems lend themselves to local solutions.

The message is being heard loud and clear in Catskill, where an antiquated sewer system spews raw sewage into the Catskill Creek (a tributary of the Hudson) during periods of heavy rain. The village of Catskill has been working for more than a decade on an overhaul of the system that would separate sewage from stormwater, eliminating the need for sewage outfalls into the creek.

The Daily Mail reports that in Catskill, the difference in water quality between dry summer months and rainy periods, when five outfalls spill raw sewage directly into the creek, is dramatic: 

“The July survey shows us what we could have if we eliminated sewage discharges to our waterways,” [Riverkeeper boat captain John] Lipscomb said.

Riverkeeper and its supporters are hoping that the release of so much data into the public will lend fresh energy to efforts to clean up the Hudson, and are pressuring local governments to collect and release more water-pollution data as well:

Without water quality data, pollution sources and impacts cannot be identified. We can’t manage what we don’t measure.

Riverkeeper scored a major victory yesterday, when the New York City Department of Environmental Protection agreed to begin releasing online water quality alerts when water pollution spikes. Manhattan news website reports:

DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov said the agency will soon begin releasing testing results online and warning the public when rainfall affects pollution levels.

"We agree that the information can be posted more regularly, and we are in the process of adding harbor water sampling results on our website on a regular basis," said Sklerov.

"We are also looking to design a proactive notification system to be used to alert the public when rainfall may affect water quality."

The Riverkeeper report was widely cited in the news media yesterday. It's always fun, when a big story breaks, to see who ran the best headlines (at least, for hopeless news junkies, it is).

Local media played it pretty safe:

Daily Freeman: Riverkeeper warns of sewage pollution, swimming risks in the Hudson

Times Herald-Record: Study on NY's Hudson finds unsafe sewage pollution

Poughkeepsie Journal: Riverkeeper: Sewage renders Hudson unsafe to swim 21% of  time

The grande dames of Gotham struck a rather baroquely apoplectic tone:

Wall Street Journal: Sewage Plagues Hudson

New York Times: Sewage Frequently Fouls Hudson River, Report Says

And the New York alts and blogs leaned heavily on the snark button:

Village Voice: The Hudson: Frequently Kinda Poopy

(A most excellent snippet: "This comes at a time when the Hudson is attracting more and more people to swim, boat, and fish in its questionably clear waters. If the water stays poopy, say the experts, people will want to enjoy it less. True, true.")

For our money, it's New York blog Gothamist for the win, with this 100% factually accurate headline:

Sure The Hudson Is Poopy, But It's Way Worse Upstate

Want to read the whole report? Curious about how your favorite stretch of the Hudson shoreline fared? Or do you just really love water quality data? Have at it:

Riverkeeper Report: How is the Water 2006-10