River revival: Mohawk advocates gathering support

John Lipscomb has sailed the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, the Pacific and
The Rexford Bridge over the Mohawk River is seen Tuesday. Advocates for the river will gather Friday at Union College for the Mohawk Watershed Symposium.
The Rexford Bridge over the Mohawk River is seen Tuesday. Advocates for the river will gather Friday at Union College for the Mohawk Watershed Symposium.

John Lipscomb has sailed the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, the Pacific and the South China Sea.

He’s crossed the Atlantic three times, and once crossed the Pacific from Los Angeles to Singapore. He’s worked on documentaries about the Hudson Bay and the Yukon River. Since 2000, he’s patrolled the Hudson River for advocacy group Riverkeeper, searching for polluters, monitoring tributaries and sampling waters for contamination.

Yet in the years leading up to 2014, it was the Mohawk River that Lipscomb couldn’t get out of his mind. Of all the bodies of water he’d seen and explored, it was the 149-mile tributary of the Hudson — once the backbone of upstate’s industrial corridor — that beckoned.

Mohawk Watershed Symposium

WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: College Park Hall, Union College, Schenectady

MORE INFO: www.minerva.union.edu/- garverj/mws/2015/symposium.html

So in the fall of 2014, he navigated his way through the Waterford Flight Locks and onto the Mohawk, and took Riverkeeper’s 36-foot-long wooden patrol boat the farthest west it had ever been — to the city of Utica. He stopped in Schenectady, Fort Plain and other riverside communities along the way.

“It was really lovely,” Lipscomb recalled. “There were communities concerned for their river, but not coalesced around any single group. It was a new energy. In the Hudson, these organizations have been well-established and in the public conversation for half a century. But up there, it was like a new frontier, a feeling of new opportunity and potential.”

The Mohawk River is having its moment. Lipscomb sees it. And other advocates do too.

It’s not a scary moment, like the devastating floods of 2006 and 2011. And it’s not a gross moment, like that whole century and more that people spent dumping sewage and garbage and industrial waste into the river.

After a history of taking a back seat to the Hudson, the Mohawk is seeing more grassroots support for advocacy and action than ever before. People not only want to protect the river, they want to use it and be inspired by it, revive their Rust Belt cities with it, build waterfront housing, dining, recreation and tourism with it.

Annual updates

Nothing has been more effective at drumming up support for the river than the Mohawk Watershed Symposium. The annual event — founded by Union College professors Jaclyn Cockburn and John Garver in 2009 and held each spring — is an opportunity for scientists, river advocates and others living in the basin to present reports on the watershed and talk about issues of concern to their communities. This year’s symposium takes place Friday at Union’s College Park Hall. Lipscomb will deliver a keynote speech on his westward patrols last fall.

“The symposium has been absolutely pivotal in focusing stakeholders and attention on the needs and problems along the Mohawk,” Garver said. “We started it in response to the 2006 flooding, which ripped the guts out along the main stem and really hurt communities like Fort Hunter and Canajoharie. The water remained muddy for some time and people started getting concerned, and we saw disparate groups try to form and do things about it.”

At its launch, the symposium drew about 50 attendees. Now in its seventh year, anywhere from 150 to 200 are expected to attend. Thirty-six presentations are on tap this year on topics ranging from flood warning systems and fishing populations to water quality monitoring and partnership efforts.

Kicking things off will be Christopher Swain. You might recognize the name. He’s that guy who likes to swim contaminated waterways to raise awareness of them. Last fall, he became the first person to swim the length of the Mohawk, starting in central New York on Oct. 20 and ending in Waterford on Dec. 24.

On his journey he saw both good and bad, such as orange goop coming out of a pipe in Utica but also pristine stretches untouched by man. The Mohawk’s biggest problem isn’t what you would think, he told The Daily Gazette after he finished his swim.

“The biggest problem with the Mohawk is it doesn’t have a fan base,” he said. “It suffers from having the Hudson as a favorite cousin.”

The river doesn’t cut through a huge metropolis like New York City. Small, struggling cities dot its shores. For too long, its gotten short shrift when it comes to advocacy, its fans say. And in a way, the Mohawk suffers by wending its way entirely within the state’s borders, Garver said.

“The Mohawk has been the weak sister of watersheds in New York and part of this has been because it is completely within New York state and thus not subject to interstate agreements,” he said. “And also because it has defined the backbone of the early industrial corridor. This is changing, and communities are looking to the river as a source of recreation, transportation and inspiration … in the U.S., there is a resurgence in interest in preserving rivers, maintaining clean and healthy ecosystems and re-engaging our communities with them.”

It may not have the advocacy brawn of groups like Riverkeeper yet, but the Mohawk is benefiting from smaller, grassroots defenders like the Schoharie River Center — another presenter at this year’s symposium.

The nonprofit group formed in 1999 as a way to instill a love of learning, science and environmental stewardship among youth in the Schoharie and Mohawk valleys.

Executive Director John McKeeby, a former psychologist who worked with troubled youth in the Schenectady County Family Court system, was inspired to recruit kids who had issues at school or at home or with substance abuse after spotting one of the kids he worked with at the Schoharie Creek in Burtonsville.

“I was walking along the creek one day after a stressful day at work and there was this group of kids jumping off the ledges into the water,” he recalled. “There were probably 20 to 30 people there. It was a real hub in the summertime. And this kid swims across the creek and starts talking to me and he was from Schenectady but he knew more about the creek than I did. A light bulb went off in my head that gee, we deal with these kids and try to engage them and here is a way — just this strong, natural interest that kids have in nature.”

Today, the center engages more than 800 local youth who help monitor and study the local ecology and history of the Schoharie and Mohawk River Basin. And their work has gained the group real traction and respect from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which uses their research to take action in trouble spots when need be.

In 2005, the state put a stop to a local trailer park that had been discharging sewage into the Schoharie Creek after the kids discovered unusually high levels of E. coli bacteria downstream from a sewage pipe. In the winter of 2008-09, DEC ordered the Schenectady County town of Duanesburg to fix a problem with an old, closed landfill after the kids discovered it was leaking leachate into the Normans Kill. The kids even had to submit requests for town records under the Freedom of Information Act after the town said their water chemistry research found no problems with the site.

“I think for those kids who helped with these things, if you look at what they’re doing now, they have all gone off to college or graduated and are pursuing degrees connected to environmental sciences,” McKeeby said. “The way I look at it, we’re just leveraging resources, taking youth who have tremendous energy and interest to learn and focusing them on the natural resources of their own backyard fresh waters.”

The long view

As more and more groups expand their watershed programs, Garver and others see the annual symposium as a way to gather all the stakeholders together into one coalition and get organized on a long-term vision for the Mohawk. There’s not yet one large Mohawk River advocate to rally around, he said. So instead, advocates use the symposium as a chance to report concerns and outline their goals.

Lipscomb was emphatic that his westward journey to Utica last fall was his own personal mission, not a Riverkeeper mission. Not that Riverkeeper wouldn’t like to expand its advocacy to the Mohawk.

“It’s a lot of water,” Lipscomb said. “My regular beat is 155 miles. It’s the New York Harbor to Waterford. That’s a lot of territory. And the Mohawk would be a big addition. I’m not sure we can sustain it, but we sure want to be part of the future of the Mohawk on some level and contribute as much as we can given our capacity. The Mohawk deserves it.”

He’s already penciling in some patrols along the Mohawk for the upcoming boating season. They’ll have to be on his own time, but he’s positive they’ll be worth it.

Categories: -News-, Schenectady County

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