Foss: The Mohawk River is dirty. Let’s clean it up

Amsterdam actually looks like one of cleaner parts of river
From Freeman's Bridge over the Mohawk River looking toward Rivers Casino & Resort during its construction.
From Freeman's Bridge over the Mohawk River looking toward Rivers Casino & Resort during its construction.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most Capital Region residents believed that the section of the Mohawk River that runs through the city of Amsterdam is unusually dirty.

But this isn’t the case.

When you examine water quality data from 2015-2016, Amsterdam actually looks like one of the cleaner parts of the river.

This doesn’t mean that the millions of gallons of raw sewage that has spilled into the Mohawk River as a result of Amsterdam aging pipes isn’t a problem.

But it does suggest that the Mohawk’s water quality woes shouldn’t be blamed on any one city or spill, and that it will take a comprehensive overhaul of our water infrastructure to clean up the Mohawk.

Related: Water quality report on Mohawk River a mixed bag

With more upstate communities looking to promote living and playing on the river, it’s imperative that we address the Mohawk’s ugly secret – the frequency with which raw sewage gets dumped into the river.

On Friday, I dropped by the Mohawk Watershed Symposium at Union College, a day-long event featuring presentations from scientists and other experts.

I was particularly interested in new data on the Mohawk’s water quality from SUNY Cobleskill and the environmental group Riverkeeper. The organizations teamed up last year to test for fecal bacteria contamination at 43 sampling sites along the 149-mile river.

“I can say there’s poo in the water,” said Barbara Brabetz, the SUNY Cobleskill professor who presented the data. “People get that, and they don’t think it’s a good thing.”

It is most definitely not a good thing.

According to the Riverkeeper/SUNY Cobleskill data, 37 percent of Mohawk River samples failed the Environmental Protection Agency’s water safety standard, called the Beach Action Value, which means that the water is unsafe for swimming and other activities.

But after rainy weather, that percentage jumps considerably, with nearly half of samples failing the EPA’s water safety standard.

One of the more surprising findings of the testing, at least for me, is that sewage spills don’t have a big impact on overall water quality.

Unlike heavy rains, which send untreated sewage, stormwater and agricultural runoff directly into the river because the infrastructure doesn’t have the capacity to handle the increased flows, leaks don’t typically overwhelm the river. And when the river isn’t overwhelmed, it’s capable of cleaning itself up fairly quickly.

That rivers are resilient is good news.

But the Mohawk River water quality data is still worrisome, and should bolster support for legislation that would providing funding to help municipalities throughout the state repair and replace their aging water infrastructure.

In some locations, the Mohawk’s water quality doesn’t look too bad.

At Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park, 33 percent of samples exceeded the EPA’s water safety standard. At Niskayuna’s rowing docks, just 20 percent of samples failed.

But at Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady, 60 percent of samples exceeded the water safety standard. At the Middleburgh testing site, on Schoharie Creek, 60 percent of samples failed.

The Mohawk River is dirty, and has been for a long time.

But it doesn’t have to be.

With some investment, we can clean up the river.

Imagine – a river without raw sewage flooding into it after a heavy rain. What a great thing that would be.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

Leave a Reply