Most of the upper Hudson River is clean enough to swim in, but there are concentrations of bacterial contamination where it meets a few of its lower tributaries, according to the environmental organization Riverkeeper.
Spots on the river below the inlets for the Battenkill, Hoosic River and Fish Creek showed high enough levels of enterococcus bacteria on multiple occasions last year that a public beach with such levels would have been closed. But those were the only three locations with high bacteria from among 40 locations sampled between Lake Tear of the Clouds — the Hudson’s source in the Adirondacks — and Troy, 150 river miles from the source.
The section overall tests cleaner that either the lower Hudson or the Mohawk river, but Riverkeeper officials said the phenomena of tributaries showing higher contamination levels than the river itself is consistent across the watershed.
“We need to protect our streams and tributaries if we want to protect the river,” said Daniel Shapley, water quality program director for Riverkeeper, an environmental organization based in Ossining, Westchester County, that has in the past focused primarily on the quality of the lower Hudson.
The organization conducted its first limited sampling in the upper Hudson last year, and plans to expand the sampling this year. Shapley acknowledged that drawing conclusions about possible contamination will require long-term sampling, such as that that’s been done on the lower river since 2008.
“We at least have an early indication, but it suggests doing continued sampling to see if that’s true or just an anomaly,” Shapley said in Schuylerville, during one of a series of meetings Wednesday to release the results and recruit “citizen scientists” to help with sampling in 2017 and future years.
The sampling didn’t look for PCBs, which have been an issue in the stretch of river between Hudson Falls and Troy for decades. A General Electric-funded cleanup has spent more than $1 billion dredging the suspected toxins, but many groups, including Riverkeeper, have called for more dredging.
Shapley said the group’s testing doesn’t look for PCBs but it would require more sophisticated and expensive testing than the group can handle.
Enterococcus is found in the guts of all warm-blooded animals, so the testing done to date doesn’t distinguish whether the source is from a sewage plant or a dairy or horse farm. “It’s possible farms rather than sewers are the source in some places,” Shapley said.
Riverkeeper also found — consistent with other testing it has done in the lower Hudson and in the Mohawk River — that contamination concentrations tend to be localized, with bacteria levels typically at safe levels downstream from locations where high levels were found.
The 2016 sampling found safe bacteria levels at the river’s confluences with the Schroon and Sacandaga rivers, both of which flow out of the Adirondacks. However, the confluences with the Battenkill, Hoosic and Fish all had entero levels above 60 colonies per 100 milliliters of water — the level considered unsafe for swimming. Shapley said none of the 2016 samples were taken after rainstorms, when bacterial levels would typically be higher because of runoff.
The Battenkill is a widely respected trout stream that runs from Vermont through Washington County. Lorraine Merghart Ballard, executive director of the Battenkill Conservancy, acknowledged agricultural runoff could be an issue for the stream, but said that from the group’s own data, “We’ve found it is in pretty good shape.”
Cindy Wian, director of Hudson Crossing Park just north of Schuylerville, said she looks forward to improved understanding of the river, and getting more people involved in the sampling efforts.
“What’s exciting for me is that we’re always seeking opportunities for the local community to realize the river is here and is a mighty resource,” she said. “So many concerns are raised about PCBs that this discussion is really interesting, taking a total look at what’s in the water.”
Shapley said the results of long-term sampling could be used to pursue grant funding to address problems or seek a higher priority for Hudson River projects from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He said Riverkeeper decided to start sampling the upper Hudson and the Mohawk in 2015 as the 50-year-old organization has matured.
“It’s part of our mission to be working in the whole watershed,” Shapley said.
For anyone interested in volunteering to help take samples, Shapley said there’s training in how to properly take a sample, and a two- to four-hour commitment to take a sample, keep it in a cooler, and drive it to a central location.
People interested in volunteering can email [email protected].