Thirty-two Union College students infected with Giardiasis, the unpleasant intestinal infection sometimes called Beaver Fever.
At first glance, it might sound like one of those strange little stories highlighting the unintended consequences of undergraduate hijinks, with few implications beyond campus.
Take a closer look, and you’ll see a more alarming story about the poor quality of streams and rivers, and the failing infrastructure that causes raw sewage to contaminate our local waterways.
I’ve walked along the Hans Groot Kill, the small Schenectady stream where some of the sickened students reported swimming, and it’s very pretty – a burbling brook tumbling down a rock-strewn creek bed.
The prettiness is all on the surface, though.
The Hans Groot Kill is a dirty little river that’s been befouled by sewage, road salt and the tiny plastic particles known as microplastics.
Recent research, published in the spring, shows that the HGK is “severely contaminated” with Enterococci, a bacteria that lives in the guts of warm-blooded animals and is an indicator of fecal waste, i.e. poop.
“The HGK presents a health hazard to the public, particularly given its presence on a college campus and a residential neighborhood,” the paper, which was authored by Union College senior Eva Willard-Bauer as part of her thesis project, states.
The research team tested the Hans Groot Kill every week for a year, and the bacteria always exceeded the threshold recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to John Garver, a Union College geology professor who was part of the HGK research team.
“The values are quite high,” said Garver, who organizes an annual conference, the Mohawk Watershed Symposium, focused on issues related to the river, such as flooding and water quality. “We’ve tested other creeks in the area, and nothing comes close.”
The Hans Groot cuts through the Union College campus and feeds directly into the Mohawk River, discharging its nasty contents into the waters between Mohawk Harbor and Rivers Casino and Resort.
“It’s like a little poison,” Garver said. “And the question is: How bad is this poison when you put it into a key artery of the river?”
One of the research paper’s main findings is that pollution in the Hans Groot is mostly caused by “leaking and/or illegally-connected sanitary sewer mains,” rather than big storm events that overwhelm the channel with wastewater.
This means that addressing the water quality issues in the Mohawk and its tributaries likely requires fixing this deficient infrastructure, and the paper calls upon the city of Schenectady and state Department of Environmental Conservation to do so.
It’s a good suggestion – one that deserves real consideration from the powers-that-be.
And while upgrading old sewer systems is expensive, letting them deteriorate is costly, too.
The city has made redeveloping its waterfront a centerpiece of its economic development strategy, and in recent years we’ve seen townhouses, apartments, retail and office space, a harbor, a casino and trails built on the Mohawk.
The growth has been tremendous – but you can’t help but wonder whether the pollution flowing into the river will eventually slow it down.
“If the water is not clean, people are not going to want to engage with the river,” Garver said.
Now, it’s important to note that we don’t know exactly where the Union College students contracted giardiasis.
They also reported swimming in the Plotterkill County Nature Preserve in Rotterdam, and Garver made it clear that his team has “zero data” on whether the Hans Groot Kill contains the parasite that causes the disease. Dirty water typically contains pathogens that cause a variety of illnesses, he said.
The most common way to become infected with giardiasis is by drinking infected water. The parasite lives in the intestines and is passed in feces; a Mayo Clinic fact sheet says it is found worldwide, “especially in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe water.”
The Hans Groot Kill is about four kilometers.
It emerges from three culverts at its upstream end at the West Alley boundary of the GE Realty plot, flows through the Union College campus and enters a final culvert at the downstream end that carries it to the Mohawk River. Much of the stream is underground.
Union College students have used the HGK for recreation – something Garver cautions against. But they’re not the only ones. Members of the general public have been known to access the creek, too.
The creek’s contamination is unacceptable – or ought to be.
“In this day and age, we can do better,” Garver said.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.