Riverkeeper on Friday unveiled the results of an 18-month water quality study conducted along the length of the Mohawk River, offering a mixed bag of optimism and concern for the river's health.
The report was presented at the 2017 Mohawk Watershed Symposium at Union College.
The Riverkeeper organization, which began more than 50 years ago as the Hudson River Fisherman's Association, advocates for the health and cleanliness of New York waterways, particularly the Hudson River.
The six-page report examines fecal contamination along the Mohawk River, which is the largest tributary to the Hudson, based on monthly samplings taken at 43 sites from May to October. The report found that the Mohawk River watershed is the second-best for average fecal contamination -- measured in something called “entero counts” -- of 13 watersheds studied statewide that flow into the Hudson River.
The sampling involves measuring levels of enterococci, a bacteria found in fecal matter that although mostly harmless, can indicate the presence of more dangerous bacteria like E. coli and cryptosporidium.
The Mohawk comes in first for fecal contamination during dry weather, and third-best in terms of fecal contamination after it rains.
Riverkeeper was interested in this data not only to gauge the Mohawk’s impact on the Hudson, but also to examine how water quality in the river affects recreation such as swimming, bathing and water play by children.
During his presentation Friday, Dan Shapley, a water quality program manager with Riverkeeper, said, “The health of the tributaries is directly related to the health of the Hudson, so we know that we need to be thinking about our watershed if we care about our long term mission of protecting the [Hudson] river.”
A total of 336 samples from 43 sites along the Mohawk were analyzed for Riverkeeper’s report, which held as one of its standards the EPA’s beach advisory limits for safe swimming. The report found 37 percent of the samples failed the EPA’s limit, while 48 percent of the samples failed after rainy weather.
Shapley said after the presentation that Riverkeeper and SUNY Cobleskill have only been collecting data on the Mohawk for the past year and a half, and Riverkeeper has been collecting data on the Hudson River for nearly 10 years, “so you learn more each year.”
“But based on what we know now, I would say that there are many days in many places where you can go swimming safely on the Mohawk, which is great news .... What we also see though is certain tributaries, and certain stretches of the river...are problem areas.”
The Environmental Protect Agency sets a weighted average entero count limit of 30 cells per 100 ml of water to avoid chronic contamination and the health risks associated with such contamination.
The samples were taken along the length of the Mohawk River from Schenectady to Rome. The problem areas Shapley mentioned are concentrated at both ends of the river. Mohawk Harbor in Schenectady, for instance, had an average entero count 215 cells per 100 ml of water, the second-highest average entero count of the 43 sites sampled.
The highest average entero count was recorded at the other end of the Mohawk, at the Oriskany Creek Tributary, which came in at 281 cells per 100 ml of water.
Samples taken at a public dock at Riverlink Park in Amsterdam showed an average entero count just over the EPA’s limit at 31.4 cells per 100 ml of water. Over the last 12 months, hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage have leaked into the North Chuctanunda Creek in Amsterdam, which feeds into the Mohawk.
One of the biggest contributors to fecal contamination of the Mohawk comes from combined sewer overflows, which occur when a municipality’s combined wastewater and stormwater piping system becomes overwhelmed after heavy rainfall and discharge the overflow directly into the river.
Nearly a half-dozen municipalities along the Mohawk River have overflow points that discharge into the river, including Utica, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Cohoes and Waterford.
Utica’s Reall Creek Tributary was measured as having an average entero count of 206.5 cells per 100 ml of water.
And while another major source of contamination is stormwater runoff, which can pick up fecal contaminants from urban and agricultural sites along the river, Shapley said what the river needs is more investment in sewer infrastructure to prevent the combined sewer overflows.
“We definitely need more data but we can say with growing confidence that we have a river that certainly shows a lot of resilience and is very safe for recreation in a lot of stretches, but clear infrastructure problems that need to be fixed,” said Shapley.
He said he’s encouraged by what he’s heard about the upcoming state budget’s allocation for infrastructure improvements upstate.
“It looks very likely that there will be significantly new money available for communities to invest in their infrastructure,” he said. “That’s critically important for places like the Mohawk.”
Riverkeeper in their report also said the data they collect and present is helpful to municipalities that compete for federal and state water quality improvement grants.
“Our data and advocacy contributed to the establishment of the NY Water Grants program, which has allocated $400 million for community infrastructure grants available since 2015,” said Riverkeeper in their report.
To see Riverkeeper’s full report on the Mohawk River, visit its website at www.riverkeeper.org.