FOR THOSE WHO didn’t grow up near the Hudson River in the middle part of the last century, here are two things I learned as a teenager about that most prominent of local waterways: it can make you go wherever it wants even if you didn’t plan to go there, and it was very, very dirty.
I learned about both those attributes firsthand 50 years ago when my cousin convinced me we should launch my eight-foot-long, wooden sailboat for its maiden voyage from the Poughkeepsie ramp. It was late one afternoon about this time of year. There wasn’t much of a breeze, and we didn’t have a motor, just an oar (that’s right, one oar). As we left shore the wind died. I figured we’d drift downriver, and we did drift, but upriver and a quite a good clip. The Hudson is an estuary, an arm of the Atlantic Ocean. The tide was coming in and we were being drawn to the center channel of a mile-wide the river heading straight to Albany.
For three centuries that tidal flow cleansed the Hudson, while settlements, then cities and their suburbs dumped billions of gallons of raw sewage, industrial waste and other poisonous debris into the water as if the river had an infinite capacity to absorb the mess made by those of us who lived near its banks. Floating a few inches above the water that hot day, I asked my cousin, who was a few years older, “Is that…?” And he’d confirm, “Yes, that’s…” You don’t need details, but we had to pay attention as we took turns paddling carefully through the filth around us.
This was a decade before the federal Clean Water Act and the determined efforts by environmental activists and public officials to undertake the expensive task of treating raw sewage to limit the amount of untreated waste polluting the river. Now there are a handful of officially designated swimming areas along the length of the river between New York City and Albany, and many more unsanctioned sites where people plunge in, though that’s a risky proposition if you don’t treat the river and its currents with proper respect. Government and civic groups have made great strides over the past few decades. But earlier this month, Riverkeeper, the not-for-profit organization the acts as a Hudson River watchdog, issued a report that shows how much work remains, some of it along the shoreline of Columbia County.
As part of Riverkeeper’s Swimmable River Campaign, the organization has been working for the last five years with Columbia University and Queens College to monitor the concentrations in the Hudson River of Enterococci, a type of microbe associated with fecal matter. If you’re at all squeamish, you don’t want to read the federal government’s long list of illnesses these bugs cause, and you definitely don’t want to swim in water that has too many of them. You probably shouldn’t shake hands with anyone who has taken a dip where lots of Enterococci hang out, either.
What the Riverkeeper data show is that all too frequently, often after heavy rainfall, concentrations of these microbes exceed government safety limits. One of the test measurement sites is the boat launch ramp in the City of Hudson, where 34% of the tests showed levels that classified the water as “unacceptable” by the federal standard applied to beaches. What’s more, at least some of the unacceptable readings were literally off the charts because the concentrations were so high.
The city has just opened its new sewage treatment plant, and that may help reduce some pollution spikes. But if anyone thinks this problem is limited to Hudson, think again. The report says that the concentrations are often worse where tributaries enter the river. The lovely creeks that meander through the county and empty into the river can be conduits that deliver many of these threatening, microscopic passengers to the river.
The national news these days carries stories about candidates for president who promise to abolish the federal Environmental Protection Agency and who deride the enforcement of regulations designed to protect the quality of waterways like the Hudson River. The candidates who repeat these mindless pledges see such protections as obstacles to our prosperity. They make me think back to that small wooden boat bobbing up the Hudson, and I wonder how prosperous we can be as a nation if we would let this great resource become an open sewer again.