Village trustee Patrick Landewe suggested Saugerties lead the way, with testing to be done by the sewer plant and results posted quickly and publicly. Another trustee, Donald Hackett, said the village should avoid that route, since such tests would imply its water treatment facility isn’t up to snuff. The board recently mulled putting up signs at swimming areas warning of possible unsafe conditions following heavy rains, but couldn’t come to a decision.
Concern over runoff
The danger comes from elevated levels of bacteria after rainstorms. Local officials don’t agree on what to blame for that, though alleged culprits include under-treated water from the sewer plant, leech fields from creekside homes and businesses, even animal feces washing down into the river.
These bacteria, when present over a sustained period, have the potential to cause a range of ailments, from ear infection and skin irritation, to serious neurological problems and exposure to certain viruses. But because few people actually get sick, it’s not always easy to determine the cause of an illness.
The bacteria being measured is enterococcus, which is not harmful in itself, but is useful as an indicator that feces is present in the water. Riverkeeper found elevated levels of enterococcus in the Hudson near the Esopus in July, August, and September of 2008. More recent tests found very low levels, though those tests followed periods of little or no rainfall. (Riverkeeper found high levels following rainstorms throughout the Hudson, not just near Saugerties. No testing has been done in the at the Village Beach, above the Cantine Dam and the sewer plant.)
The EPA sets acceptable sustained levels at 31 per 100 mL of water. Counts between 32 and 60 can indicate a problem over time if sustained, and a count of over 61 is unacceptable for full human contact with the water, says the EPA.
In July 2008, the count was measured at 82. In September, after 2.5 inches of rain in the five days prior to the testing, samples showed an enterococcus count of 1,986, and in August, with only .6 inches of rain preceding the testing, the samples maxed out Riverkeeper’s equipment at 2420.
Earlier this year, the July count was 6, the June count 11 and the May count 5.
Lipscomb says that the elevated levels found previously are not necessarily indicative of a problem, but they do beg further testing. “The problem with infrequent sampling, including ours, is that you may through coincidence just miss events that you need to note, in order to create a definitive answer for the community,” he said.
What should be done?
Some trustees have suggested swimmers be warned during times of elevated levels, while others say the testing and communication capacity to get that info out isn’t feasible. Trustee Donald Hackett said the village wastewater treatment plant is not to blame for elevated levels found at the mouth of the Esopus. The plant, he says, routinely meets all requirements to maintain the State Pollution Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit granted by New York State, which requires constant testing of water released from the plant.
“There could be a lot of offenders along the upper and lower creek,” said Hackett. “After heavy rain, a lot of animal feces get swept into the water. There are also treatment plants to the north, in Malden, and to the south, in Glasco. There are lots of other reasons besides the Saugerties plant. That plant has been in compliance since I’ve been here.”
Trustee Patrick Landewe, who first broached the subject with the board last month, says he is not blaming the treatment plant, though he says wastewater may spend less time in the plant undergoing treatment during rainstorms. He recognizes that other culprits may exist, including animal feces due to runoff. He also points to aging septic systems along waterways, and runoff from attached leech fields as possible contributors.
Landewe said the village could put out information on water quality, just as other municipalities post real-time info on air quality and weather alerts. He thinks the local wastewater plant could serve as an ally, since it’s constantly doing testing.
Hackett does not agree.
“If we put out a warning, we are saying that we are responsible,” he said. “We only know what’s coming into our plant and going out of our plant. We don’t know what the rain might have washed into the creek. We can’t be advising people that it’s unsafe when we don’t know it to be true.”
Hackett says he recommended Landewe, who is the keeper of the Saugerties Lighthouse, put up a sign at the lighthouse for those who access the water there, stating that after periods of heavy rain entering the water may be hazardous. He added that after rain, he would personally be more worried about water currents than bacteria.
County could do more testing
According to Lipscomb, the results gathered by Riverkeeper are not designed to answer questions, but to raise them. To identify the problem, much more frequent testing would need to be done. Lipscomb also says that the responsibility to undertake such a study lies with county officials, not with Riverkeeper.
“If there is enough interest and community engagement, a request could be made by the local Saugerties government directly to the county executive’s office,” said Lipscomb. “Saugerties could request a meeting to discuss a funded mandate for the county health department to study this issue in the community.”
The Ulster County Department of Health is responsible for testing the water quality at designated swimming areas, which happens four times during each swimming season, according to superintendent of parks and buildings George Terpening. While this satisfies the mandated testing requirements, Lipscomb says that it is not sufficient testing to identify any problems that may exist.
In order to perform a sufficient study, he suggests analyzing water samples at least once per week, at first. As time goes on, testing should be targeted to coincide with events such as wet weather. In Lipscomb’s opinion, the monthly testing done at the mouth of the Esopus indicate that rainfall is likely a precipitator to bacteria entering the creek.
While Riverkeeper is not planning an extensive study, the organization is considering adding additional testing locations. One of these may be at a point above the falls on the Esopus Creek, near the Village Beach.
The obvious choice would be the county health department, but funding may pose a problem. “The health departments do their job, but they only sample where they are told to sample,” said Lipscomb. “We want them to be told to do it differently. That decision has to come from the local government.”