To Save the Wallkill River

The Wallkill River starts at Lake Mohawk in New Jersey and flows north 90 miles to meet the Rondout Creek in Esopus and Rosendale, New York.  Along the way, the river drains 785 square miles, its 69 major tributaries branching out to include 43 municipalities in five counties across two states. The combined Wallkill River-Rondout Creek watershed is the third largest tributary to the Hudson, after the Mohawk River and Sacandaga River watersheds.

The Wallkill River in New Paltz. Photo: Michael O’Donnell, Wallkill River Watershed Alliance

The river itself is generally avoided. Swimming is rare, and unsafe most of the time in much of the river due to fecal contamination. While fishing is popular, few eat what they catch.  Kayakers try not to get water in their mouths.

There are no big polluters on the river–the Wallkill instead is suffering a death by a thousands cuts. Natural minerals in New Jersey leach arsenic into the river. Stormwater washes nutrients, salts, pesticides and other chemicals from our streets and farms into it. Leaking septic systems, sewer plants and other sources contaminate the river with fecal matter.  Climate change and nutrient pollution are leading to toxic algae blooms. The list goes on.

The Wallkill River Watershed Alliance

A year and a half ago, I helped to found the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, a membership organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the river and its watershed.  I’ve since been elected the Alliance’s first Executive Director, and the position dovetails nicely with my studies as a part-time grad student at Bard’s Center for Environmental Policy; I’ve often been able to use coursework to study watershed issues in more detail than I might otherwise have time for.

The Alliance itself is in the midst of a process to develop an action plan for the net two years, and as part of that process, we’ve identified three key priorities:

  • Water Quality. A Wallkill that is swimmable, with pollution levels below acceptable limits and no harmful algal blooms.
  • Public Access and Engagement. Fostering a public individually and personally invested in the well being of the river and its watershed, as well as involved in its restoration.
  • Capacity Building. Increasing the time, funding, and people dedicated to restoring the watershed, for both the Alliance and our allied organizations, agencies, and governments.

Martha Cheo of the Alliance’s Outreach Working Group teaching a young water protector about macroinvertebrates. Photo by Jason West, Wallkill River Watershed Alliance

To implement these priorities, we’ve split up into four Working Groups: Boat Brigades, Outreach, Policy, and Science. Each month, we meet to compare notes, lay plans and hear presentations about watershed issues.  We also form partnerships with other organizations, such as Riverkeeper,which has been testing the Wallkill for fecal contamination since 2012; the Orange County Planning Department, which has been engaged in Wallkill watershed issues since its inception; and the Hudson River Estuary Program, a Department of Environmental Conservation program that supports the Alliance with both technical advice and grant funding through the Environmental Protection Fund. Several municipalities are also active participants.

Improving the Wallkill’s Water Quality

Water quality is our highest priority, and among the many water quality problems with the Wallkill, three stand out.  Nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) from the extensive agriculture in the watershed, stormwater runoff, treated sewage effluent or other sources can alter ecosystems and lead to toxic Harmful Algae Blooms. Pathogens (as indicated by the presence of bacteria like enterococcus) from fecal contamination in the river present a human health risk and largely keep the river unswimmable. Pesticides (even the outlawed DDT) poison the river from the large amount of agricultural land in the watershed.

A toxic Harmful Algal Bloom poisoned 30 miles of the Wallkill for two months in 2016. Photo by Jason West, Wallkill River Watershed Alliance

The creation of the Alliance has helped to draw attention to the Wallkill in a significant way.  Providing a place for concerned residents to organize to protect the river, the Alliance has also drawn the attention of staff at regional organizations.

As a result of our work to focus attention on the Wallkill, of our allies’ work advocating for our river, and of the receptiveness of the DEC to our calls and conversations, an exciting opportunity has come up.

Every five years, the DEC studies one of the the major watersheds in the state, as part of its Rotating Integrated Basin Study (RIBS).  The Lower Hudson region, which includes the Wallkill, is the focus of RIBS sampling in 2017.

As per the DEC website, the objective of RIBS is,

…to assess water quality of all waters of the state, including the documentation of good quality waters and the identification of water quality problems; identify long-term water quality trends; characterize naturally occurring or background conditions; and establish baseline conditions for use in measuring the effectiveness of site-specific restoration and protection activities.

As a result of our work, however, the DEC has drafted a proposal for an “Enhanced Monitoring Study of the Wallkill River” that would gather significantly more information about the river than typical RIBS sampling.

The Enhanced Monitoring Study would be a two-year, $800,000 study.  It would pay to identify major sources of pathogens and nutrients and prioritize ways to improve water quality. The first year would include data collection and the second would include modeling. Completing this study will also make future Wallkill-related grants more competitive at a time when New York is investing record amounts in water infrastructure.

An Opportunity for Action

State leaders are crafting the New York State budget now. Please call your legislators today to ask that the DEC’s “Enhanced Monitoring Study of the Wallkill River” is included in the coming budget.

The legislators representing the Wallkill River watershed are:

district watershed towns represented first name last name email phone
98th Assembly
Greenville, Minisink, Warwick
Karl
Brabenec
brabeneck@nyassembly.gov
845-544-7551
99th Assembly
Chester, Goshen, Hamptonburgh, New Windsor, Wawayanda
James
Skoufis
SkoufisJ@nyassembly.gov
845-469-6929
100th Assembly
Mamakating, Middletown, Mount Hope, Wallkill
Aileen
Guenther
GuntheA@nyassembly.gov
845-794-5807
101st Assembly
Crawford, Montgomery, Shawangunk, Wawarsing
Brian
Miller
millerb@nyassembly.gov
845-895-1080
103rd Assembly
Esopus, Gardiner, New Paltz, Plattekill, Rosendale
Kevin
Cahill
CahillK@nyassembly.gov
845-338-9610
104th Assembly
Lloyd, Newburgh
Frank
Skartados
SkartadosF@nyassembly.gov
845-562-0888
39th Senate
Chester, Crawford, Montgomery, Newburgh, New Windsor, Plattekill
Bill
Larkin
larkin@nysenate.gov
845-567-1270
42nd Senate
Gardiner, Goshen, Greenville, Hamptonburgh, Mamakating, Middletown, Minisink, Mount Hope, New Paltz, Rosendale, Shawangunk, Warwick, Wawarsing, Wawayanda
John
Bonacic
bonacic@nysenate.gov
845-344-3311
46th Senate
Esopus, Lloyd
George
Amedore
amedore@nysenate.gov
845-331-3810

 

About Jason West

Graduate student at Bard's Center for Environmental Policy, working towards an M.S. in Climate Science and Policy.