Partners in Protecting the River

Maija Niemisto

During the second week of October, Clearwater spent a few days sailing from one of our favorite docks on the Hudson River. The Yonkers Pier is a wonderful spot with beautiful views of the Palisades, great fishing and a thriving waterfront community. On the morning of October 13th, as the students arrived, we began to notice a foul smell wafting across the decks of the boat.

We carried on with our education program with a class of lively fourth graders, teaching them about how polluted the Hudson River used to be 40 years ago before the Clean Water Act and before citizens started to protect their precious waterway. We tested the water with the students, demonstrated how their watershed works and observed fish from the Hudson, showing them how much healthier the river is today. All the while, the students covered their noses complaining of the stink rising off the water around them. Near the end of our program, a gentleman walked up to the dock and asked if we could help him report the source of the wastewater making its way into the Hudson.

Some of our crewmembers took a walk up the Saw Mill River, which lets out into the main stem of the Hudson about 100 feet upstream of where Clearwater docks, to see where the cloudy greenish water was being dumped. What the concerned citizen was reporting appeared to be thousands of gallons of wastewater gushing into what is normally a clear bubbling creek running through neighborhoods and past schoolyards on its path to the river.

Clearwater’s crew spends hours every day teaching kids about how to protect the delicate Hudson River watershed by making responsible choices like recycling, using less water, carpooling, and avoiding harsh cleaning chemicals. Some of these are choices 4th graders can make for themselves but many are choices they rely on teachers or parents to model for them. A new lesson came up on this uniquely smelly day out on the river: If they are playing near a creek or stream and witness a polluter in the act…TELL ON THEM! 

We gathered samples of the water and called Riverkeeper, the Hudson’s clean water advocate. On the Riverkeeper’s monthly patrols gathering water samples to identify potentially harmful levels of bacteria, Captain John Lipscomb blows the whistle on individuals, corporations and sometimes municipalities who are violating the Clean Water Act. Lipscomb took our water samples, pictures and other details about the location of the dumping to bring public attention to the source of the Saw Mill Creek stench.

The next day, October 14th, thousands of students flocked to the river to participate in “A Day in the Life of the Hudson River.” Once a year, the DEC’s Hudson River Estuary program leads schools all over the valley in water quality data collection, fish identification and onsite observations about the natural environment.  Clearwater sailed with 5th graders participating in the day’s events by collecting samples from the middle of the Hudson to be combined with all the data compiled by students wading into the river from the shores. While sailing picturesquely past a press event held by Clearwater, Scenic Hudson, and Riverkeeper announcing a new agenda for protecting the river, Clearwater and Riverkeeper came alongside each other to discuss the Saw Mill River sewage.

Test results were back and the bacterial levels were off the charts, hundreds of times higher than is legal. Despite local and state agencies being aware of the spill, no health advisory was issued and the foul green water continued to spew into the river on a day where school children from the entire Hudson Valley congregated on the shores. Local police and the Department of Environmental Conservation were notified and Riverkeeper posted their findings.

 It is an exciting time when a rank smell from the Hudson River is a rarity that sets off a series of reactions among local citizens, environmental groups, scientists and decision makers. When young people are encouraged to enjoy the river and study water samples rather than avoid the waterway, they become the kinds of adults who care enough about their local watershed to draw attention to problems challenging it. We applaud the citizens of Yonkers for highlighting this illegal sewage dump and are proud supporters of Riverkeeper’s “call for a uniform public warning system” in their Pollution Enforcement article and encourage Hudson Valley students, parents, teachers and concerned citizens to continue protecting our river.

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