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Splashing Around

Aug 10, 2017 CWN

Swimming holes, water quality, and you

By Anne Pyburn Craig

(Painting by Kim Do, courtesy of Windham Fine Arts)

   Swimming holes in the Hudson Valley have been a hot topic over the past couple of years, what with the area’s heightened profile. Local tourism publications, the state’s I Love New York campaign, Travel and Leisure posting the Peekamoose Blue Hole as one of the finest in the land—all share some of the responsibility for the streamside population boom, which has led to trash problems and new emergency regulations from the DEC.

    The litterbug issue aside, it’s impossible to blame anyone for wanting to take a dip. No dive into a chlorinated swimming pool can compare to the rush you get from a cold, crystalline creek or the awe inspired by being neck-deep in the mighty Hudson.

    Given our proximity to a metro population of over twenty million (sure, they’ve got beaches, but sitting on sand can’t compare; cool Shawangunk rock doesn’t creep inside your swimsuit) and the fact that the cat is out of the bag and all over the Internet, private idylls at the more-publicized spots may be a thing of the past, at least on weekends and holidays. (And you absolutely won’t find any of the less-publicized spots publicized in this story.) How fortunate we are, then, to have stewards watching our waters.

   “We do monthly testing at 425 sites from the Adirondacks to New York Harbor, “ says Dan Shapley, Water Quality Program Director for Riverkeeper. “It’s the most extensive water quality testing program of its kind, made possible by a number of partners and over 200 individuals. The watersheds we monitor include the Esopus, the Rondout, the Sawkill and Roe Jan in Dutchess County, and the Catskill Creek.”

    Riverkeeper’s testing program measures salinity, oxygen, temperature, suspended sediment, chlorophyll, and the sewage indicating bacterium Enteroccocus, which is an indicator of fecal contamination. Before setting out for a dip, you can visit the water quality section of their website and check the latest data reports from partners and citizen scientists, handily transposed onto maps with red spots that indicate beach advisories. And Shapley says that keeping some general rules in mind will help you ensure that your good times don’t come back to bite you.

    “Make good choices not just about where you swim but about when,” he advises. “After a heavy rainfall you’ll find declining quality in the tributaries for a day or two. Older pump stations, leaky septics, people who don’t pick up after their dogs—the rain washes all that into the water.”

    Know your surroundings. “Look upstream,” says Shapley. “If all you can see is forest, you’re in better shape than if you see a city or a subdivision.”

   Perhaps surprisingly, concentrations of bacteria tend to be less problematic in the Hudson River than in her tributaries. “You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find less bacteria in the big, muddy Hudson than in the sleepy Rondout, to be safer swimming at Kingston Point Beach than out in a wooded spot, but that was one of our findings early on,” Shapley says. “The river water quality in the mid-Hudson, between Ulster and Dutchess, varies over time but it’s generally some of the best of anywhere we measure—which is a good thing because not only do people jump in, it supplies drinking water for 100,000.”

    In keeping with the overall adage that what’s upstream matters, Riverkeeper’s analysts find the Esopus generally cleaner than the Rondout, and the Rondout generally cleaner than the beleaguered Wallkill, which flows north from thickly settled areas. “We see wide variation over time and from place to place on the same tributary, but that’s generally the case,” Shapley says.

    The same creek can contain safer and less safe locations. On the Rondout, for example, testing upstream from Ellenville indicates very few unwelcome bacteria. “Then there’s a decline in quality through Kerhonkson, where it gets better again up until Rosendale, after which there is another decline. Just as you would expect, fewer wastewater sites and less development make for better water quality.”

    Little data exists on smaller creeks such as the Coxing Kill and Peterskill, although the general rules would tend to indicate that their waters are probably safer still. And, as yet, there’s no information about non-biological pollutants. “We test for bacteria because that’s what we can afford to do at this point,” says Shapley. “We are just beginning to do other kinds of testing in the Hudson, working with Cornell and the Environmental Protection Agency, but there isn’t much data yet.”

    The EPA does provide a searchable database of Superfund sites that can help you stay clear of the worst of the worst; the New York State DEC also does water quality work and generates a list of Impaired Waterbodies, but it’s far less user-friendly than Riverkeeper’s maps.

    If you’re going to visit the watering holes, consider helping with stewardship by joining

    Riverkeeper’s battalion of citizen science partners. It’s a one-day-a-month commitment in which you’ll be working with Riverkeeper’s patrol boat—hard to imagine what could be cooler than “Lunch? Nah, I have to go meet the patrol boat”—and the ramifications are huge.

    “Every sample taken is a vote for clean water,” says Shapley. “It’s not just data, it’s power. And it’s driven a landmark $2.5 billion investment in clean water, the largest in a generation.”

   The Clean Water Infrastructure Act will fund improvements that prevent sewage leaks as well as dedicating $100 million to watershed land acquisition.

    And Shapley would like to see some love shown to the bodies of water that, while they may not currently be swimmer-friendly, could be made that way with some intelligent TLC—the Wallkill, for example.

    “You don’t want to go in the Wallkill at this point, but going on the Wallkill for a paddle is not only fine, it’s one of the coolest paddling rivers in the area,” he says. “Our partners, the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, are sponsoring monthly public paddles with kayaks provided for free to get more people out there. The more we fall in love with a river, the easier it is to clean her up.”

    On the Wallkill, and on any body of water, stay well clear of bright green algal blooms. Water quality is only one of several important safety issues swimming hole visitors need to consider, of course. Always walk in feet first and get to know the bottom before you jump or dive; be aware that some rocks under the water can be slipperier than an eel’s butt and others less stable than they look; test the terrain with a tentative toe before trusting a spot with your full weight.

    Keep your wits about you, generally, and strap life vests onto kids and other non-swimmers. Respect private property. And we don’t need to remind you to leave the breakables at home and leave no trace, right?

    With caution and good stewardship, our swimming holes—both the better-known ones and the best kept secrets—will continue to bring us summertime refreshment and joy. All the water asks is to be treated with respect. And in return, it gives so much.

     “Swimming outside in natural waters is one of life’s great joys,” Shapley says. “We’re drawn to natural water. We want to stare at it, dip our toes, jump in. And we can’t and shouldn’t expect the experience to be completely risk-free.”