When I first moved to New York’s Capital District in 1968 the Mohawk River was little more than a sewer. Barges of petroleum and other commodities moved on the Barge Canal. That year New York State hired a couple dozen young graduates from engineering schools to help implement a public vision to clean up our water environment. It was called the Pure Waters program. The federal government had a similar program with funding for states to build infrastructure including new sewers and secondary treatment plants to replace antiquated primary treatment. Primary treatment was nothing more than a septic tank where solids were settled and removed from the waste stream before chlorination and discharge.
The 1970s improvements included secondary treatment. This went after dissolved solids usually with an optimal biological process including aeration and a secondary settling. Some communities, generally those in upstream areas, were required to provide tertiary treatment. This advanced treatment removed nutrients that remained in the waste stream.
As the Mohawk and other water resources became cleaner we all started using our waters for recreation like boating, fishing and swimming. This was the public’s “best usage” and some communities again started to use the Mohawk as a source of drinking water.
Unfortunately when it rained sewers would overflow, discharging directly to the river. These are called combined sewer overflows. The rational was that as flow in the river increased with incoming rain water, dilution kept contaminants at “acceptable levels”. Water quality was monitored on a periodic basis to assure quality was sustained …until our society started focusing on other public issues.
This brings me back to the question, “How’s the water?” The answer is, “Pretty darn good!” Except…
Two major advances have occurred since the 1980’s. Sophisticated analytical techniques can now detect contaminants at very low concentrations.
We have become aware of and appreciate our water resources for recreation and even aesthetics. The State of New York’s water quality monitoring has shifted to hazardous compounds like PCBs and PFOAs.
Concurrently some of our basic infrastructure designed in the 1970s for a forty year life has begun to deteriorate.
Enter environmental organizations like Riverkeeper. On low budgets these organizations are frantically trying to maintain vigilance on our water quality.
This coming summer a crew of volunteers from the Friends of the Mohawk Towpath Byway will be helping to take a snapshot every month of the water quality in the Mohawk between Schenectady and Cohoes and Waterford. If you would like to help with this effort to see “how’s the water” please contact us at admin(at)mohawktowpath(dot)org.