Something stinks about the Hudson near Albany

hudson river looking towards dunn bridge

The Hudson River at the Dunn Memorial Bridge was among the 10 worst spots in the study.

The environmental org Riverkeeper released a report this week on Hudson River sewage contamination levels -- and the results for this part of the Hudson were... uh... gross.

Riverkeeper's testing found sewage-indicating bacteria levels were above acceptable limits more than 50 percent of the time at both Island Creek/Normans Kill in Glenmont (65 percent of the time) and the Dunn Memorial Bridge in Albany (50 percent). Those two spots were among the top-10 worst of all the spots tested. The data for all the locations tested are posted online -- and table with local data is after the jump.

So, what's causing this problem? The Capital District's combined sewer systems dump untreated sewage into the river when they're over capacity (example: after a heavy rain).

Riverkeeper says the systems release 1.2 billion gallons of untreated sewage and wastewater into the river each year.

riverkeeper hudson river sewage Albany table

The Riverkeeper report explains:

[The Capital District] has 92 CSOs [combined sewer overflows] that dump an estimated 1.2 billion gallons of combined sewage and wastewater into the Hudson each year. That mix is entering a narrower and shallower section of the Hudson River, without the volume and mixing benefits of close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean that NYC enjoys.
Another important difference between Albany and NYC is that the three sewage treatment plants serving the Capital District do not use disinfection. So in the Capital District the rain-triggered CSOs provide a spike of contamination on top of a chronically sewage-laden section of the estuary.
The Clean Water Act requires disinfection at sewage treatment plants (STPs), but by issuing special permits (called "SPDES"), New York State has allowed Albany to stay out of compliance for almost 40 years. The lack of disinfection at the STPs is one reason Albany's water quality in all weather is worse than New York City - though the latter is a giant metropolis with far greater sewage and CSO volumes.
In recent years the New York State DEC finally required the Capital District to develop a Long Term Control Plan for its CSOs. The plan currently under development includes adding seasonal disinfection at the three sewage treatment plants in this region - a step in the right direction for water quality in the Capital District.

Six local municipalities -- Albany, Cohoes, Green Island, Rensselaer, Troy, and Watervliet -- have developed a plan to deal with these sewage overflows. As of this past June, the projected price tag was $110 million. [Troy Record] [TU]

Another issue: the streams and creeks that flow into the Hudson. Riverkeeper found that five tributaries in this area exceeded acceptable limits during wet weather (and three failed during dry weather) -- possibly because of leaking septic systems and sewers, or agricultural sources. Last September, a pumping station in Cohoes failed, leading to more than 27,000 gallons of sewage spilling into a Hudson tributary. [Troy Record]

The full report is available for download, and it's embedded below.

photo: Flickr user andyarthur
table: "How is the Water?" - Riverkeeper

RvK How is the Water 2006 10


So who do we write/call?

There was also a story on WNYT a few weeks ago about a site in Waterford that has been dumping sewage into the Mohawk River. All the septic systems go right into the river.

Some cities, like Philadelphia and Portland, OR, are attacking it from the stormwater angle rather than from the sewage treatment side. By aggressively using rain gardens and similar tactics, they are attempting to drastically reduce the amount of water that needs to be treated.

The idea is, these features can be added for a lot less money than either rebuilding the entire storm and sanitary sewer systems, or building more sewage plant capacity.

Not to mention, they can beautify the streets at the same time.

Here's a link to Portland's page:

I can't wait to buy one of those downtown Albany condos currently being adverted on your site. I can take out my dazzling spouse/girlfriend (or if I'm an elected official, a paid escort) and we can go kayaking in the sewage.

Is it any coincidence that in a a city like albany where no rich people live on the river they get to dump sewage at will?

This was all I could think about when KeepAlbanyBoring posted pictures of someone snorkeling in the Hudson last week. Gross!

>>projected price tag was $110 million.

When our public officials think of ways to tackle the CSO situation, their ideas are always impractically expensive. Most people think that we have to rebuild our antiquated sewer systems. But in most cases we do not. What we need to do is re-design our streets and surface parking lots.

Because we have so many combined sewers (storm and sewage), they overflow when all the storm water enters them after a heavy rainfall. Then the filtration stations start dumping the storm water and raw sewage directly into the river because they can't handle the volume.

What we should do is prevent the storm water from entering the sewers in such high volumes in the first place.

Through "bioengineering" we can direct the storm runoff to areas where the water can be absorbed by the ground before it enters the sewer. Using permeable paving surfaces, rather than asphalt will also help much of the rainfall get absorbed by the ground.

That's particularly disturbing about the tributaries!! I never would have thought it. You see some of those beautiful streams flowing through the countryside and you think it's clean. I guess I was wrong.

I'm curious to know what the sewage levels are in the Normanskill near the Normansville Farm/dog park. I take my dog there, and sometimes we splash around in the water together. Yikes.

@Joe: That's a good question. Probably your town or city officials to start. But this is a regional issue, and I'd have to think that county, state and/or federal government will also play a role. (The Capital District Regional Planning Commission has been coordinating the development of the plan to deal with combined sewer overflows.)

@Jim, Duncan: Those sound like good ideas. But they also cost money. And take time to implement. That's not to say they shouldn't be pursued. And they should probably be part of any overall plan. Tangent: big parking lots have a lot of costs -- some of them not readily apparent.

@Summer: I'm curious about that, too. We let Otto into the Normanskill sometimes. I'm not sure we will now.

We kayaked from the Corning boat launch to the head of navigation in the Normanskill last week. Lots of interesting things to see and the only really gross part was the stench and condoms floating from a big sewer outlet near the south end of Broadway. It was good to finally see that section of the river but I won't be back.

@Duncan Crary - Reducing Inflow and Infiltration is almost always the first step in major projects like this. Maybe I'm giving someone too much credit, but I can't imagine they're not already looking into those kind of options. I have some firsthand experience on a considerably smaller scale (population of approx. 3,000 vs. approx. 94,000) and the innitial estimates were over $25 Million. As much as it would be nice to fix some of these problems at the root, it might be less costly to just increase capacity at the Treatment Plant. That way you don't have to worry about construction, traffic control, designing around existing utilities, and a myriad of other factors. The amount of planning and research that has to go into something like this is a massive undertaking, years in the making with a big price tag on it. And that's before you even start building anything. Anyways, just some thoughts to add to the discussion.

I'm glad people are reacting to this... you might be suprised to discover how often this kind of stuff occurs.

So I live in Portland, Oregon. I was visiting the area last week, and went kayaking with Chuck past the floating jellyfish, er condoms, in the Hudson. Nice river, gross water.

Jim PE mentioned how great the Portland system is. Portland IS doing great work to improve the water quality on the Willamette River that runs through town. However, it comes at a great cost. The average water bill runs $60-70 PER MONTH to foot the bill for all these expensive, federally mandated infrastructure projects. The "Big Pipe" CSO project is costing upwards of 1.4 billion.

I'm not sure the people of the Capital District would be receptive to such a rate hike.

This year the Willamette Riverkeeper group organized the "Big Float" where people boat/tube/float across the river by downtown to raise awareness that it's clean. Pretty cool.

Anyways, I like the Hudson, and hope it can get cleaner.

@ T Ferg,

--Reducing Inflow and Infiltration is almost always the first step in major projects like this. Maybe I'm giving someone too much credit--

I have to respectfully disagree with that statement/assumption -- but at a macro level. Our society is absolutely car crazy and obsessed with suburbia, which has paved over half the continent with asphalt roads and parking lots which are not permeable.

Here in Troy we dump our sh*t and tampons straight into the river every time it rains (I've paddled through it on many occasions). And here in Troy, the clamor to build more surface parking lots in downtown Troy is quite loud. With every new surface parking lot we build, we pour that much more storm runoff into our sewers and therefore more sh*t into the river.

We need to stop building surface parking lots -- all together. When we do pave, we need to use permeable paving surfaces (like those nifty bricks and Belgian blocks and even cobbles that we find all throughout the region...buried under the asphalt).

Increasing the capacity at the treatment plant is just another workaround to keep our car crazy paving euphoria going. And so long as week keep paving over everything, we will have to keep increasing the capacity at the treatment plants.

But we just gotta keep our happy motoring ways going at all costs...


Two words: Right on.

I, too, am thrilled this issue is getting the attention it deserves. Our part of the Hudson is the dirtiest part of the River, and we all should know it. A cleaner Hudson is good for fish and for all of us too.

I am also an advocate for infiltration. One of the best management practices for managing combined sewer overflows is pollution prevention - which means keeping more stormwater out of the sewer system. That means using less water, capturing water in rain gardens, street trees, and green roofs before it gets into the sewers, and as Duncan said, managing impervious surface,and realizing that more pavement means more poop in the river. This concept is called green infrastructure, and it is a major feature of the City of Syracuse's CSO consent order approved by NYS DEC (see, as well as Philadelphia's desired approach to managing its CSO problem ( All of which stimulates the economy by creating green jobs for installing and maintaining the projects.

There are some green infrastructure goals in the Albany Pool long term control plan - but you can always ask for more!

Hey, that's my kayak!


I think the CSO problem is largely an urban problem. Most of the suburban areas are newer, have segregated sewers for storm water and sewage. Many suburban parking lots and streets have collector ponds that filter the water, and release the water in creeks and streams, totally separate from main sewers. Moreover, most suburbs are not paved over by asphalt, but have large green spaces, where water can be naturally absorbed.

CSOs are a historical problem, a problem of poor urban design that did not provide for adequate separation of sewage water and storm water. While storm water should be treated, it needs less treatment and filtration then raw sewage requires.

Older farm and other rural houses have seperate gray water (sink water) and black water (sewage) systems. Sewage is treated by leach fields, while gray water goes out a pipe into open settling ponds to be asborbed back into the ground.

OK. This is an old thread by now, but I can't give Andy A the last word on this for the sake of Google searches.

@Andy A

--I think the CSO problem is largely an urban problem. --

Suburbia is no longer a "place." It is a style of delivering a living arrangement that is neither urban nor rural. The suburban style of building has infected all geographic areas of the United States. The plans for the Hoosick Street McDonald's in Troy are SUBURBAN even though they are within city limits.

The New Urbanists have created a framework of vocabulary to speak about the built environment called "The Transect." This goes from T-1 (which is wilderness) to T-6, which is the "urban core" (downtown). T-3 is Sub-urban.

You are correct that a lot of the CSO problems are occurring in the older cities. But the reason the older cities have CSO problems is because they've been Sub-Urbanized for decades.

--Most of the suburban areas are newer, have segregated sewers for storm water and sewage. --


--Many suburban parking lots and streets have collector ponds that filter the water, and release the water in creeks and streams, totally separate from main sewers.--

This is obviously incorrect. Just look around at parking lots and you'll see this is a false statement. If you happen to see a little duck pond (like next to Staples in Latham Farms) that's only there because the developers were required to "mitigate" the wetlands they destroyed with parking lots.

And do you really think that little duck pond is soaking up all the oily runoff from the VAST SEA OF PARKING that is Latham Farms. Fuggedaboutit!

-- Moreover, most suburbs are not paved over by asphalt, but have large green spaces, where water can be naturally absorbed.--

Also incorrect.

Even the engineered suburban lawns are packed down so tightly they don't absorb rain fall. Read the Google News Archives for all the storm water runoff that's polluting Lake George. It's coming directly from suburban style LAWNS (or "Greenspaces" as you call them) which do not absorb the rainwater runoff.

P.S. Andy I'm quite sure you're a great guy. Your comments certainly have a nicer tone than mine. But I've spent my whole life arguing against suburbia and I've heard every single pro-suburbia argument there is. They're all b.s. And they're not only destroying our culture and our economy -- they're destroying the planet.

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