Among Union College students exists a stigma that the Mohawk River, the body of water that parallels Erie Boulevard, is not clean. On many occasions, students have claimed that it is disgusting. Members of the crew team deal with this issue frequently since they have to row on the river. Union students are not the only ones feeling uneasy about the water quality of the Mohawk. It has also caught the attention of many residents, researchers and politicians. Over 600,000 people call the Mohawk River home, including people of Union College.
The Mohawk watershed lies entirely within the borders of New York State and comprises about one-fourth of the greater Hudson River basin. The Mohawk originates in the Adirondacks and flows 140 miles to the east where it empties into the Hudson. The Erie Canal was built in the early 19th century to connect the Great Lakes to the Mohawk and Hudson, greatly reducing shipping costs. The Mohawk is vital for transportation and many railroads and roadways parallel its path. Many people rely on clean water in the Mohawk for varying purposes.
According to the New York State Department of Conservation (NYSDC), the major water quality concerns of the Mohawk basin are urban runoff and industrial effects in densely populated areas, the impacts of sewer overflow and municipal wastewater in Utica and other urban areas, agricultural and other nonpoint sources (pollution not from industrial and sewage treatment plants) of pollutants, the impact of acid rain on aquatic wildlife, on site wastewater discharges in unsewered areas and protection of a New York City water supply reservoir. Around 31 percent of lakes and 11 percent of rivers in the Mohawk watershed are considered to have poor water quality.
However, 35 percent of lakes and rivers have yet to be assessed. Poor water quality is defined as “not supporting designated activities and uses.” Around 24 percent of lakes and rivers are considered satisfactory, meaning they “fully support designated activities, but with minor impacts.” Only nine percent of lakes and 31 percent of rivers have been determined to have good water quality, meaning they “fully support designated activities and uses.” Many locals are worried about the lack of good water quality in the Mohawk.
The Union College Geology Department hosted the ninth Mohawk Watershed Symposium on March 17, 2017 at College Park Hall. The annual symposium focuses on the physical aspects of the Mohawk watershed and this year particularly focused on water quality. Over 175 scientists, policymakers, students and concerned citizens attended. Many of them gave presentations and made posters regarding new environmental monitoring, water infrastructure, pathogens in water, lead, PCBs, PFOAs and microplastics in the river.
Many of the attendees were concerned about the failing water infrastructure in the region, which has been a focal point for state and federal politicians lately. Assemblyman Phil Steck (NY 110th District) appeared at the symposium to discuss the significance of the Safe Water Infrastructure Action Program (SWAP) bill (S.3292/A.3907) that he co-proposed with Senator Jim Tedisco (NY 49th District) in February.
The bill is aimed at allowing for a funding mechanism to sustain the local water infrastructure. Federal Representative Paul D. Tonko (NY 20th District) co-introduced the AQUA Act bill last year. The intent of the bill is to increase funding for communities with defective water infrastructure. Last year, Amsterdam, New York experienced two sewage spills in three months due to leaks in the local sewage infrastructure. The sewage spilled into the North Chuctanunda Creek, which flows into the Mohawk.
At one point sewage was spilling at 50 gallons per minute. Amsterdam is located about 18 miles northwest of here and is upstream on the Mohawk of Schenectady. Two water quality studies focused on above and below the sewage leakage in Amsterdam were presented at the Mohawk Watershed Symposium. Barbara Brabetz of SUNY Cobleskill and Riverkeeper presented her research on pathogens in the water of the Mohawk from Amsterdam to Delta Lake.
Almost all of the sites tested were safe for public recreation. People who conducted the research did not expect the results. Jacquie Smith of Union College also presented her research focused on microplastics, which have various sources but can be indicators for sewage. So far the research has indicated that there are microplastics present, but not in significant amounts. Unfortunately, the highest concentrations of microbeads, the best indicator of sewage contribution, were found downstream from the Schenectady Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Along with the sewage leaks, the Mohawk is known to flood which leads to sewage overflow. Even though the research presented at the symposium did not indicate abundant amounts of sewage in the river, these sewage leaks and overflow examples demonstrate why the NYSDC is so concerned with the municipal wastewater and the impacts of sewage overflow. Union students are aware of the large amount of attention people are giving to the quality of water in the Mohawk River, leading to mixed opinions about the river.