Sewage spill in NY’s Hudson River

river viewMost mornings begin this way, a half hour swim in the Hudson River, north along the commuter rail track from my local swimming beach, past the fishing shack cobbled together from driftwood and lumber scraps, up to the old railroad building and back to the little neighborhood swimming beach.

There’s a peace to the river this time of day – the beach and picnic tables empty, Manhattan-bound trains just out of reach.  Later in the day, the scene will change as my kids and dozens of others splash in the shallows, cannonballing from the floating docks.  That any of this is possible is an incredible success story – the renaissance of a river considered an industrial sewer for generations as sewage and industrial waste rendered it unsafe to swim in or fish from.

As local temperatures top 100 today, the Hudson should offer us a cooling respite. But not today, not tomorrow. After a fire at a wastewater treatment plant in upper Manhattan, millions of gallons of untreated sewage continue to pour into the river.

Once again, it’s not safe to swim, fish, or sail in our local waters. 

The tidal nature of the river spreads the contamination upstream, and to coastal waters. It’s an unwelcome and unhealthy reminder of the machinery we need to keep our cities healthy places to live, and the frailty of that infrastructure.  A sad truth to life in this area is the raw sewage that routinely flows into the Hudson, Long Island Sound, and our other local waters every time it rains. Even small storms quickly overwhelm antiquated combined sewers. 

The major accidents, like Wednesday’s, are regrettable, but more difficult to swallow (literally) are the ordinary and avoidable overflows.  Eliminating these will take significant resources and lots of imagination – and a new vision for how we build in and live in our communities. 

New Yorkers, public and private, are embracing “green infrastructure” that uses green roofs, more street trees, smarter building and community design to keep rain on the land and out of the sewers.  We need more cities and towns in this metro area to embrace this same vision, one that makes our neighborhoods better to live in and our rivers healthier.  It’s time for us to get back in the water.