Sewer Line Breaks, Dumping Raw Sewage in the Hudson

Pollution in the Gowanus Canal, NY

Dirty water in NY waterways | Tom Giebel/

Many of our programs and efforts here at American Rivers are focused on creating the “right” water infrastructure for our communities. Particularly in older towns and cities, like the Hudson River Valley town where I live, our water and sewer pipes are more than a century old, and maintaining or replacing them is a constant challenge for local governments.  When these old sewer lines break, residents and rivers alike pay the price.

That’s the situation here in Tarrytown today, after the collapse of an old sewer line sent millions of gallons of barely treated raw sewage flowing into the Hudson.  Health Department officials closed the river to swimming in both directions (remember, the Hudson is a tidal river here, and flows both ways), again ruining my regular morning swims, threatening this weekend’s Ironman competition in New York City, and canceling my daughter’s birthday party at the local beach.

There are a couple of important stories that come out of this event. First, prompt notification of sewage spills is an essential public right. We deserve to know when to protect ourselves from the health risks posed by these kinds of discharges, we ought to know how our waters are affected by the performance of our publicly funded infrastructure, and we need to be reminded of the condition of our water and sewer pipes and the importance of investing in them.  In an interesting coincidence, yesterday Governor Cuomo signed into law the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act that our friends at Hudson Riverkeeper helped get passed earlier this year.  This law will require prompt public notification of spills like the one here, as well as the more routine spills that happen whenever rainfall overwhelms combined sewer system – common in New York City and many New York communities.

Secondly, the spill and the new law highlight the need for sustainable, dedicated sources of funding for water infrastructure. Low rates, reliance on federal loans, and declining revenue streams all undermine the ability of local government to invest in the replacement of failing pipes and systems, and the modernization of water infrastructure to meet future challenges.  American Rivers is playing a key role in developing innovative strategies that will help to highlight this problem, identify new sources of investment, and direct them to the kinds of infrastructure that will serve us well into the future.

In the meantime, it looks like I’ll have to stay out of the water.