The roots of the modern environmental movement in the United States are far-reaching, and one of them starts in the Hudson Valley. Fifty years ago, the federal government passed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), part of a raft of legislation signed throughout the 1960s and 1970s after Rachel Carson’s paradigm-shifting book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962.
The NEPA includes the “Storm King Doctrine,” which grants constitutional standing to petitioners who cite injury to “aesthetic or recreational values,” codifying into law a citizen’s right to bring an environmental dispute to court on those grounds. That happened because environmentalists organized against the construction of a Consolidated Edison hydropower plant on the mountain in 1962.
The idea that we, as citizens, should be stewards of the land is a modern development (for the United States, anyway). The “Battle for Storm King” became a model for how local activism could protect and preserve the environment on legal grounds in the name of natural beauty. As environmentalists David Schuyler and Paul Gallay write in Scientific American:
In the early years of the Con Ed fight, the turbulence Storm King caused in the American conscience reached the highest level of government. During his 1965 State of the Union Address, President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged to “end the poisoning of our rivers and the air we breathe” and called for a “green legacy” of more parks, seashores, and open space.
A month later, in his Special Message to the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty, Johnson urged lawmakers to “not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction” but to restore what was destroyed and salvage the beauty of America’s cities.
In recent years, there has been significant effort devoted to cleaning up the Hudson River and its 67 tributaries. When Henry Hudson first sailed up the Muhheakunnuk (the Lenape name for “the river that runs both ways”) in 1609, it ran silver with sturgeon, shad, and bass. By the 1960s, it was essentially an open sewer. In the intervening centuries, overfishing, pollution, and overdevelopment—particularly in the form of dams on the river’s tributaries—contributed to a near-systemic ecological collapse of the Hudson.
The Wallkill River is one of the most threatened tributaries. The Wallkill drains Lake Mohawk, in Sparta, New Jersey, and flows 88 miles northeast to join up with Rondout Creek, just south of Rosendale. The combined flows empty into the Hudson River at the Rondout confluence in Kingston.
Concerns about water quality in the Wallkill peaked in 2016, when a toxic blue-green algae bloom covered large portions of the lower thirty miles of the river. “That was really a wake-up call for the river to get the help it needed,” says Dan Shapley, water quality program director at Riverkeeper, a member-supported nonprofit whose mission is to protect the environmental, recreational, and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries.
Efforts to clean up the Wallkill began more than 20 years ago, but they picked up in earnest with a 2015 conference entitled The Future of the Wallkill River. The event was designed to foster public support for restoration efforts, and it led to the creation of the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, which for the past several years has advocated for the restoration of the river and its watershed “using whatever means we find necessary.”
The Wallkill River presents a unique organizational problem. It has 69 tributaries of its own, and its watershed extends more than 785 square miles across two states and 48 municipalities. To help coordinate clean up efforts, the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance organizes an annual summit to bring together people who are working on river issues. And there was a major breakthrough at this year’s summit, which took place in May. After a few years of testing the water quality of the river, the Department of Environmental Conversation (DEC) announced it would develop a clean water plan to reduce excess nutrients from wastewater treatment plants, which will help lower the risk of harmful algal blooms.
Clean water plans aim to outline a watershed-based strategy to improve and protect water quality. They “document the pollution sources, pollutant reduction goals, and strategies that communities may use to improve water quality,” according to the DEC. They’ve long been enabled by the federal Clean Water Act, but according to Shapley the clean water plan that will be developed for the Wallkill is only the second for a New York State river and watershed, after the Mohawk River. “In New York, we just haven’t seen this kind of attention paid, with this kind of plan, for a river very often,” he says.
Before the DEC can formulate a clean water plan for the Wallkill River, it needs to identify the sources of the nutrients (like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and silicon) that caused algal blooms in 2015 and 2016, and then how much it needs to reduce nutrients in order to prevent future blooms. So far, Shapley says, the DEC has discovered that most of the input in the lower portion of the river (in Ulster and Orange Counties) is coming from sewage treatment plants that aren’t removing enough of the nutrients when processing waste. The upper part of the river runs through agricultural land, which Shapley thinks is the major source of pollution there.
“Different areas of the river are going to need attention to different sources,” he says. “The next phase is trying to refine that understanding. Based on our best guess, it’ll be a couple of years before we start seeing a lot of really tangible action.”
In the meantime, there have already been signs of progress. In the past year alone, some $30 million has been committed from state grants and local communities to upgrading sewage infrastructure around the Wallkill, reducing overflows, improving treatment, and replacing old pipes. “While the specific, targeted list of actions that will come from the full clean water plan is not ready, we’re seeing projects that are being funded that will certainly be beneficial,” Shapley says.
Now is the time to be vigilant, as most harmful algal blooms start when it’s hot outside. The preconditions for a bloom are slow-moving water, high water temperature, and infusion of nutrients. The DEC’s guidelines for harmful algal blooms are “know it, avoid it, report it.” If you spot one in the Wallkill River or in any waterbody in the state, you can report it here.
Look out for more reporting from The River on the restoration efforts in the Hudson River and its tributaries. And join us on August 15 for the premiere of A Living River, a new short film from National Geographic filmmaker Jon Bowermaster, about the work of Riverkeeper, the DEC, and others to restore the life within our majestic Hudson River, presented by our partner publication, Chronogram.