Safe Enough to Swim?
by Nate Binzen
On a few hot days last summer, I took a leap into Fishkill Creek in Glenham, just upstream from the Beacon town line. Kids were jumping in the water. I couldn't resist.
The water felt great, but I had to wonder... Should I be swimming here? What's in this water, anyway?
Going back through the generations, kids have always swum in the creek in my neighborhood, and they still do. But as I walk along the banks, I can't help but notice some foam churn up as the water spills over the dam behind the old Texaco buildings. I know foam is a natural phenomenon on the surface of lakes and streams. But what I see often exceeds anything that looks natural. So it makes me wonder, is it okay to swim in Fishkill Creek?
As far as the Dutchess County Department of Health is concerned, swimming in Fishkill Creek is not safe because it's not a regulated swimming area, and no one has declared that it's safe. They point out that there are other safety issues in the creek besides water quality: currents, for example, and the absence of lifeguards. Since there is no supervised swimming facility on the creek, the water is not routinely tested.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) provides classifications of stream health with ratings ranging from Class A (drinkable) to Class D (stick to boating and fishing). Further upstream, in parts of East Fishkill and Hopewell Junction, the creek is rated Class B, which is fine for swimming. In Beacon and Fishkill, the creek is rated Class C. Class C waters are best used for fishing, and while they are suitable some of the time for recreational contact such as wading and swimming, "other factors may limit their use for these purposes." In other words, swimming may or may not be a good idea.
So, it's unregulated, it's officially discouraged, it could be risky, and the DEC rating is vague. But is it okay to swim in Fishkill Creek?
In most respects, Fishkill Creek is a dramatically cleaner waterway than it was in the early 1970s, when the federal Clean Water Act was passed. Plenty of Beaconites can tell you about the days when the creek would routinely turn a rainbow of colors from the flushing of the dyes from the Beacon and Braendly Dye's operations. The Texaco research facility severely impacted the creek with toxic pollutants. Back then, upstream in Hopewell Junction, people knew when it was laundry day at the Green Haven Correctional Facility because of the sudden froth of suds floating by.
Nowadays, the main concern for swimmers is bacteria from human waste. The population near the creek is growing—as of 2001there were over 174,000 people living within the creek’s watershed—and it’s not clear whether all that sewage is always effectively treated before it reaches the creek.
Some older, inefficient sewers systems, such as Beacon's, take in storm drain water during heavy rains, get overloaded, and raw sewage overflows into the creek. Upstream, there are at least six municipal sewage treatment plants that empty treated water into Fishkill Creek, with more planned. These plants are probably doing a good job of treating their sewage, but older sewer pipes throughout the Northeast are notorious for leaking, and there is also a risk that private septic systems near the creek may not be working properly.
The state Department of Health says that the fecal coliform bacteria level for safe swimming is less than 2400 organisms per 100 milliliters of water. At the planned site of the River Pool, at Beacon's Riverfront Park, coliform levels are typically well under 50. According to the County Health Department, these are excellent swimming conditions and the best Hudson River test results in Dutchess County, but nobody is testing the bacteria levels of Fishkill Creek. I checked the Fishkill Creek Watershed Committee, the Dutchess County Health Department, the DEC, and local colleges, and I was unable to find any bacteria data for Fishkill Creek.
What else is in the creek and where is it coming from? DEC permits are required for "point source" discharges of more than 1,000 gallons per day into surface and ground waters. As of 2002, at least 25 sites were permitted by the DEC for surface water discharges into Fishkill Creek and its tributaries. At present, the top ten surface water discharge permits, as reported by the DEC are:
Most of the other permits are for residential developments, but there are also motels, a landfill, a gas station, a rest area, and a warehouse on the list.
As of 2002, at least 64 permits were issued by the DEC for groundwater discharges within the watershed. With respect to groundwater, though, the major health issue is more likely to be unreported leaks from gas and septic tanks or other sources.
These discharge permits are meant to allow only those contaminants that are not going to threaten the health of organisms to flow into the creek. This provides some reassurance that the stream health is pretty good, but that's not the same as saying it's okay to swim in Fishkill Creek. The creek is central channel of the watershed's drainage basin. So, like an emptying bathtub, sooner or later everything ends up in the creek. Non-point-source pollution is pollution from any sources other than outflow pipes at permitted sites. Coming from roads, homes, construction projects, unmonitored dumping and rainwater runoff into storm drains containing just about any substance you can imagine, this is the real growing threat that the Clean Water Act is ill-equipped to contain, especially in the fastest-growing part of one of New York's fastest developing counties—the Fishkill Creek watershed.
The Fishkill Creek Management Plan, a very informative 225-page document produced in 2005 by the Fishkill Creek Watershed Committee, provides some intriguing data. For example, levels of phosphorus and nitrogen rise from fairly respectable levels in Hopewell Junction to a level more than five times that in the relatively undeveloped areas in the center of Fishkill. The phosphorous stays at these elevated levels until the creek empties into the Hudson River. Phosphorus can come from animal wastes, human wastes, fertilizer, detergents, construction projects, poor septic systems, storm water runoff, and even decaying organic debris such as leaves and tree limbs. Nitrogen can come from municipal and industrial wastewater, agricultural and industrial runoff, auto exhaust and industrial air emissions. Though these concentrations do show a major impact of human activities in Fishkill and East Fishkill, they do not make the creek un-swimmable and really could be much worse.
Beacon has its own issues, however. In 2001 the Beacon test site, about 100 yards upstream of the East Main Street bridge, showed elevated levels of lead, selenium, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which result from incomplete combustion of such substances as wood, solid waste, fossil fuels, coal and oil. It's not clear what the source of this pollution is, but it is not present at the next testing site upstream in Fishkill and it may be the legacy of any number of industrial sources over the past two centuries. Add to that the heavy impact of sewer overflows, aging, leaking sewage lines, and indications in 2001 that sewage and heavy metal pollutants were hurting the aquatic life, and Madam Brett Park in Beacon hardly sounds like a swimmer's paradise.
So, should you swim in Fishkill Creek? Because the testing is inadequate, no definitive answer is possible right now. The experts do not endorse it. But there are some things we can say with confidence. First, if it's rained recently, you should definitely wait a few days before swimming.
Second, where you swim is very important. People do swim in Madam Brett Park – but there’s no way I’d swim in Beacon. People do swim in Glenham, both downstream and upstream of Texaco, even though the water there is a bit dodgy. But frankly, during the hot days of July and August, I may not be able to resist – after all, I didn’t come to any harm last year. And people swim in Fishkill, just upstream of Sarah Taylor Park and Route 9, which is a somewhat better bet. All three areas are rated C—possibly swimmable—but are not monitored sufficiently to warrant confidence.
Finally, it’s a far better idea to swim at suitable locations in the Hudson, such at Little Stony Point in Cold Spring and the future site of the River Pool at Beacon. While tributaries like Fishkill Creek may pose risks for human contact, the Hudson is a very large river, and it suffers far less from our polluting ways than does one narrow stream that takes in everything a relentlessly developing exurb can throw at it.
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