Sunday, July 20, 2003

Confront water problems

Dozens of Dutchess County residents, maybe your neighbors, are living with distressing knowledge -- poisonous chemicals are in their water wells.

And the numbers are growing. Federal officials have just announced they want to create another Superfund cleanup site in East Fishkill. This would give federal authorities more resources to help install public water lines for at least 28 homes with polluted water.

Already, more than 60 homes just south of this site, in the Shenandoah area of East Fishkill, are on the Superfund list after a chemical spill ruined their water wells. And in Hyde Park, 90 homes have been rigged with water filters after gasoline spills contaminated their wells.

Unless discovered, these pollutants can get into your showers, sinks -- and bodies. The health risks range from developing cancer to kidney and liver damage. According to local water experts, the problems are likely to get worse as the area continues to grow. The public and the politicians need to confront these problems. Here are ways to this:

Push public water projects -- Dutchess County is taking a significant step by building a water pipeline from the Hudson River in the Poughkeepsie-Hyde Park area south along the abandoned Maybrook rail corridor. It will go through LaGrange and Wappinger and ultimately to East Fishkill, where the water will help further IBM's plant expansion, without putting more stress on local groundwater.

But the project could do more than that.

Municipalities along the line should hook up to this system. This would reduce the number of individual water wells operating in the county -- easing the risk of overusing groundwater to the point of drought, as well as contamination. Since public water is tested often, it's much safer. At minimum, this pipeline can act as a backup to existing wellfields the towns are using.

The Dutchess County Water and Wastewater Authority, a quasi-governmental agency, has taken the lead on the project. Over time, this authority needs to get more involved in forward-thinking projects like this. Right now, it spends most of its time reacting to crises as they occur.

The authority owns and operates six municipal water systems and two sewer systems. These systems are spread out over the county, including the towns of Beekman, Dover, Hyde Park, Pleasant Valley, Rhinebeck and Red Hook.

"Usually, we take over systems in distress," Scott Chase, the authority's executive director, said.

Get tougher on inspections -- County lawmakers also are going to have to get the health department more involved. Dutchess County Executive William Steinhaus has asked the Department of Health for a list of recommendations to protect drinking water.

The county has launched an education program about testing for chemical contamination of water wells, sending out informational pamphlets to residents.

That's not enough. The Department of Health has begun testing more of the smaller public water systems, and the results have been startling. Contaminants have been found throughout the county.

Dutchess should follow the lead of counties like Rockland and Westchester, which have assumed some water-quality responsibilities from the state. New York's inspections of underground tanks at gasoline stations, for example, are random and insufficient. They occur only when problems are reported. The county should take over these inspections and conduct them each year. And it should follow New Jersey's example by requiring a thorough well-water test when homes are sold.

Keep funding cleanup programs -- The Hyde Park and East Fishkill cases show the need for strong federal and state Superfund and spill-fund programs. But changes in these programs are needed so the funds can also go to help states and counties inspect and enforce, not just clean up the messes that have been made.

Don't expose aquifers -- Dutchess has to better protect its main aquifers from the encroaching development above them. Regulations should be modeled after those used by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which has been given extensive power to protect the freshwater being pumped from the Catskills through a series of watersheds and finally to the city.

Strengthen local zoning -- Master plans and zoning laws should require developers to prove there's enough groundwater to support the proposed homes or businesses, without diminishing the supply to other developments. Look what's happened at Molly's Way, a Hyde Park neighborhood built on a hill where wells often run dry.

Lot sizes of new subdivisions need to be large enough so that homes don't run into water shortages, or have septic systems leaching into water wells. Or they need to be clustered together in town centers, making it more cost-effective to bring public water and sewer services to those homes.

To their credit, Hyde Park officials have introduced new zoning laws encouraging development near the community center, where town water and sewer systems are available or will be soon. Steering developers toward these areas means relatively less-developed parts of the town are likelier to stay that way. While many residents are resisting tougher zoning standards in the outlying areas, it's necessary to protect drinking water from overdevelopment.

Pass better buffer laws -- Rivers, creeks and wetlands all need room to thrive. They are vital parts of the area's groundwater system, the source of water for more than 60 percent of the homes in Dutchess County. Protecting groundwater can't be done effectively in a piecemeal fashion, with each community coming up with its own standards -- lax regulations in one place can affect residents elsewhere. Property owners should be notified that a law under consideration might adversely impact them. Then neighboring towns need to follow the lead of places like Fishkill and LaGrange, which have set deep buffer zones for these water sources -- and stiff fines for those who violate the rules.

Take cooperative efforts seriously -- Towns are coming together more and more to talk about water issues, and this is an encouraging sign. The Wappinger Creek Watershed Intermunicipal Council is calling on 13 Dutchess towns and villages to approve the same set of goals for improving water quality, including setting better controls for runoff from roads.

Cooperative endeavors like this are being made elsewhere -- most notably by the towns and villages of eastern Dutchess, which are working on protecting their shared aquifer. But these ideas are meaningless unless all the towns actually follow through and agree on set guidelines.

Dutchess needs better water protection. There's no way to get around it: What we do above ground directly affects the quality of water beneath us.


"The state should demand more water testing. We got to defend ourselves."

    Denis Callinan, East Fishkill resident whose private water well was contaminated by a chemical spill

"The more protection we can do beforehand, the better off we will be."

    Jeff Walker, Vassar College professor of geology and a Hyde Park resident

"I don't think people have a grasp that water and sewer aren't free."

    Pompey Delafield, Hyde Park town supervisor

"If you own your own well, get it tested. Don't leave it up to the politicians. They are interested in protecting their own positions, not the water."

    John Condon, East Fishkill resident whose water well has been polluted by a nearby chemical spill

"Inevitably, we are going to have more problems."

    David Burns, watershed coordinator for the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council

"A lot of spills came to light because of new regulations."

    Marc Moran, director of Region 3 of the state Department of Environmental Conservation

"That's the biggest advantage we have over DEC. ... I don't think the DEC could ever get to these facilities on an annual basis like we do."

    Samuel Rulli, assistant public health engineer for the Rockland County Department of Health. Rockland conducts its own inspections of underground storage tanks at gas stations.

"Right now, the (federal) trust fund can only be used for cleanups, not inspections. That doesn't make any sense. Inspections could prevent the spills from happening in the first place."

    John Stephenson, director of Natural and Environment for the General Accounting Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress.

Dutchess County is fortunate to have deep aquifers that provide drinking water for thousands of its residents, but overdevelopment and pollutants can tax these underground water deposits.

It's not only industrial waste or oil spills that ruin our water. Sometimes it's the routine practices of homeowners that cause damage to aquifers, wetlands, streams and private water wells.

Protecting water sources

Here are some tips to protect our water sources:

- Store products like motor oil and hazardous chemicals until they are fully used, then bring them to a municipal landfill, hazardous waste program or incinerator.

- Don't overuse pesticides on gardens and lawns. This can pollute runoff into wetlands and other waters. Farmers in particular need to cut down on the use of chemicals. They can do this by growing more organic foods that don't rely on pesticides.

- Use non-hazardous alternatives when possible, and wash cars on the lawn with biodegradable soap.

- Spread road salt alternatives like sand or calcium chloride on sidewalks and driveways.

- Monitor your septic system and make sure the sludge is removed by a professional every three to five years. If systems are not properly maintained, sewage can add bacteria and excessive nutrients to groundwater, causing serious water quality problems.

- Invest in wetlands by buying duck stamps. Proceeds from these waterfowl stamps support wetland acquisition and restoration. The stamps are available on-line at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Web site ( or at your local post office.

Sources: Dutchess County Environmental Management Council, Soil and Water Conservation District, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Back to index

Copyright 2006, Poughkeepsie Journal. Reprinted with Permission.
 Watershed Home   Media Menu