Good news for boaters and swimmers about sewage releases - as of today New York State Law requires that when sewage is released into the waterways, the public be notified about it quickly.
Click here for Riverkeeper's blog post (thanks for forwarding, Prof. M!).
Click here to read the legislation.
Combined Sewage Outfalls, commonly known as CSO's, are an unpleasant fact of life for us NYC boaters and swimmers. There are a lot of people living in this town, and the sewage systems handles both the wastewater from our homes and businesses and natural rainfall. On an ordinary day most of our local waterways are swimmably clean, but the system is only set up to handle so much sewage at a time and when we get a bad rainstorm, the excess ends up going straight into the estuary. This isn't an entirely uncommon occurence, either. When I was first learning to paddle at Manhattan Kayak Company, I think I was told that it was a good rule of thumb to stay right-side up if there had been anything close to an inch of rain in the previous 24 hours; a string of rainy days could have the same effect. If it had been pouring for a few days straight the deterioration of the water quality became noticeable enough that you wouldn't want to go in but there are levels of contamination that you need testing to detect but still pose a health hazard.
Much more drastically, though, a couple of years ago there was a huge spill caused by a fire at the 125th street sewage treatment plant - it was in late July, it was hot, it had been pretty dry and there was all sorts of recreational boating activity going on. Those people all found out much later (anybody reading this remember how long it took? I'm tossing this up quickly at work - I think it was at least the next day that the word got out, right?) and that really focused people's attention on the lack of a proper system of notice.
Hopefully the new law will help. Seems like progress.
Another good thing that came out of that July 2011 mess was a citizen's water testing program that the New York City Watertrail Association kicked off. The city maintains a site that shows water quality at the swimming beaches when they're open but that doesn't include anything except the Rockaway Peninsula, the south-facing beaches of Brooklyn and Staten Island plus a few on the Sound side of the Whitestone Bridge - the entire borough of Manhattan is a big blank to them and a lot of the local paddlers got involved in doing their own testing after that -- you can read more about that on the "Water Quality" tab at NYCWatertrail.org.