Though we have the mighty Hudson River right at our fingertips, it has often seemed that only the hardiest of swimmers — and attention-seekers — dared to brave the water due to its presumed pollution. It wasn’t always this way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of regular folks swam in the river, utilizing the public beaches up and down its length or the floating pools located in Manhattan. But — as the water quality worsened due to excessive pollution, and public health codes became more stringent — most of the beach facilities eventually closed. By 1977, when General Electric was banned from dumping toxic PCBs in the river, it seemed only a lunatic would dive into the murky water for a full-fledged swim.
But that was 40 years ago.
Fran Dunwell, coordinator of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program, says studies show that the river has unquestionably gotten cleaner since then. The water is generally acceptable for swimming — as long as swimmers monitor rainfall, which can overload the nearby sewage systems. According to John Lipscomb, boat captain for the advocacy group Riverkeeper, the biggest pollution-related problem with Hudson River water is microbial contamination from sewage: “That’s what can make you sick.” Lipscomb goes on to explain that Riverkeeper monitors the water quality at different sites along the river. “The 80 or so locations where we’ve tested since 2006 give an idea of how human sewage affects the system,” claims Lipscomb, who notes that the testing data shows patterns about which locations are good and bad, and that the majority of sites fluctuate.
Lipscomb calls for greater accountability from county health departments. He feels they should warn the public not just about repairs that force the release of sewage into the river, but of rainfall overload, which happens throughout the year. The DEC advises swimmers to wait at least two days after rainfall before going into the water; Lipscomb urges the public to make use of the testing data available at www.riverkeeper.org. “Riverkeeper cannot tell you where it’s safe to swim on any given day,” he says. “But we offer the Web site so people can search for the sampling location closest to their point of use, and begin to assess water quality for themselves.”
The River Pool at Beacon (above) entices swimmers young and old. At Kingston Point Beach (below), water enthusiasts can swim, fish, and kayak
Dunwell cautions that swimming is still not advised in the Capital Region, where sewage plants do not yet disinfect their outflow into the river. The agency estimates that it would take about $13 million to make the entire river swimmable (except during sewage overflow periods); it is hoped that stimulus funding will become available to Capital District communities to pay for the installation of equipment to disinfect their wastewater. In addition, Dunwell says the DEC has invited existing river communities to apply for grants to improve their beaches. “The river is much better than it was since the Clean Water Act in 1972,” concedes Lipscomb, “just not perfect. That’s why more sampling sites, greater frequency, and better reporting to the public are the order of the day.”
The state also wants to make the river accessible to swimmers again. In 2005, the DEC completed a study of existing swimming sites (see box) as well as viable new areas. Five new sites were determined to be feasible, needing no additional action other than the construction of a beach. They are located in Stuyvesant, Columbia County; New Windsor, Orange County; Stony Point and Haverstraw, Rockland County; and Sleepy Hollow, Westchester County.
So, bearing all of this information in mind, it is indeed possible to take a dip in “America’s Rhine.” Plenty of informal river swimming — off boats, in coves — already occurs, and the number of people taking to the water continues to rise each year, demonstrating the increased acceptance of the river as a safe place for recreation. And locals are beginning to embrace the river again. “My husband grew up in the area, and remembers how in the 1970s you wouldn’t even think of dipping a toe into the river,” says Jackie Hadden of Cold Spring. “But now we have no qualms about taking our son to swim there — it feels great on a hot summer day!” Cindy Cowden, president of the River Pool at Beacon (considered a beach because the water is natural and not chlorinated or filtered), maintains that the public has been accepting and enthusiastic. “People are welcoming the opportunity to connect with the river in a joyful way.”
Beacon River Pool
Open Tuesday through Sunday from July 4 through Labor Day
12-6 p.m. Lifeguard on duty. Free
Croton Point Park
Open weekends and holidays only beginning Memorial Day Weekend
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Lifeguard on duty. $8;
$4 with Westchester County Park Pass
Kingston Point Beach
Open Thursday through Sunday from June 20 through Labor Day. Lifeguard on duty. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free
Saugerties Village Beach
845-246-2321, ext. 1
(Actually located on the Esopus Creek)
Open July 4 through Labor Day
Call for hours. Lifeguard on duty. Free
Ulster Landing County Park
Open weekends only until June 13,
then daily through Labor Day. Lifeguard
on duty. $3 ages 13 and over/
$1.50 ages 12 and under/$1 seniors