By Isabelle Stinnette

We may not always notice it, but New Yorkers live along waterways that mix saltwater from the ocean with the fresh water from the Hudson. This unique ecosystem is called an estuary, and its health is as important as our own.

Though it is hard to overemphasize the environmental damage created by previous generations, the Hudson River Estuary today is faring much better than it was thirty years ago. Efforts to clean the water, restore habitat for wildlife, and reconnect people to the waterfront have never been greater. But are these efforts and their expense working? The NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program’s new State of the Estuary Report, which will be published this fall, will determine trends in areas of environmental concern including water quality, toxins, wildlife habitat and highlight the challenges ahead.

In many parts of the harbor, sewage and stormwater infrastructure are connected. This was an idea that seemed good to early city planners but turned out not to be appropriate for a population our size. On many rainy days, the combined untreated storm and sewage overflows into the water. The enactment of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, and subsequent upgrades to wastewater treatment, have helped lower the amount of sewage entering the Hudson, and long-term trends are showing that the water quality is getting much better. Yet, more progress can still be made. After all, the goals of the Clean Water Act— fishable, swimmable waterways—have not yet been attained and there is a growing interest in direct engagement with the water such as swimming and kayaking.

It is somewhat more challenging to escape our estuary’s legacy of toxic contamination. Dumping of toxic chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins into the water used to be common practice due to the mistaken belief that dilution was the solution to pollution. Instead of leaving the system, these chemicals settled into the river sediments and proceeded to make their way up the food web. These chemicals have proven toxic to much of our marine life and make our local seafood largely unsafe to eat. In samples taken from striped bass and several other species of interest to fisherman, the concentration of PCBs is trending down, significantly, from historic levels. But in the sediments, the data is more mixed, with some contaminants sticking around while others seem to be breaking down. While natural degradation will help, completion of the Superfund, and other cleanups currently underway, in particular the recent dredging of the upper Hudson River, will be critical in removing some of the contamination over the next decade.

The birds, fish and other wildlife of the Hudson do not have it easy. They deal with the water quality and toxins issues as well as loss of habitat, fishing pressure and climate change. Many of the fish species abundance data that is available is showing declining populations. In some parts of the harbor, however, improved water quality is increasing the diversity of local vegetation and wildlife. As the climate shifts, we may lose species who do not tolerate the warming waters. Habitat preservation and restoration efforts are ongoing, and the restoration community has recently adopted citizen science as a smart way to make progress with limited funding while engaging people in stewardship.

This generation has the opportunity to enhance the estuary so the next generation will have diverse and abundant wildlife and a greater connection to the estuary.

For more information contact Isabelle Stinnette is Restoration Manager at the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program.

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