Local Nonprofit Finds Evidence of Pathogens in Bronx River

Every month during New York’s warmer seasons, the Bronx River Alliance, a local non-profit, tests the water quality of the Bronx River – New York’s only freshwater river, which runs all the way from Westchester County into the East River. Back in 2014, they discovered something troubling: remnants of human sewage in the water. Specifically, analysts noticed high levels of the enteorococcus, an indicator that fecal pathogens may have been present in the river.

This would be understandable at the end of the river, in the Bronx, where heavy rainfall could have been triggering runoff from New York City’s easily overwhelmed sewage system. But the team found the pathogen much farther north – at the border of Westchester County and the Bronx.

Enteorococci shouldn’t have been flowing downstream, says Michelle Luebke, the alliance’s director of environmental stewardship. Westchester County’s sewage system does not connect to the Bronx River, even when it rains a lot. The following year when more unexplained high levels of the fecal pathogen indicator were found coming downstream, the group alerted Westchester officials.

The City of Yonkers Department of Engineering investigated and identified the culprit — an apartment building whose sewer was blocked resulting in untreated sewage, including human feces, pumping straight into the river. Toilet paper and other waste was snagged on a chain link fence between the river and the property, Leubke said. The apartment owner was notified and the sewage was rerouted.

End of problem? Not quite.

While the alliance helped solve this particular instance of fecal pollution, the team worried that other places along the river might be affected by similar issues. So, in 2016, with a collection permit from Westchester County, they expanded the water testing program from eight locations in the Bronx to 15 sites along the entire length of the 23-mile river. The data is beginning to show that a lot of water quality issues stem from upstream in Westchester County.

The sources of this water contamination are not known for certain, but they could be illicit discharges, illegal sewage connections, failing infrastructure and/or wet weather overflows, according to the group.  And, a recent city report says that bacterial pollution, like fecal pathogens, collects and lingers downstream towards the mouth of the river.

“We focus on fecal contamination because it’s an issue to consider for recreation and water quality,” said Jennifer Epstein, a scientist who helps analyze the data.

Swimming in or drinking water that has been contaminated by human waste increases the chances of water-borne diseases like diarrhea and gastrointestinal illnesses. This kind of pollution disproportionately affects people in the Bronx, who can’t use the water recreationally, according to the alliance. Signs are posted along the river telling Bronx residents not to swim, drink or fish in the water.

Historically, say advocates, Bronx communities have also received the fewest resources to restore their section of the river. They even frame this downstream pollution as an environmental justice issue.  “The river flows from areas of affluence to areas not as affluent,” Luebke said. Median household income in Westchester County is $86,226, almost two and a half times the median amount in the Bronx, $35,302, according to latest data from the U.S. census bureau. In fact, the South Bronx, which is located at the mouth of the river, is the poorest congressional district in the nation.

2017 water quality testing data (Courtesy of Bronx River Alliance)

The new wave of testing, backed by an EPA grant and funding from Patagonia, the clothing retailer, and the Sarah Lawrence College Center for the Urban River at Beczak, was conducted completely by volunteers between May and late-October last year, when people are most likely to use the river. In at least two out of the six months tested, enterococcus levels were higher than recreational water quality standards at every testing site on the Westchester County section of the river, the alliance says. The standards, developed by the EPA, indicate when it is unsafe for people to be exposed to water because of fecal contamination.

The water testing program is still in its “early stages,” says Epstein. “One year is really a snapshot,” she said, regarding the river water quality. Rather, Epstein said year-on-year collection and analysis of water quality is needed to get a more robust picture of sources of pollution in the Westchester end of the Bronx River. The alliance will use this data as the foundation for their testing next year and will try to “pinpoint and mitigate” other unlawful discharges into the river.

The alliance has to negotiate a labyrinth of bureaucracy to address the problem. While the lower end of the Bronx River falls under the jurisdiction of the Borough of the Bronx and the City of New York, its upper section in Westchester County flows through 15 different municipalities –  the alliance must make individual contact with each of them. Although it’s a complicated process, Luebke says that so far, the alliance has “had really good luck” with officials upstream.

One municipality that has worked with them, including the 2014 apartment incident, is the City of Yonkers. This represents a major turnaround from 2007, when after a protracted legal battle with the state of New York, the City agreed to investigate and stop thousands of gallons of raw sewage from flowing from its own sewage system into the river. Paul Summerfield, the city engineer, says that while the Yonkers government doesn’t have a formal relationship with the alliance, they plan on continuing to cooperate in the future. He also highlighted that since the settlement, the city has run its own six-monthly water-testing program for the Bronx River, identifying and stopping illicit discharges from privately owned pipes.


New York’s combined sewer overflow system (Courtesy of US EPA)

The state is trying to help the city deal with this problem, but it is not a complete solution. Last March, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation  approved a $111 million plan by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to reduce sewage overflows into the river. Currently, some parts of the New York City sewage system combine rainwater from city streets with sewage. When it rains, the system can be overwhelmed and the combined wastewater and rainwater is released into the nearest waterway.

While this multimillion dollar plan addresses sewage issues in the Bronx, its scope is limited because the plan doesn’t tackle the pollution coming from Westchester County. The reason is logical enough: as a representative from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection said, the City “has no jurisdiction” over the upstream portion of the river. In fact, the city’s environmental protection plan specifically notes that bacteria water quality in the river “appears to be more affected by bacteria loads from the East River, which enter with the incoming tide, as well as upstream bacteria loads.”

Thus, the alliance’s Luebke says the plan funds the storm water sewage overflow problem but “doesn’t address water quality in a holistic way.”

In a statement to NY City Lens, the state environmental conservation department, which has jurisdiction over the entire river, acknowledged that the plan does not address the water quality issues originating in Westchester. However, it said it “acts quickly whenever illegal activities are found.” In particular, the department said that, together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it currently has consent orders with two Westchester jurisdictions—Mt. Vernon and the City of Yonkers. Under the department’s oversight, the local governments must find and stop any sewage from entering their storm water systems (which drain into the river) because of previous legal actions brought against them.

The Bronx River’s complex political and funding situation is illustrative of the issues that arise when multiple jurisdictions are responsible for governing one body of water. “Political boundaries aren’t drawn with watersheds in mind,” says Rob Buchanan, coordinator of the Citizens’ Water Quality Testing Program, a similar initiative run on other waterways across New York City. Although the entire river lies in New York State, the multiple city and county governments bordering it don’t necessarily have a coordinated strategy.

Meanwhile, most residents in the Bronx aren’t aware of the problem. In Hunts Point, a Bronx neighborhood at the very end of the river, for example, many say that while the river and waterfront have significantly improved in the last few decades, it could still be better. The river is accessible by locals through a small park established by local officials and community members.  Some even ignore the warning signs—and use the water recreationally.

When told about the alliance’s data proving Westchester pollution, Keishla Cordero, a 28-year-old local, was alarmed. “That’s bad because sometimes kids swim in there,” she said. “They go diving!”

The story initially described enterrrococci as a pathogen. It is not. It’s an indicator that pathogens might be present. We regret the error.