Cleaning Up ‘The Hutch’

STREAMLINED: The Hutchinson River, as seen from Pascap Scrapyard.  Photo Credit: George Goss
STREAMLINED: The Hutchinson River, as seen from Pascap Scrapyard. Photo Credit: George Goss

BRONX – Part of the Hutchinson River near Mount Vernon recently earned the distinction of being the most fecal-contaminated of 52 sites of waterway tested in the Long Island Sound watershed by Save the Sound. The Hutchinson River Restoration Project, an environmental group advocating for a cleaner river, said that public access for kayakers and canoeists is necessary to end the pollution.

“Basically, we are interested in and hoping that someday ‘the Hutch’ will be something that people can use. You know, right now it is not accessible,” said Eleanor Rae, president of the Hutchinson River Restoration Project. “Public access is key.”

RIVER TEAM: Hutchinson River Restoration Project president, secretary and web manager: Eleanor Rae, Jack Ullman and Carl Lundgren. Photo Credit: George Goss

The Hutchinson River Restoration Project’s youngest and newest member, Matthew Umbro, 31, decided to join after he kayaked up the river in May.

“It is very industrial up there—a lot of pollution. I was very disheartened by what I saw,” Umbro said. “When I came home, I searched for a group involved in doing something. I found the Hutchinson River group.”

In July and August, Umbro volunteered with Save the Sound, a clean water program run by the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, a nonprofit environmental organization based in New Haven, Conn.

Save the Sound’s water quality program manager, Peter Linderoth, said that volunteers like Umbro are crucial since his three-person Westchester office would not be able to frequently monitor all 52 of the sites without them.

According to Save the Sound’s test results, the Hutchinson River shows the highest levels of Enterococcus bacteria, indicative of fecal-contaminated water, of all the waterways they tested. Exposure to contaminated water can cause illnesses such as diarrhea, pink eye, ear infections, skin irritation and hepatitis, Linderoth said.

Save the Sound uses an EPA-approved method for its laboratory analysis and follows a Quality Assurance Project Plan for its bacteria sampling. Its funding primarily comes from memberships, grants and individual donations.

The EPA provided the lab equipment as well as the expertise of water quality experts who made sure that the tests of the 52 sites met the EPA’s standard, said Linderoth.

Umbro said that while separate and distinct, Save the Sound and the Hutchinson River Restoration Project have a common purpose.

“I am trying to bridge the groups together,” Umbro said. “I think that our missions dovetail.”

The Hutchinson River Restoration Project held its sixth annual cleanup of the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary on the river this past September. In total, an estimated 50 to 60 volunteers, including Umbro, participated.

The Urban Park Rangers of NYC supplied eight canoes for the cleanup. Some volunteers brought their own kayaks. The volunteers carried their boats to the river on a footpath near the bus stop on City Island Road. The footpath is located on property owned by the New York City Parks Department, which allowed the volunteers temporary access to the river for the cleanup.

PIECE OF KAYAK: Matthew Umbro, Hutchinson River Restoration Project volunteer, poses with his trusty kayak. Photo Credit: George Goss.

A 2013 feasibility study mapped out the footpath near the City Island bus stop as the most viable access point to the river for canoeists and kayakers. Environmental scientist Michael Bontje of B. Laing Associates conducted the study, which cost $14,000. It was paid for with an EPA grant procured by the Hutchinson River Restoration Project.

The grant was from the EPA’s New York-New Jersey Harbor and Estuary Program, which tracked regions that lacked public access to the water. It encouraged ecological uses of waterways, such as the use of kayaks and canoes rather than powerboats.

Of the 15 to 20 potential sites B. Laing Associates analyzed, Bontje said that the City Island Road site is the best, since it gently slopes to the river with no more than a two-foot elevation separating the riverbank from the water. He said ramp construction would be relatively easy and that parking exists across the street at a golf driving range in Pelham Bay Park.

Still, drawing the next level of surveys will require finances—and time. Bontje said that he would need to get the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as permission from the New York City Parks Department. While he said the Parks Department has expressed interest, no one has proposed a plan to finance the project.

“If you cannot get to the river to see both its degradation and its beauty,” Rae said, “then you will never be moved to care for it.”

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