Monday night’s panel, Protecting drinking water in the Saw Kill Watershed: A regulatory and policy perspective, took place in the Red Hook Community Center, and in partnership with Hudson Valley Regional Council. The panel consisted of members of surrounding communities affected by water quality issues, and those from organizations such as the DEC, Riverkeeper, and Pace University Land Use Law Center. While the title of the panel focused on our own Saw Kill Watershed, the focus in the room was on hearing one another’s stories, and connecting on a regional watershed level. Our watershed is one small piece of a larger puzzle; the panel inspired learning from our neighboring watersheds as well as thinking on how to strengthen our connections.
Karen Schneller-McDonald, from the SKWC leadership team, started off the evening with a presentation on the Saw Kill as a drinking water source. The presentation covered both the pathways of water through the water cycle, and how the watershed impacts the waterway- both essential for understanding where and how issues in water quality come up. The major issues facing water quality are over consumption, waste, contamination, and development. Challenges to protecting water from these issues come from gaps in regulatory protections, lack of up to date water quality regulations, and differences in regulatory thresholds. In the Saw Kill Watershed, drinking water comes from the Saw Kill for Bard, and in groundwater (connected to the Saw Kill) for municipal and privately-owned wells. The SKWC formed, not in response to a water quality crisis, but to take a proactive stance in preventing possible future crises, build community around watershed issues, and monitor watershed health.
The first panel was made up of members from the Newburgh Clean Water Project and Newburgh Conservation Advisory Council, and citizens of Hopewell Junction and Hoosick Falls. Each panelist offered stories of their experience with dealing with water contamination in their community. In Newburgh, they are currently dealing with PFO contamination in their city drinking water from a nearby U.S Department of Defense guard base, in Hopewell Junction there are ongoing effects of Hopewell Precision contaminants found in private homeowner wells, and in Hoosick Falls, it took citizens independently examining the connection between health and industry on their water supply to call attention to the EPA. In each instance, panelists spoke to how the crises pushed them to become engaged in their communities in a way they had never imagined. They shared a frustration in learning how to navigate the existing systems and regulations, as well as a drive to find creative solutions for their communities and a necessity to leave one’s comfort zone behind to best help their community.
The second panel featured representatives from the DEC HREP source water protection program, Riverkeeper, and Pace University Land Use Law Center. They spoke on resources and tools communities can use to navigate the type of water quality issues presented in the first panel. This panel made three key points for me. 1) The importance of understanding the legal framework, and roles of each level of government. Federal, State, County, and local levels are all active in water quality management, but have differing responsibilities and abilities to act. 2) A large role of different institutions is in providing education to communities. Being proactive in providing education is a good first step in creating a community response. And 3) regardless of the political level, there is a need for actionable plans. Identifying and educating about the problem should lead towards a plan to fix or prevent the problem.
In our Q&A, we discussed how this information is useful for the Saw Kill Watershed Community, but also how we can focus our attention outside of us towards our region. As Karen said in her presentation: “water doesn’t follow municipal boundaries, it follows watershed boundaries”. For me, this point was the thru line for the entire evening. It came up as we learned how municipalities are often in separate watersheds from their drinking water source, as we heard about Newburgh’s industry that uses water for products that are shipped elsewhere, how Hopewell Junction’s pollutants were carried outside of their immediate vicinity. The panel ended with a discussion on the importance of thinking regionally to learn from and help other communities, as well as how our watersheds affect one another. I was reminded of Clearwater’s recent slogan “all our waters are connected; all our waters must be protected”.
Thank you to all the speakers for sharing your stories and your expertise. Thank you to everyone who came out to learn and engage with the community. Thank you to the Hudson Valley Regional Council for putting on this event and others like it. And, thank you to the Red Hook Community Center for providing such a wonderful space for this event.