Riversweep report - BlueStone Press
June 19, 2021

Riversweep report


It was a gray and misty Saturday morning, but at least it wasn’t raining, as volunteers gathered at the Berme Road entrance to the rail trail in Kerhonkson on Saturday, May 4. People kept coming. Eventually there were 24 volunteers, from young children to grandparent-aged adults, by far the biggest turnout for the Town of Rochester’s participation in Riversweep, a cleanup effort that has been held annually in New York since 1998.

While people sipped coffee and waited for all who were expected to arrive, John Messerschmidt, Environmental Conservation Commission member, landscape restoration expert, and veteran Riversweeper, gave a little talk.

Besides the annual Riversweep cleanup effort, he said, “we also test the entero-bacterial levels in the creek, the bacteria that mammals have in their gut and make it unhealthy for us to drink the water or to swim in it. I've been doing this for six years, and the levels have been getting higher and higher. [Riverkeeper, the conservation organization] tests about 19 places on the Rondout, and they’re all unhealthy; they’ve peaked out the max of what they can measure.” Someone asked, “Why is the Rondout so dirty?”

“There's a couple of reasons,” Messerschmidt said. “Septic tanks for the people who live on the creek are out of date or overflowing or haven't been checked … some of it is farm runoff, if they're using fertilizer … and cow poop. It doesn't hurt the fish or other kinds of wildlife, but it hurts us when we drink it.” What about eating the fish, someone else asked. “You can eat the fish, but now there's mercury,” so that's another concern. Geese, deer and other animals play a part, Messerschmidt said, “but the wildlife component is much less than the farms. We're doing what we can to at least monitor it. All the ECCs in the region have formed an alliance called the Rondout Creek Watershed Alliance. We're taking steps [to curb the pollution], but it's a long process, because no one's going to want to have their septic tanks replaced.”

Another way to improve the water quality is by building riparian buffers, that is, by planting trees along the rivers, to absorb some of the pollution and neutralize some of the runoff. (The ECC is running a planting in Samsonville on the Red Brook Creek on May 18, calling it “Trees for Tribs.”)

Messerschmidt estimated that there could be 80-90 tires along the part of the Rondout they were covering that day, a section only 2 to 3 miles long. (Messerschmidt later said the concentration of tires in the Rondout is the result of a flood many years ago when there was a tire store upstream from Kerhonkson – not because people dump them in the water. When people dump tires, it’s usually by the side of the road or in the woods.) “Unfortunately the river's running a little too fast, so we won't be able to get all the tires. You have to go in the water and dig the tire out.”

A put-in for boats is just off the rail trail where the group was gathered. Kristin Marcell, ECC head and the event’s chief organizer, sent some volunteers to work their way along the banks of the creek; those who had brought canoes and kayaks put them in the water and proceeded north toward an agreed-upon takeout spot in Accord, picking up whatever junk they found on the way. Everyone dispersed, walking or paddling, in a friendly competition to see who could get the most “booty.”

Volunteer Andrew Lewis, who walked along the shore, described what he saw on the riverbank: “Tires, metal pipes, a big pile of old rubber boots; a lot of big stuff – engines, rolls of barbed wire, bed frames, box springs … they've been left there a long long time, so they're just embedded on the slopes, covered with roots.” As he pointed out, removing them would not only be expensive, it might cause the riverbank to erode, so a lot of the bigger junk will probably remain a permanent part of the landscape, slowly disappearing under the vegetation. (Perhaps to be found thousands of years from now, to be puzzled over by another civilization …)

After a couple or three hours, the paddlers started to arrive at the Scenic Road takeout point one by one. People had managed to pile an impressive amount of tires and other waste in or on their boats. It was then all piled up together for the town to collect and take to the transfer station. The boat people walked over to Town Hall Park, where a table of rice and beans, spring water and cookies awaited them. The food quickly disappeared – people were hungry! Other volunteers ferried the boat crew back to their cars in Kerhonkson.

Messerschmidt said later, “A bunch of us got gifts that day. One of the guys found a brand-new machete and a flashlight that still worked! Another guy found a hubcap that was from a Chevy pickup from the ’40s or ’50s,” the same model as the very first truck he owned.

A day after the event, Messerschmidt sent this email around to all the participants:

“How much of a difference did we make? 24 people collected over 16 tires and more than 10 bags of trash that would otherwise still be lying there. I’d say that’s a significant difference. 

 “We are launching a tire brigade in June to fish even more tires from the bottom of the creek. The current will be slower by that time and we’ll be more than ready to get our feet wet. Some have extra boats, so if you want to participate but don’t have one, we will find one for you. We’ll provide shovels for those who want to get in the water and dig out the tires. They’ll be thrown onto the tire barge and floated downstream to Scenic Road by Town Hall Park. If you want to go fishing for tires, or remove other trash, or even if you just want to paddle around on the Rondout, you are welcome.” 

The date for the summer riversweep has been set for Saturday, June 29.


For information about upcoming ECC events, go to the Town of Rochester Environmental Conservation Commission Facebook page

or write to rochester.ecc@gmail.com




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