Special Report: Climate Change in 2019

Warmer and higher: climate change’s impact on our rivers

By Lauren Berg
Posted 6/5/19

Water is an essential part of our community. Over 100,000 residents use the Hudson River estuary as a source of drinking water. It is the backbone of many Hudson Valley towns and cities. While …

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Special Report: Climate Change in 2019

Warmer and higher: climate change’s impact on our rivers


Water is an essential part of our community. Over 100,000 residents use the Hudson River estuary as a source of drinking water. It is the backbone of many Hudson Valley towns and cities. While pollution from agricultural and commercial runoff are well-known threats to water, lesser known is the detriment climate change is having on the Hudson River and its tributaries.

Climate change – the observation of warming air temperatures due to increased carbon dioxide – has multiple effects on water sources. It is evidenced by warming waters, rising sea levels, higher precipitation, and more frequent severe storms.

“The first way we will experience climate change and are experiencing climate change, is through water,” said Dan Shapley, Water Quality Program Director of Riverkeeper, Inc.

Warming Waters

Despite isolated cold spells, locals may have noticed winters have become warmer, and they wouldn’t be wrong. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has found that New York winters have been warmer by an average of 5 degrees. This has spread to the river as well: the 2018 State of the Estuary by the Hudson River Foundation found that bottom water temperatures are disproportionately warmer in the winter. The river’s average winter water temperature has increased by nearly 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last three decades.

Even a few degrees of difference in water temperatures can create a lasting impact on local ecosystems. For example, in the summer months, harmful algae blooms thrive in warmer waters. The Wallkill River turned a bright green color August through October of 2016 from such an outbreak of algae blooms. Scientists hypothesize that warming temperatures, ocean acidification (carbon dioxide dissolved in the water), and the presence of excess nutrients from sewage effluent contribute to the accelerating growth of toxic blooms.

“Toxic algae – like the kind we’ve seen in the Wallkill – can cause gastrointestinal and neurological damage in people,” stated Jason West, President of Wallkill River Watershed Alliance, in an article on Riverkeeper’s website. “And harmful algae blooms are a growing threat not only to our health but to our economy as well as water-focused businesses, and drinking water supplies are threatened.”

The warming temperatures also impact fish species. According to New York State’s 2015 State of the Hudson, rainbow smelt has disappeared from this area and the American shad and Atlantic tomcod numbers are declining. Maintaining biodiversity is essential to a healthy ecosystem, preventing the spread of disease and pests, and maintaining water quality. Those species and ecosystems are at risk, though, by sea level rise and severe storms.

Increasing Sea Level and Precipitation
Another troubling impact of climate change is rising sea levels and increasing severity of storms. Together, these two factors spell major flooding for riverfront municipalities on the Hudson or its tributaries, especially from storm surges and higher rainfall events.

In 2012 Danskammer Energy power plant was flooded by superstorm Sandy, and the river saw a storm surge of at least 11 feet up to Albany. The year prior, Albany experienced a storm surge of 15 feet during Hurricane Irene. Many locals are concerned about plans to repower the fossil fuel plant, fearing not only the risk of future flooding but also the continuation of burning of natural gas that will contribute to climate change.

“Natural gas currently is about two-thirds fracked gas and rising, and there is no way to un-co-mingle that gas in those pipes,” explained Tamsin Hollo of Newburgh Clean Water Project. “If we are really interested in creating a Newburgh that is keeping with the times, then we are interested in solar, we are interested in wind, we are interested in geothermal, and we will make a commitment to that now as these old plants are dying out.”

It wasn’t just the power plant that was badly damaged by the storm: Piermont, NY, racked up $20 million in damages from Hurricane Sandy alone.

“The communities that were hit badly by superstorm Sandy, Irene: they are still in a state of recovery,” stated Manna Jo Greene, Environmental Action Director of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

With increasing severity of storms comes an increase in precipitation levels, risking greater flooding. This isn’t helped by the fact that New York state, in particular, is experiencing sea level rise faster than national and global averages. Since 1900 the Hudson River has risen 15 inches. The DEC projects that the lower Hudson River region (Kingston to New York City) could see a rise of 2-10 inches in the next decade, and anywhere from 15-75 inches of sea level rise by the end of the century.

Not only would the sea level rise put riverfront business, homes, and communities at risk, it also risks their water quality. With higher flooding, trash or pollution usually out of range are washed into the river. Many sewage treatment plants are located on the river, like Newburgh and Beacon, as well as several Superfund sites. Flooding of contaminated sites or overflowing of storm drains connected to sanitary sewer collection pipes would wash toxic chemicals or raw sewage into the river—a river that at least six different municipalities use as water sources. Unfortunately, according to a 2019 DEC report the Hudson River is already the most contaminated New York State river by sewage overflows, with two billion gallons released into the river one year.

“[Climate change] is happening already, and the impacts will only become more severe, which means we have to work hard at the underlying issues of watershed management and infrastructure as the climate changes,” stated Shapley of Riverkeeper.

What You Can Do
In spite of negative climate predictions, Hudson River residents aren’t without options. Many local environmental agencies provide avenues for local advocacy or lists of specifics actions individuals can take to reduce the impact of climate change.

“Most of my work is trying to give them hope, that there are solutions,” said Greene. Here are the top actions recommended by members of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.

1. Mitigate climate change by lowering your carbon footprint.
Big changes often start with small steps. The Drawdown Project recommends hundreds of small changes individuals can take to lessen the effects of climate change.

2. Prepare for future changes.
Vulnerable communities like Kingston have taken steps to anticipate the impact of rising sea levels, increased precipitation, and severe storms upon their waterfront. Building infrastructure such as water treatment plants, waterfront properties, and energy plants with a climate resiliency mindset would reduce future community costs attributed to climate change effects.

3. Participate in policies.
Reach out to your local representatives and voice your concerns and comments. Feel free to share new information you learn with them as they work to make the decisions that will benefit your community for future generations.

4. Continue to learn more.

When it comes to climate change there are some information sources that are misleading or actively spreading misinformation. It is important to be able to understand the science and to know whether the information is based on scientific evidence. Local environmental groups such as Riverkeeper provide links to further information on its website.

“I see other smaller cities and towns making strides all over New York state and there is funding for it, but it takes vision and it takes commitment,” said Hollo. “Think about what you are willing to do to protect the area surrounding you, and work your way from there.”