HARLEM — After coming under fire for a lack of information about water quality in city rivers, the Department of Environmental Protection is designing an alert system which would issue warnings whenever it dipped.
DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov said the agency will soon begin releasing testing results online and warning the public when rainfall affects pollution levels.
"We agree that the information can be posted more regularly, and we are in the process of adding harbor water sampling results on our website on a regular basis," said Sklerov.
"We are also looking to design a proactive notification system to be used to alert the public when rainfall may affect water quality."
Sklerov said that the DEP already has a "substantial" water monitoring program with seven sites in the Hudson River. He also said the department already invested $735 million in its 10-year capital budget to improve the green infrastructure and will award $3.8 million in 2011 for private and non-profit companies to improve infrastructure to help prevent stormwater runoff.
The agency came under fire from environmental advocates and some in the community in the wake of a fire at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant on July 20, which sent at least 200 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson River as the city suffered a heat wave.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat called for hearings into the cause of the fire, and also called for regular testing and a notification system whenever sewage enters the city's waterways.
"We've got to have a reliable system so everyone is notified," Espaillat told a recent meeting of Friends of Riverbank Park. "We worked hard to clean our river and somewhere we slipped back," he added.
DEP's announcement came on the day Riverkeeper, a watchdog group that monitors the Hudson and its estuaries, released a multi-year study that found the Hudson River is unsafe for swimming an average of 1.5 days per week because of sewage contamination.
The recent fire and explosion at the North River Wastewater Treatment plant that sent massive amounts of raw sewage into the Hudson is only a "minor part" of the "widespread contamination" of the river from New York City up to the Troy dam, 153 miles north of the Battery, according to the report.
Riverkeeper Boat Captain John Lipscomb, who said swimmers were spotted in the Hudson during and soon after the sewage spill, applauded the DEP's announcement.
"That would be a wonderful development," he said.
"We have been asking for that for some time. That's a huge step forward," he said.
Lipscomb cautioned that he'll have to wait and see the type of data the DEP releases, but said he was optimistic. He said the plant fire may have awakened public interest in water quality issues.
"As the public becomes aware that there is a story they are not hearing and that there is information they could have that they are not getting, they ask for it," he said. "I believe the DEP sees the public wants to know, and they deserve to know, and they are responding."
Riverkeeper experts said the quality of water in the Hudson has improved dramatically over the years. However, the public is often unaware of the state of the water because the DEP takes up to two years to release the results currently, advocates said.
Riverkeeper released the results of its own Hudson River water quality study Tuesday after collecting water samples from 2006 to 2010 along with its partners from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earthy Observatory and Queens College.
They found that 21 percent of water samples failed Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for safe swimming on an average of 1.5 days per week. In comparison, only seven percent of beaches nationwide failed to meet EPA standards during the same period.
When it rains, sewage often spills into the river.
Because the city has a combined sewer overflow system that handles both waste and rain runoff, up to 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and untreated rain runoff per year is sent into the Hudson when it rains to prevent the treatment plants from being overwhelmed.
After a rain storm, the percentage of samples that exceeds EPA safety measures jumps to 32 percent, Riverkeeper said.
"With over 100 access points used for swimming, fishing and boating it's more important than ever that we invest in water quality," Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, said.
Gallay said DEP testing is often done in the middle of the channel and not close to shore where people who enter the river or use it for fishing are likely to have contact. Only four of 10 counties along the Hudson River estuary test for sewage contamination along the shoreline and none release their results to the public.
Middle channel water tests showed unacceptable levels of bacteria only 16 percent of the time while sites near the shoreline were unacceptable 24 to 34 percent of the time.
In addition to the testing and regular public notification system, Gallay said investment is also needed in green infrastructure to reduce rain runoff, and to keep the aging water treatment plants in good condition, he said.