Studying the Cleanliness of the Mohawk River

New York’s waterways are essential to the various ecosystems, economies, and communities throughout the state. From New York Harbor to Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes to the St. Lawrence River, New York’s waterways are central to the people of the state, supporting wildlife, business and quality of life. The more than 50,000 miles of rivers and streams running through the state are simultaneously the sources of people’s drinking water and livelihoods, and serve as both habitat for wildlife and playgrounds for people.

The Mohawk River is instrumental in New York's history. In pre-colonial times, it set up a safe place to live, and offered food and a natural superhighway through the mountain frontiers of Central New York, opening access to other Native American fishing grounds throughout the Great Lakes. The river’s contribution to commerce culminated in the construction of the 363-mile Erie Canal, which revolutionized commerce and culture by connecting the nation’s interior to the sea, via the Hudson River, at New York Harbor. Its value to the state of New York is unmistakable.

And the Mohawk River basin remains important today. It is more than 3,460 square miles, spread across 14 counties. Over 600,000 New Yorkers from 170 municipalities and 7 SUNY campuses call it home. At about 140 miles long it is the Hudson’s largest tributary, and it continues to serve as a part of the New York State Barge Canal. But how safe are these waters for swimming and other recreation?

SUNY is seeking to answer that question. SUNY Cobleskill is teaming up with the environmental organization Riverkeeper in a high-profile project to launch a new water quality monitoring project in the Mohawk River Watershed, one of the state’s most historic rivers. The project has the potential to be a model for applied learning and collaborative problem solving for undergraduates.

Scientific Discovery In the Field

At the core of the project is seeking the answer to the question of how safe our waters are for swimming and other recreation. For more than a decade, Riverkeeper and its partners have sought to answer that question by testing more than 300 locations throughout the Hudson River each month from May through October. Using Environmental Protection Agency protocol and criteria, Riverkeeper measures bacteria to learn where and when there is an elevated risk of illness from exposure to water. Using the data gathered through this testing, environmentalists can then recommend what actions may be necessary in order to keep the rivers safe and clean, such as improving aging wastewater infrastructure, and encouraging the use of best practices on farms.

This summer, Cobleskill professors Barbara Brabetz and Neil Law and their student Jason Ratchford retrieved samples at locks, boat ramps, kayak launches and other points in about half of the river’s 120 mile length between Amsterdam and Delta Lake. The team then analyzed the samples using Riverkeeper’s floating IDEXX Enteroalert lab to find out just how safe the Mohawk River really is for swimming.

The Riverkeeper boat on the edges of the Mohawk River with SUNY Cobleskill research faculty on board.

The samples are taken from the river using a sterilized bottle and gloves. After collecting a host of samples in each location, the water is treated with a reagent powder which contains a food source favored by the specific microbes being measured, Enterococci (Entero). If Entero are present, they digest the reagent over 24 hours, and will glow under a black light. After 24 hours, a black light is used to see if high levels of bacteria fluoresce. This data is then recorded by date and location. An elevated risk to swimmers occurs if a sample exceeds 60 cells of Entero per 100 mL of water

Out of 26 tested samples, only 4 returned sites above this threshold. This means that during the sampling time, almost all of the sites sampled were safe for public recreation. This came as a surprise to some, as it is no secret that the Mohawk River is known to flood with sewage during heavy rainstorms due to aging infrastructure. John Lipscomb from Riverkeeper told a reporter for the Recorder, “We were just surprised by today’s results because of the assumptions so many people had.”

While encouraging, the results represent only one snapshot on a single day. Since the samples were taken in a period of lower rainfall, these results are likely at their best. Sampling after rainfall could be expected to produce different results. Three more sampling events in August, September and October are planned this year, as a full-year testing plan for 2016 is being developed.

Thanks to the passage of the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law, the public can sign up to receive alerts of sewage spills through the NY-Alert system. But this only warns of one form of contamination. In order to get a more accurate reading of the river, Cobleskill and Riverkeeper hope to take many samples throughout the course of the year, similar to studies done in the Hudson River. By giving the public information that speaks directly to their safe use of waters they love, these projects invite community engagement and activism. For instance, in April, SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach hosted a Future of the Wallkill River event, which has led to the formation of a new citizens group, the Wallkill River Watershed Alliance.

(Video courtesy of the Daily Gazette):

Real Life, Real Learning

Riverkeeper relies heavily on partners in order to collect samples and advocate for actions that will improve water quality where the data indicates there are problems. Last year 80 percent of the Hudson River samples were collected by volunteers. In keeping with the volunteer spirit, Cobleskill professor Barbara Brabetz says student involvement will be done as a service learning project. She told the Times Union, “They will be doing this for the love of environment and of science. This is a real-life, real learning mission.”

Professors Brabetz and Law teach water chemistry at Cobleskill and are excited to bring their knowledge to the field, building on decades of water quality monitoring experience in the Schoharie Creek. They have plans to expand SUNY Cobleskill’s lab to include the same testing equipment used by Riverkeeper. "We are delighted to collaborate with our fellow researchers at Riverkeeper, and with the many individuals, organizations and agencies working throughout the watershed. Our faculty and students at SUNY Cobleskill have a long tradition of environmental education and research. Cobleskill’s experiential education benefits students who learn to solve real-life problems. This work not only prepares them for their future jobs, but also offers the citizens of New York State solutions to these critical issues."  

Applied Learning is an important part to many lab activities and Cobleskill’s faculty are all too happy to use these opportunities to give undergraduates the knowledge and experience they need to succeed in school and beyond.

Dr. Susan J. Zimmermann, provost and vice president for academic affairs, tells us how these opportunities for students are part of the mission at Cobleskill.

“Applied learning is at the core of SUNY Cobleskill’s mission and multiple opportunities are provided for students at both the associate and baccalaureate degree levels,” she says. “All 21 of our bachelor’s programs include either required or optional internship experiences; some of our associate degree programs include optional or required internships, field experiences, or clinical placements; and international internship and service opportunities are available to students in many disciplines.”

In the future, there could be many students volunteering to be a part of the river study, or similar applied learning opportunities, and with programs such as the BS in Environmental & Energy Technologies and BS in Fisheries & Aquaculture at Cobleskill, plenty of these students will want the real world experience offered by these opportunities.

And Cobleskill is in good company. With undergraduate programs in Environmental Science at a number of SUNY campuses including Brockport, Clinton Community College, ESF, Maritime and Stony Brook University, SUNY is poised to bring the State of New York, and the world, into a healthier, greener future.

Tracking these bacterial levels is just one step in making the Mohawk more healthy. The project was inspired in great part through the Mohawk Watershed Symposium, and is consistent with the longstanding efforts to study, protect and restore the river, including the DEC’s Mohawk River Basin Program Action Agenda and the Mohawk River Watershed Coalition.

For more information about the Riverkeeper/SUNY Cobleskill Mohawk River Study and these programs, contact Professor Brabetz or Professor Law at and

Published August 2015