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Riverkeeper Expands Research To Mohawk

An environmental organization known for its advocacy and work on the Hudson River is beginning work on the Mohawk. WAMC's Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard took a step aboard Riverkeeper's floating laboratory on Wednesday...

On a dreary morning, Riverkeeper's boat, the R. Ian Fletcher, is docked along Amsterdam's Riverlink Park. Riverkeeper has begun been patrolling the Mohawk as it takes a snapshot of the river's water quality.

Riverkeeper Captain John Lipscomb said the Mohawk River has a somewhat dirty reputation.

"The reputation of the Mohawk  has been that it's very sewage contaminated and you're going to see, in this first round, that most of it, the large majority of the Mohawk that we sampled yesterday tested suitable for swimming. Now I'm not saying it's like that every day. I'm saying it was sampled that way on the day we tested,' said Lipscomb.

Together with researchers from SUNY Cobleskill, Riverkeeper is looking for bacteria that indicate the presence of raw sewage. The samplings from 26 locations along a 120-mile stretch from Waterford to Rome were done during dry weather. And results would be very different on a rainy day.

Before this trip, Riverkeeper's Water Quality Program Manager Dan Shapley enters data from the samples taken earlier in the week onto a laptop. Sampling locations are tagged either green or red on a map of the Mohawk, which runs along the Southern Adirondacks before meeting the Hudson north of Albany.

"Was the bacterial count low enough that we should expect it's good water for swimming or at that moment when we tested was the bacterial count high enough that the EPA would have seen that as an unacceptable risk?"

Several educators are on board on this day. Barbara Brabetz, an associate professor of biology and chemistry at SUNY Cobleskill, found Riverkeeper at one of the annual Mohawk Watershed Symposia, which bring together researchers throughout the watershed.

She's hoping to involve students in analyzing samples in the future.

"If I hand them a random sample in a laboratory in a windowless room and say, 'Here, please test this and find out if it contains this specific kind of bacteria,' they'll be looking at their iPod and thinking about other things besides science. But if they're out in the mud collecting the samples, looking at the environment and seeing where potential contamination may take place, and then running back to the lab to do the testing themselves, it creates much more of a sense of engagement," said Brabetz.

Mollie Burgett, a science teacher joining the tour from Middleburgh High School in Schoharie County, also hopes to bring real-world science to her students. 

"If I go back during the school year and can say 'OK, here's what we're going to do. We're going to monitor these, and maybe we'll input some data or go look at some data, and see how it links up. And there's these other organizations and they were doing the same water quality monitoring, and see it how it relates...it just makes it a little more meaningful for the students."

John McKeeby, Executive Director of the Schoharie River Center, supports the effort.

"This offers them an opportunity to really see what the Mohawk River's about and to experience it in a different way than just driving by it at 65 miles per hour on the New York State Thruway."

Riverkeeper hopes the community will rally in support of the Mohawk like many communities on the Hudson have.

John Lipscomb said while many more rounds of testing are needed, the preliminary data makes him happy for the river's future.

"Because it's going to get a boost, even from this little bit data, in what the public perceive of it, and that's a happy day."

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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