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New Scotland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 11, 2009
Voorheesville protects its drinking water
By Philippa Stasiuk
Cigarette butts, dog feces, yard fertilizer, and loose soil. What do they have in common? All four, if not contained, will inevitably be carried by rainwater through a storm drain and into the Hudson River where their collective damage to the environment is incalculable.
The problem, according to Gerry Gordinier, is making people aware, for instance, that the nitrates in dog feces and yard fertilizer lead to less oxygen in water and the slow suffocation of aquatic animals. As the Stormwater Coordinator for Voorheesville, Gordinier wants to educate the public.
Voorheesville is one of a dozen municipalities comprising the Stormwater Coalition of Albany County, which formally banded together in 2009. The coalition’s goal is clean water, which in Voorheesville is mostly focused on the protection of Vly Creek. Like the other municipalities, Voorheesville is one of New York’s small towns and villages scrambling to figure out how to become stewards of the local waters, which has become their legal responsibility.
The source of the laws that now hold towns and villages responsible for keeping water clean is the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, formed in response to the abysmal conditions of America’s waterways. At the time, 30 percent of the nation’s drinking water had unsafe amounts of chemicals. The Hudson River had bacteria levels 170 times what was considered safe by authorities. Perhaps the most flaming wake-up call to lawmakers came in 1969 when the oil slick coating the Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught fire.
The Clean Water Act and its subsequent amendments make it unlawful for any person to discharge pollutants from a point source into navigable waters without first obtaining a permit to do so. Later amendments to the act reflected growing awareness of the role rainfall, or stormwater, played in carrying pollution to the country’s rivers, lakes, and streams.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency ultimately defined six specific stormwater measures, including public awareness and participation, illicit discharge and regulation, and rules for avoiding soil runoff at construction sites. Municipalities were also charged with passing local laws, which Voorheesville did in 2007, transferring authority for implementing these measures locally. This meant that, not only is it now illegal to throw a cigarette butt out the car window, but local authorities can levy punishments for the offense.
So far, Gordinier says, no one in Voorheesville has been fined. It is more about citizen awareness and educating offenders about what they shouldn’t be doing and why.
“The responsibility of enforcing legislation to protect potable water belongs to us all,” he said. “ Success is measured by anyone that reads our article in the quarterly mailer and then goes out and buys less fertilizer for their lawn, and the person who cleans up behind their dog or by someone who puts in a rain garden and slows down the flow of water in their property for the first time. Our success is accomplished just by people who talk about it.”
Gordinier says that he’s gratified to know the public is becoming aware that their village is responsible for keeping its own waterways clean.
“We got a phone call a few months ago that a contractor servicing a local water softener had dumped salt into our catch basins and a neighbor called to report it,” said Gordinier. “I went and confronted the contractor and the guy cleaned out the salt. But, if we’d had a rain event, it would have been bad.”
Forming a coalition
The 12 municipalities comprising the Stormwater Coalition had been working on water pollution issues individually for years. Then, in 2005, the group was rewarded with two grants from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation: one to formalize a coalition and the other to hire a coordinator, Nancy Heinzen.
Heinzen said that the DEC encourages municipalities in New York to form coalitions because, under the regulations of the Clean Water Act, the municipalities all have to do the same work in order to meet federal requirements and, in a coalition, they can share resources.
“But the biggest reason for a coalition,” Heinzen said, “is that water flows downhill. We’re managing stormwater in which the drainage area rarely includes one unique municipality. The flowing water picks up a set of pollutants that we’re collectively trying to get rid of. You have to know what’s upstream and what’s downstream. It makes sense to do it together.”
Gordinier describes the coalition’s tasks as a “living mandate” wherein each year, more responsibilities are given to New York’s towns and villages. In Voorheesville, stormwater duties for the Vly Creek entail regular monitoring of the waters for soapsuds, cigarette butts, and other obvious pollutants of concern.
However, with Heinzen’s help at coalition headquarters, Gordinier says, Voorheesville will soon have equipment with which to monitor the creek’s chemical makeup and track changes in its health.
The volunteer Vly Creek cleanup that occurred in May is also, Gordinier says, an example of what he hopes is a trend towards greater public involvement. Organized by Neighbors Helping Neighbors and the New Scotland Kiwanis, at least a dozen local residents got together on Saturday, May 2, to clean debris out of the creek.
“I hear horror stories about other places,” said Gordinier. “If you walk by our stream, it’s well kept. The village of Voorheesville is very progressive. We’re the only municipality in Albany County with an aquifer and wellhead protection law. Those laws protect our drinking water from pollutants and, to my knowledge, we’re the only municipality that has one. We’ve had groundwater protection laws in place for over a decade, long before the federal government and the sate mandated such laws. What we’re doing is not new; it’s just under a different mandate.”