Different Strokes

It’s a sweltering summer afternoon. The temperature is edging toward 90 and the sparkling Hudson looks like a mirage. There’s a small group of people paddling around in the water. I move in for a closer look.

“It’s like bath water,” says Nancy King, a local cyclist who calls the sandy inlet located midway between the George Washington Bridge and the 125th Street sewage treatment plant Paradise Cove.

“When the tide is high the salt comes in and it cleans things out,” says King who prefers the Hudson to the local beaches. “I spent my summers in Montauk so I’m used to clean water. Coney Island, as exciting as it is, I just wouldn’t swim in it.”

King met Harlem resident Eric Schechter here a year ago. The British-born writer and filmmaker swims in these waters at every opportunity and considers them to be as clean as rainwater despite the occasional solid waste plume.

“There is a time of day– I don’t know quite how it works–when debris does show up and all the famous condoms and Tampax and other effluvium from the city comes to the edge.“

But Schechter is undeterred. “My imagination would dry up without this. It’s as simple as that. This is the joy of my life.”

While the Hudson’s water quality has improved considerably since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, raw sewage overflow continues to pose a health risk to swimmers. Even officials who claim New York waters are the cleanest they’ve been in more than a century advise would-be bathers to steer clear of the river after rain storms.

When I meet Schechter walking by the river a few days after his swim he complains about a soreness in his throat and joints. Coincidence?

Lead, pesticides and PCBs aside, raw sewage (specifically enterococcus, a bacteria commonly found in human waste) is what poses the most immediate health threat. Riverkeeper, a Hudson River advocacy group, runs a testing program that issues periodic water quality reports. In accordance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, levels up to 35/100ml — about four tablespoons per cup — are deemed to be safe.

Despite its proximity to a wastewater treatment plant, this inviting stretch of the river– referred to by Riverkeeper as George Washington Bridge Mid-channel– has passed water quality tests with flying colors since 2008.

Sixty-five year old Antonio Conejo says he’s been swimming here for the last 25 years and he has no complaints. His wife waits on shore, nonetheless, to make sure he doesn’t spend too much time in the murky water. 

“When he told his doctor (that he swam in the Hudson), recalls Conejo’s wife laughing, he said (“You should get) five or six shots.”

Their children grew up a block from the river but prefer to swim in a pool.

“They don’t do crazy stuff like this.” she says.

To access Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Testing data click HERE.

“Dub Baby” used courtesy of BonesUK / ccMixter