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Clean Water for the Hudson River Estuary

Is the Hudson Getting Cleaner?

Water quality is not what it was when Henry Hudson's Half Moon sailed up the river 400 years ago, but it has improved over the lifetimes of Hudson Valley residents born 40 years ago. The Pure Waters Bond Act passed by New York State voters in 1965 and the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 were milestones in cleaning up a river that in many places was little more than an open sewer. Since then, the Hudson has become a regional asset - its waters attractive to boaters, anglers, and swimmers as well as to fish, birds, and wildlife. The federal Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 protects water quality for people and animals by banning cosmetics that contain synthetic plastic microbeads that are a source of pollution and accumulate toxins. Despite these successes, threats and problems remain.

map of the Hudson estuary watershed
The Hudson River estuary and its watershed

"How is the Hudson Doing?" provides a concise overview of water quality in the river. It is adapted from the Hudson River Estuary Program's State of the Hudson 2020 report. That document discusses water quality in a broad context including the streams that flow into the estuary, the watershed that sustains the Hudson and its tributaries, the health of mainstream and watershed habitats, and the status of "signature" species like striped bass as well as less glamorous but equally important creatures like salamanders and turtles.

DEC has undertaken major initiatives to achieve the clean water targets of the Hudson River Estuary Action Agenda 2021-2025. For example, over $7 million in grants have been awarded to address long-standing issues with combined sewer overflows and disinfection of sewage treatment plant discharges in Albany and the Capital Region.

Improving Water Quality - A Watershed Approach

What is a watershed?

A watershed is the land area that drains to a common body of water, such as a river, stream, lake or estuary. Watersheds can be large or small, and larger watersheds are made up of many smaller watersheds. For example, the Hudson River Estuary watershed includes the watersheds of many smaller streams that flow into it (called tributaries). Land use within the watershed directly impacts the quality of water downstream.

brook in autumn forest

Why is watershed management important?

Municipalities and landowners should understand watersheds as key geographic units when making local land use and water resource decisions. Development or disturbance to natural areas can translate into water quality impairments and biological stresses. A DEC 30 year trends report on water quality, released in 2004, estimated that over half of the streams in the Hudson River watershed have some degree of impairment and that more streams have declined in water quality than improved. According to DEC, stormwater runoff is the leading source of impairment to Hudson River tributaries. It is estimated that there are over 200 direct tributaries to the Hudson River. To learn more about Hudson River tributaries read our new tributary factsheet.

Through the watershed planning process, community leaders, watershed advocates, scientists and local governments work together to develop watershed conservation strategies. This process facilitates communication and partnerships among local stakeholders to document current watershed conditions and accomplish projects. Watershed-based planning is the foundation of the Hudson River Estuary Program's watershed initiative. It focuses on protecting healthy streams before they become degraded, while also striving to improve water quality in impacted streams. We use community-based conservation at the watershed scale to affect local changes.

Tools for Protecting Water Quality

Volunteers planting a tree along the Muddy Kill
Trees for Tribs volunteers plant a
tree along the Muddy Kill
  • Grants for watershed planning and implementation are available from the Hudson River Estuary Program.
  • Stream Buffer Protection and Restoration for Hudson River Tributaries: Our Trees for Tribs program provides free technical support and plantings to landowners interested in restoring riparian buffers (transition areas between streams and uplands). Protecting and restoring these buffer areas is vital to the health of waterways.
  • Aquatic Connectivity and Barrier Removal: Dams and culverts can disrupt important hydrologic processes and disconnect the aquatic habitats used by fish and other organisms. The Hudson River Estuary Program works with partners to assess and prioritize barriers for removal or mitigation to reconnect fish and wildlife habitat, provides field sheets and training for citizen scientists to inventory barriers, and provides technical and financial support for removing dams. This map shows which dams and culverts we have assessed and prioritized so far. For more information, contact the Estuary Program.
  • Better Site Design: Better site design is an approach to development that utilizes a set of design principles to protect natural areas, reduce impervious surfaces, and better integrate stormwater treatment in development projects, with an emphasis on changing municipal codes. The Hudson River Estuary Program provides tools and technical support for implementing better site design in Hudson River Estuary watershed communities.
  • Hudson River Estuary Program staff are available to provide presentations, technical assistance, and other support to efforts to maintain water quality in the Hudson watershed. For more information, call the Estuary Program at (845) 256-3016.

More about Clean Water for the Hudson River Estuary:

  • The State of the Hudson Report - This 16 page illustrated report reviews the current status of Hudson River water quality, habitats, and fish and wildlife populations as well as biodiversity, tributary health, and land use patterns in the estuary's watershed.
  • Hudson Estuary Trees for Tribs - Free native trees and shrubs for qualifying riparian buffer planting and restoration projects in the Hudson River Estuary watershed
  • What You Can Do to Protect the Hudson River Estuary - How individuals can help to protect the water resources of the Hudson and its watershed at home and in their communities.