The little bottles of salt water were rushed in — by subway, bus, car, bicycle and kayak — from across the city.
“We have a woman from Hoboken who paddles across the river to bring us her sample,” said Nina Zain, 29, as she prepared on Thursday to test about two dozen water samples gathered by volunteers at various spots in the waters around New York City.
“One guy comes by bike and, one time, he was hit by a car riding here and he still showed up and apologized for being late,” said Ms. Zain, who along with another staff member, Elisa Caref, 28, were testing samples for bacteria found in sewage at the River Project, an educational center on a pier near Houston Street on the west side of Manhattan.
The center is a main drop-off site for a citizens’ water testing program organized by the New York City Water Trail Association, a coalition of paddling groups that is one of many advocacy organizations dedicated to monitoring city waterways and pressing government agencies to clean them.
And on Memorial Day weekend, as New Yorkers’ attention turns toward beaches, advocates are looking toward Albany, where state environmental officials are expected to announce long-awaited modifications to state regulations that would tighten quality standards for New York City’s waterways.
The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which is responsible for enforcing federal water guidelines, is considering upgrades to the standards the city must abide by in managing sewage treatment plants and regulating pollutants from storm drains, two of the biggest sources of pollution to waterways.
State department officials said the enhanced regulations would force the city to meet a goal of the federal Clean Water Act that water bodies be made “swimmable” wherever possible.
The sweeping act, which regulates water pollution nationwide, was enacted in the early 1970s when city waterways were heavily polluted. Today, New York City’s waters are cleaner. But many areas can still be unhealthy for swimming, paddling and other recreation, especially after big rainstorms when the city’s sewer system dumps in tons of sewage.
“Back then, it was probably hard for most people to imagine New York City waterways being swimmable,” said Larry Levine, a senior attorney for theNatural Resources Defense Council. “Now, with water quality here vastly improved, it is within reach.”
Bringing the city’s waterways into compliance with the goal of making them swimmable represents one of the most important regulatory actions in many years, Mr. Levine said, and would help set a new clean water agenda for years to come. It would force the city to adhere to stricter standards and implement stronger protections for its waterways.
The new regulations would amend testing standards for fecal bacteria and would, most significantly, affect the approximately one-third of city waterways currently held to weaker “secondary contact” standards, in state terminology. These waters are rated for only incidental contact, such as the spray one might get in a boat ride, not swimming.
The state modifications, which may be announced in coming weeks, would upgrade these areas, requiring the city to keep them clean enough for “primary contact” recreation, like wading, swimming, water-skiing or paddling in an open canoe or a kayak.
Though advocates call the changes long overdue, city officials largely disagree. Asked to comment, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection provided a letter it sent to state officials expressing agreement with the goal of the proposed changes, but noting that the city has continued to improve water quality.
The letter took issue with the attempt to designate all city waterways for primary contact, or swimmable purposes, calling it “unrealistic and inappropriate.” This would force the city to spend billions of additional dollars on wastewater upgrades, which would drive up water and sewer rates, the letter said.
Many of these waterways are not conducive to swimming anyway because of proximity to industry, shipping traffic, poor shoreline access and security restrictions, the letter said.
A more sensible approach, city officials wrote, would be to apply the swimmable designation to appropriate waterways where recreation can reasonably occur, so that the agency could concentrate on improving water quality in those areas.
The citizen water testing network, now in its fifth year, relies primarily on 40 volunteers from local boathouses and community groups who collect samples on Thursday mornings from Yonkers to Jamaica Bay. Test results are posted on the Water Trail Association’s website on Fridays, giving the public a chance to read them before the weekend, said an organizer, Rob Buchanan.
Areas that have some of the highest levels of bacteria, he said, are found in samples from the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek and Bronx Kill West.
“We give out a Golden Toilet Award every year to the place that tested the worst for the season,” he said. “Last year, it went to the Saw Mill River.”