Saw Mill River Coalition

Written By Ann Marie Mitroff

Coalition Coordinator


How the river got to where it is now

The Sawmill River is one of the smallest tributaries of the great Hudson River, but it has enormous ecological impact, primarily due to its industrial history.   In the 1800’s, the tributary’s name changed from the Nepperhan, meaning “trap fishing place” in Wechquaescheck, to the Saw Mill—coinciding with the industrialization of Yonkers —which ultimately led to Yonkers becoming the 4th largest city in the state.   The earliest saw mill was placed by the Philipse Manor Hall, powered by the steep natural drop of the water from present day Warburton Street to the Hudson River . 

Prior to industrialization, much of the Saw Mill, particularly the upper reaches, was a relatively untouched and vibrant water course with rich natural habitat supporting diverse wildlife and fisheries.   But industrialization and urban growth ushered in a new era of pollution and environmental decay.  Beyond actual use of the waterway for industrial waste disposal, the Saw Mill River valley was chosen as a roadway transportation corridor.   In the late 1920’s some portions of the river were realigned to accommodate the construction of the Saw Mill River Parkway , changing the river dramatically, and forever.   Besides the parkway, the river has been intensely modified via relocation or channelization for development purposes and flood control.   The ultimate modification occurred in downtown Yonkers during the 1920s, when the polluted river was banished underground in a ½-mile concrete flume installed by the Army Corps of Engineers.  

As the 20th century marched on, chemical companies, junk yards and other commercial industries came to dot the Saw Mill River flood plain.   In 1982, an accidental discharge of tritium—a radioactive isotope of hydrogen – occurred in the village of Elmsford , severely crippling nearby watershed habitat.   In 1985 near Woodlands Lake , another chemical release caused a massive fish kill.  Such accidents were commonplace, and each carried its own tail of environmental devastation.

Citizens take the lead to protect the river

The tide of citizen participation and stewardship – a product of the late 1960s and early 70s environmental movement - finally reached the banks of the Saw Mill in the late 80’s.  At this time, the Ferry Sloops—an environmental sailing organization associated with Hudson River Sloop Clearwater—initiated its “Saw Mill River Project.”   Through this project, community leaders Bob Walters and John Klonowski commenced water quality monitoring to develop a baseline of data, started a fish survey of the entire tributary, and began a community awareness program—all in an effort to educate people and promote conservation of the fragile aquatic habitat. 

Saw Mill River Coalition launched

In 1999 the non-profit organization Groundwork Yonkers was established through the City of Yonkers with funding from the National Park Service and the EPA Brownfields Program.   Its goal is to work with local residents, businesses and government agencies to mitigate the unwelcome effects of urban blight.  Through board member Bob Walters, Groundwork Yonkers set up “Friends of the Saw Mill, Yonkers Branch” to focus on protection of the Saw Mill River .

Finally, in 2003, Groundwork launched the Saw Mill River Coalition, funded by a grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program, which supports the establishment of watershed alliances along the Hudson and its tributaries.  The grant provided for the hiring of a part-time coordinator.  

Work Underway

The philosophy of the Coalition is to be inclusive and helpful, and to respond to the concerns of people and organizations that care about the river.   Its mission is to help people protect, revitalize, and enjoy the Saw Mill River .   Most of the major initiatives were launched to address concerns of local municipalities and their staff, such as complying with storm water regulations to improve water quality, restoring sections of the river, addressing the causes of flooding, and generally providing educational information. Some of the projects underway include:

Water quality monitoring: In conjunction with Manhattan College and Saunders Trade & Technical High School , a year-long monitoring project is underway at 11 different sites along the Saw Mill River .

Encouraging sustainable land use/protecting wetlands: With a grant from the US EPA and NY State’s Hudson River Estuary Program (HREP), the Coalition will begin working with the watershed municipalities on a year-long project to document and assess land uses along the river and to identify all wetlands.   Once compiled, a ranking system will be developed to help guide land use decisions and seek protection for priority pieces. These grants are based upon a working Memorandum of Agreement between the watershed municipalities—thanks in part to the training of municipal representatives through the Pace Land Use Law Center ’s “Land Use Leadership Alliance” Training Program.

Restoration, Free-A-Tree and River RATz program: Hundreds of volunteers are finding great satisfaction in freeing trees from invasive vines.   Healthy trees are critical to a river’s habitat.   Free-A-Tree meets once a month to work on sites. The Hastings High School Environmental Club has adopted this effort.   Through another HREP grant, plans will be completed for restoring 2-3 sites along the river, utilizing the River RATz (Restoration Action Team). The team will also receive on-going biodiversity training.

Education about pollution: For municipal staff, the Coalition periodically provides for the attendance of technical experts at local meetings on storm water regulations, better site design, road salting, environmental enforcement, and other related issues.   In a similar supportive capacity, the Coalition works with volunteer groups to mark storm drains.   In 2006, partners in the storm drain marking project included Ardsley Boy and Girl Scout Troops, Dobbs Ferry St. Christophers’ students, the Elmsford’s Hamilton High School Rotary Interact Club, the Hastings High School Environmental Club, Pleasantville Middle School 7th graders, and Beczak’s program with Emerson Middle School .  A major effort will be launched in 2007 with high schools and middle schools to educate the public on “floatables”—all those plastic bottles that amass in the river.

“Daylighting” the Saw Mill River in Yonkers : The uncovering of the Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers constitutes a nationally significant restoration project. The Coalition has made this a priority for more than 5 years, and the Governor’s support is now making it a reality.   The Coalition will work closely with the developers and officials in Yonkers to ensure that the “daylit” river is restored to enhance water quality and riparian conditions, as well as to be accessible to the public.

Website: To be launched in January 2007, the Coalition website will provide not only information on happenings in the watershed (Free-A-Tree dates, restoration projects, etc.), but also historical information, “Tool Kits” for residences and businesses about how to prevent pollution, a blog for wildlife and fish sitings, recreational opportunities, and links to other river-related organizations and programs.   Further—a google-interactive map of the watershed will be available on the site to “point” to interesting features in the watershed.

For more information, or to get on the Coalition email list, please contact Ann-Marie Mitroff, Coalition Coordinator,, (914) 375-2151. Office is located at 6 Wells Ave. , Yonkers , NY 10701