HarborLAB is building a wee little library for our students, volunteers, and the public and partners we serve. Some subjects include water, ecology and other sciences, the harbor and Catskills regions, kayaking, nature writing, environmental justice. Our two latest acquisitions are “The Other Islands of New York City” by Sharon Seitz & Stuart Miller and “Hidden Waters of New York City” by Sergey Kadinsky. Well, in truth, the latter book is a bit of a tease; it won’t be circulated until finalized and released in March! Aren’t they perfect companion books?
Our full library will be in circulation starting this spring (just please don’t use your paddle as a bookmark!), and in some cases we’ll invite authors to speak about their work!
If you’d like to contribute to our library (widen our scope!), please come by during programming hours or mail books to:
by Josue Silvestre, Engineer in Training
HarborLAB Water Quality Sampling Coordinator
HarborLAB takes part in the Citizen Water Quality Testing Program (CWQTP), an initiative of the New York City Water Trail Association that coordinates weekly grassroots monitoring of metropolitan area waterways for a 20-week period from May through October. I had the opportunity to lead HarborLAB’s participation in 2015. Our focus was again Gantry Plaza State Park, where we serve cumulatively thousands of children, teens, and adults through public paddling programs and special partnerships with organizations serving disadvantaged youth.
We received training from The River Project and a research team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute on water sampling at docks and shorelines. The sampling season launched on May 28 with 38 sites from Yonkers to Jamaica Bay. We measured nitrate and phosphate with in-situ testing kits and brought chilled samples rapidly to five labs to test for Enterococcus, a gut bacterium indicative of sewage. While nitrate and phosphate levels are immediately registered, bacteria must be incubated for more than 24 hours.
Gantry Plaza State Park is on the East River, a tidal strait within the Hudson River Estuary. The CWQTP concerns itself with wastewater contamination of the East River due to past and recurring contamination from combined sewer outfalls (CSO) and malfunctioning of wastewater treatment facilities. Paddling groups and nonprofit littoral ecology experts assert that because NYC Department of Environmental Protection surveys sample in deeper water, official statistics don’t account for bacterial colonies near shore, where human contact and wildlife activity is greatest. NYC Department of Health water testing focuses on swimming beaches, not kayak and canoe launches.
HarborLAB cancels programming at Gantry Plaza State Park on days following significant rain as a precaution against CSO contamination.
Enterococcus levels are presented as a Most Probable Number (MPN), or the number of colonies per 100 ml of water counted after incubation. These numbers set thresholds for recommending public notifications or temporary closures. New York City Department of Health Enterococcus standards for swimming are as follows:
MPN <35 = acceptable for swimming
MPN between 35 and 104 = unacceptable if level persist
MPN >104 = unacceptable for swimming
Throughout the 2015 CWQTP season (see figure 1) lab results showed that the presence of Enterococcus at Gantry Plaza State Park usually measured within acceptable conditions for swimming. It was observed that on three occasions Enterococcus levels at the site were unacceptable for swimming. Similar results were obtained in the previous 2014 CWQTP season (see figure 2) with one measurement exceeding the limit acceptable for swimming.
These spikes might correlate to rainfall prior to measurement (with one of the three a possibly anomalous result), as seen in figure 3, provided by the Riverkeeper organization through the citizen testing data web tool hosted on its website. That is, a wetter season in 2015 may be the cause for having have three peaks in Enterococcus counts compared to one peak in 2014. The amount of rainfall in the 2014 season, from May 22 to October 02, was 14.76 inches, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office. That was 1.59 inches less than the 2015 season’s 16.35 inches for a same period (May 21-October 01).
Nitrate (NO3) and Phosphate (PO4) in-situ testing was new to the 2015 season. Nitrates and phosphates from urban runoff can cause eutrophication, a process that depletes lakes, streams, and rivers of oxygen. The procedure for in-situ testing was straight forward. The test kit consisted of two small tubes with nitrate and phosphate reactors and a small cube (see figure 4). Each tube would absorb water from a small cube of the sampled water. The tubes would change color after a few minutes indicating the level of NO3 or PO4 respectively. Throughout the season, low concentrations of Nitrate and Phosphate testing were recorded and these remained constant.
For me, as an international student with an engineering background in water resources, and an advocate of sustainable water management, constant monitoring of water bodies is of utmost relevance. It informs environmental regulators whether the water body supports a healthy aquatic ecosystem. While participating with HarborLAB collecting water samples, I came to appreciate the importance of keeping New York City’s waterways pollutant free. It helps revitalize shores once plentiful with aquatic life and maintain a balance in the ecosystem. In addition to revitalizing shores, effectively protecting our water bodies from pollutants creates an increased public interest in recreational water activities.
Fig. 1 2015 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results
Fig. 2 2014 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results
Fig.3 Enterococcus count and rainfall correlation. (Extracted from Riverkeeper.org/water-quality/citizen-data.)
Fig. 4 Nitrates and Phosphates in-situ testing kit
Below is a summary of HarborLAB volunteers’ year review meeting. Full notes prepared by Thomas Dieter in consultation with attendees are available to volunteers, sponsors, and community partners.
HarborLAB successfully expanded its estuary education programs, including special canoe and kayak tours; open paddle events; classroom activities and class field trips; cleanups; planting; and water quality sampling. Notable new achievements include: completed land clearing for the GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek; significant habitat restoration work at the GreenLaunch (planted dozens of native bushes and trees, native flowers, and built up tons of soil through composting); construction of three docks (one for the CUNY LaGuardia Community College environmental science program); trained public school teachers in seedball making through class visits and a National Wildlife Federation session; obtained permission to commence the Neversink Reservoir program in 2016.
HarborLAB’s current board includes Chair Scott Sternbach (Director, Photography Program at CUNY LaGuardia Community College), Dr. Holly Porter-Morgan, PhD (Director, Environmental Science program at CUNY LaGuardia Community College); Joel Kupferman, Esq. (Founder, Director of New York Environmental Law & Justice Project), Lisa Belfast (Manager of Afterschool and Camp Programs, Hour Children), and Erik Baard (journalist and Founder, Executive Director of HarborLAB). We support adding designated volunteer and student seats and inviting carefully screened rainmakers to join.
HarborLAB is strengthened by having a great proportion of leading volunteers who are women, people of color, LGBTQIA, and diverse in their belief systems and economic levels. Those who we serve are even more diverse. Danushi Fernando, a Fairleigh Dickinson University administrator who founded her campus’ Diversity Initiative, will help us systematize and measure progress. We’ll work to attract public participants as new volunteers and to cultivate evermore diverse volunteers as future HarborLAB leaders. To further those ends we’ll produce new literature and increase our personal outreach efforts in NYCHA, CUNY, and other diverse communities even beyond our substantial commitment to date. One mechanism for achieving this will be an effort to provide free winter or early spring pool training for paddling safety skills, coordinated and conducted by HarborLAB Operations Chief Eun Jung Lee.
HarborLAB will speed efforts to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and is already a New York State nonprofit. Tushara Saint Vitus, Esq., will lead that effort with input from volunteers and board members and final approval by the board and board counsel, Joel Kupferman, Esq.
Following the instruction of our current 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, Earth Day Initiative, we’ve spent down our funds almost entirely by the close of the year. We’ve had excellent retention of sponsors and donors and with our expanded volunteer base we’ll grow that support in 2016.
HarborLAB is largely done growing its two kayak and canoe fleets, which now total more than 40 boats. We’ll have very limited private boat storage by volunteer contract but no paid storage. For proven volunteers wishing to advance their skills we’ll purchase a small number of appealing decked kayaks for their use as trip leaders and off-hours enjoyment. Volunteers were concerned that paid private storage would dilute HarborLAB’s mission and egalitarian character.
HarborLAB will begin building its waterfront infrastructure under the leadership of Facilities Manager Patricia Menje Erickson, in harmony with our habitat restoration. To come: a laboratory for students and researchers focused on the Newtown Creek EPA Superfund; solar power generation; a “field station” deck with educational signage for younger students; boat storage with a living structure above; living shade structure; rainwater harvesting and brackish water distillation; composting toilet and outdoor shower and sink; rolling compost bins; and fruit tree planters.
HarborLAB must address lawlessness and environmental degradation in our isolated waterfront district by installing security cameras (directed by Scott Wolpow and Manny Steier); working further with the NYC Sheriff, NYPD, and environmental agencies to raise sunken sailboats and prevent the hording and scuttling of dubious sailboats and sailboats spilling sewage; working with DSNY, NYC Parks, and NYCDEP to create a street end bioswale park at the Vernon Boulevard bulkhead; and securing the property with fence and gate repairs.