Build a Reed Boat With Us!

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International High School students binding phragmites reeds. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB is building a reed boat to debut on City of Water Day, July 16, and you can help!

To join our reed harvesting and boat building efforts email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject “Reed Boat.”

Cultures across the globe have made reed boats or equivalents for thousands of years, from the woven ark of the story of baby Moses to the elaborate totora balsas made by the ancient and surviving Uru people of Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia and Peru even today. Our boat is most inspired by Ethiopian papyrus tankwa and North American tule canoes. The plant we use  is invasive phragmites, a widely distributed plant with Eurasian genotypes brought to North America as decorative accents on estate landscapes. Phragmites  grew out of control because they reproduce by both fecund seed tufts and rhizomes that sprout new shoots from underground. Our whole region is fringed with this tall, densely growing marsh reed.

To honor the shared heritage of reed boats HarborLAB chose to work with the International High School at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. A cheerful crew of Tibetan (via India and Nepal), Colombian, Ecuadoran, Egyptian, Peruvian, Uzbeki, Bangladeshi, and Senegalese students launched our construction under the guidance of teachers Amy Bouros and Sanjeeb Anower, and HarborLAB volunteers Erik Baard and Katherine Bradford. One Bangladeshi student recounted how in his homeland he built a raft from a banana tree to cut miles from his daily walk to school. We thank Principal Jackie Valane for introducing us to the teachers and taking such an active interest in the project.

Reed boats are great classroom projects for a host of reasons. They require no power tools and the materials are simply reeds and burlap twine, made from another reed called jute. International High School student Tenzin Woesel researched the plant’s growth patterns to calculate how much we’d need to harvest. We included that information in our research application to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group. Tenzin also learned about the history, construction techniques, and anthropology surrounding reed boats from readings selected by HarborLAB volunteer and anthropologist Diana Szatkowski (PhD, Columbia  University).

Phragmites aggressively displace native marsh plants like cordgrass, so most conservation scientists are only happy to see them felled by clippers and machetes. The reeds we use have so far been harvested and fetched from Alley Pond Park by Tenzin, Erik, Patricia Erickson (who also lent her van; HarborLAB Chair Scott Sternbach, director of the LaGCC photography program, lent his pickup truck), Greg Leopold, Katherine, the NYC Parks Stewardship Team, and volunteers from Latham and Watkins, LLP, thanks to coordination by Natural Areas Conservancy and NYC Parks coastal wetlands engineer Jamie Ong. Our quarry was the dead cane. We were careful, however, to remove all seed heads to avoid propagating the species.

When our reed boat has passed its useful working life by the end of the summer, it will entirely return to the earth. We hope that it inspires future projects, or even a World Boatbuilding Museum in NYC!

Please enjoy a photo gallery by Erik Baard of the work so far:

A Bright Solstice Paddle!

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HarborLAB welcomed summer to Gantry Plaza State Park! The longest day of the year eased down into a glorious sunset that dappled the little cove touching the growing community of Hunters Point South. We used the event to educate our many participants about solar energy.

We distributed solar energy coloring books, instructions for making solar ovens from pizza boxes, passive solar design guides for youth projects, and sheets explaining how photovoltaics work. As usual we also gave away NY State Department of Environmental Conservation educational literature and flyers from the Waterfront Alliance, American Canoe Association, The River Project, US Coast Guard, and other organizations promoting water safety and ecology.

Fittingly, when our eyes follow the sun trail across the water, they come to both the United NationsUnited Nations and the Solar One alternative energy education center. On the shore behind us were terrific volunteers with Hunters Point Parks Conservancy pulling out invasive mugwort so that native plants can thrive.

NY1 News came out to video the fun and kindly shared our mission with viewers.

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Thanks to a grant plaza from TF Cornerstone we’ll soon be able to offer basic kayak paddling lessons at Gantry Plaza State Park. Our “Instruction for Inclusion”program will fund lessons to certify a number of HarborLAB volunteers as American Canoe Association level 2 sit-on-top kayak instructors. Our aim is to build skills and confidence in participants in our Gantry programs so that they join longer harbor tours. We find that our open paddles within protected areas draw more diverse participation than our longer and often even more rewarding voyages. On that note, we were also to safely share the water with sponsor New York Waterway, with its East River Ferry service docking at Hunters Point throughout program hours.

We’re grateful to Waterfront Alliance and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for coordinating access to Gantry Plaza State Park for HarborLAB’s free public programs. As always, it’s our volunteers who ultimately make these good things happen. A special thanks goes to Josue Silvestre, EIT, our water quality manager for testing the water at Gantry Plaza State Park each week for nitrates and sulfates and bringing samples to labs at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and The River Project for fecal bacteria, our safeguard against sewer overflows. We’ve found Gantry Plaza State Park to have the cleanest waters in western Queens, usually testing within safe swimming parameters. Josue was also there at the dock during the event, introducing fellow New Yorkers to their estuary.

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Volunteer Steven Chu exuberantly welcomes new volunteer and novice paddler Yemi Abioye to the East River!

Another hero was safety patrol kayaker Diana Szatkowski, PhD, who received rave reviews from novice paddlers for her patient coaching, encouragement, and keen eye for each paddlers’ needs. Designated public paddling partner Steven Chu helped visitors become paddlers too, hopping into their boats for on-board cheer and guidance.

A huge thanks also to event volunteers Yemi Abioye, Philip Borbon, Mairo Notton, Erik Baard, Patricia Erickson, Evan O’Neil, Scott Wolpow, Dorothy Morehead, May May Cheng, Wing Ho, Greg Leopold, and Katherine Bradford! May May and Wing came through HarborLAB’s 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, Open Space Institute. They staffed the education and sign in table, fit participants with life vests and conducted them safely to the dock and into boats, and kept them safe on the water. Lots of work that we believe really makes a difference in the life of our city and in each individual participant.

Please enjoy the gallery below by Erik Baard.

 

 

Family Fun Day Memories.

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On June 18 HarborLAB had a wonderful day providing a free paddling program and environmental education literature to  Friends of Fort Totten Parks‘ popular “Family Fun Day” in Little Bay Park on the northeastern Queens coast. As usual, we learned new things along the way!

We’re grateful to Waterfront Alliance, which coordinated the day’s waterfront programming, for inviting HarborLAB to contribute our activities alongside others as diverse as health screenings, Brooklyn College’s hands-on environmental science displays, seaweed art, and pet microchipping information. City Council Member Paul Vallone provided a mini-grant to HarborLAB to help activate this NYC Water Trail launch, and he stated that he hopes to found a permanent boating and education program out of an underused building on the shoreline. He clearly loved putting his paddle to the cove!

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Erik Baard of HarborLAB and Roland Lewis of Waterfront Alliance launch City Council Member Paul Vallone and his little captain on a voyage about the Little Bay. Photo courtesy of Alison Simko/Waterfront Alliance.

Our volunteers cleaned the beach through an effort led by Jeff Lim. A good thing too as we shared the beach with a variety of beautiful plants and animals. Horseshoe crabs swam up and we gingerly moved them aside to avoid any boats walloping them as they landed. Even more astonishing was how an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly graced the beach amid the hubbub. At first we thought it was ill or dying (they live as butterflies for only weeks) but it flew with great vigor, only to very deliberately return to the beach. Some speculated that it was feeding on seaweed somehow, or even garbage! But the truth discovered through subsequent research was even more surprising: it was taking up salt from the wet sand, a normal behavior called “puddling.” Young males freshly winged out of their larval stage seek sodium ions and amino acids to enhance their reproductive abilities. They will even draw from dung and urine. Most of the time the species stays high in the canopy and feeds on flowers. Who knew that clean estuary sands helped sustain beautiful butterflies?

 

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Eastern tiger swallowtail puddling. Photo by Erik Baard/HarborLAB.

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Eastern tiger swallowtail paddling. Photo by Erik Baard/HarborLAB.

As always, our deepest thanks go to the sponsors and especially volunteers who made the day possible. Jeff Lim, Patricia Erickson, Alex Sramek, Phillip Borbon, Diana Szatkowski, Danushi Fernando, Erik Baard, Shinjie Lim, Diana Chang, Jessy Yap, Alyssa Yap, Erik Baard, Scott Wolpow, EJ Lee, David Kistner, and Manny Steier, and new friends brought by Jeff did amazing work. Thanks!

Please enjoy the gallery of photos below by Captain Margaret Flannagan and Alison Simko of Waterfront Alliance and Erik Baard, Diana Chang, and Jeff Lim of HarborLAB.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GreenLaunch Attracts More Life!

HarborLAB’s work to green and stabilize our little section of Newtown Creek Superfund waterfront continues to bring green returns. When we arrived in late 2012 the site was covered with illegal dumping and pallets of scores of thousands of stranded bricks. Now our GreenLaunch’s milkweed, shadbush (serviceberry), American persimmon, and other native species are thriving and attracting birds and insects. After we install our final pieces of large infrastructure we’ll plant our healthy, container-grown apple, apricot, fig, pear trees and fruit vines into permanent homes. We also plan to cover graffiti at our site with a living green screen.

We need gardeners and sponsors to help keep this wonderful progress going! Please email volunteer@harborlab.org or support@harborlab.org with the subject line “gardening” and a few lines about how you’d like to be help. Thanks!

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Black swallow butterfly (male) feeding on milkweed nectar at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Black swallow butterfly (male) feeding on milkweed nectar at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Shadbush (or serviceberry or juneberry) growing at HarborLAB. Delicious for birds and humans alike. Photo by Erik Baard.

Neversink ReservoirLAB Begins!

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“Mother Duck” single file turn. Neversink Reservoir paddling. Photo by Diane Galusha, Catskill Watershed Corporation.

HarborLAB’s new program for FREE watershed education is afloat! HarborLAB is the only organization with boat fleets to explore both our watershed and estuary — from the highlands to the harbor, or source to the sewer!

A group of 30 kids and teens from Hour Children brought ReservoirLAB (LAB stands for “Learning Adventure Boating”) to life last week, canoeing and kayaking the Neversink Reservoir  in the beautiful Catskill Mountains. The participants — aged 5-13 years old — also enjoyed a short hike through the reservoir’s surrounding forest. The purpose of ReservoirLAB, which begins with an orientation lecture and activities before the visit,  is to help young people learn about the natural and engineering wonders behind our city’s drinking water system.

Groups can come for day trips or camp for very reasonable rates at nearby private grounds run by local families.

If you’d like us to share this wonderful experience with your NYC school or youth group (especially but not exclusively high school aged), please write to us at edu@harborlab.org with the subject line, “Neversink Visit.” If you’d like to volunteer for this program (whether you live in NYC or the Catskills), please write to us at volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject “Neversink Volunteering.” If you’d like to sponsor or donate to ReservoirLAB, please write to us at support@harborlab.org with the subject line Neversink Support.” THANKS!

ReservoirLAB is made possible by grants and guidance from Catskill Watershed Corporation, and permission and educational training provided by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection. We’re also grateful to Frost Valley YMCA for storing our gear while we worked with our partners to meet the safety, educational training, and logistical requirements of this pioneering program. This is the first FREE paddling program for youth education on a NYC reservoir.

HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard conceived of a public paddling program on NYC’s reservoirs in 2011 while bicycling through the Catskills to promote eco-tourism for the state government’s I NY campaign, which officially designated him “the greenest New Yorker.”

HarborLAB volunteers are the backbone of ReservoirLAB and have generously given their time and energy to earn Red Cross certifications in adult and pediatric First Aid, CPR, AED, and Basic Water Rescue, as well as NYCDEP watershed education training given by Kim Estes-Fradis and Robin Sanchez. Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson allowed HarborLAB to use of her vehicles and property. The long and exhausting inaugural outing was conducted in good spirits by Camping Co-Manager Ray Tan, Executive Director Erik Baard, Diana Szatkowski, and especially Scott Wolpow. We’re also grateful to those partners who personally shared this wonderful day: Catskill Watershed Corporation Communications Director and Education Coordinator Diane Galusha, who helped guide our set up and photographed our program, and NYCDEP Land Supervisor John Green, who conducted the forest walks.

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NYCDEP Land Supervisor John Green teaches Hour Children about how forests protect our water. Photo by Ray Tan of HarborLAB.

WATERSHED WONDERS

Neversink Reservoir Fun Facts, by Erik Baard

Maximum depth: 175 feet.

That’s deeper than any point in New York Harbor! If you took the Statue of Liberty off her pedestal and stood her in the reservoir, her torch would still be 25’ under water! Get Lady Liberty a life vest!

Length: 5 miles.

That’s the distance between the World Trade Center and Central Park, but no traffic jams!

Maximum volume: 35 billion gallons.

That can satisfy more than a month of New York City needs! Though NYC is growing, we use less water in recent decades because we’re getting smarter about conservation.

Elevation: 1,440’

That’s nearly as high as the tip of Empire State Building’s spire, making the Neversink the highest Catskill Mountains reservoir! Gravity carries our water downhill to the city with such force that when it arrives it can even go up a few floors without pumping!

 

Yes, the Neversink Reservoir is an extraordinary place, and beautiful too! But it’s just a small part of an amazing system of 19 reservoirs holding 550 billion gallons of water from which over 9 million people in New York City and neighboring counties use 1.2 billion gallons each day. That’s a lot of water to collect, keep clean, and deliver!

Our reservoirs gather rainwater and melting snow from three areas – called the Catskill, Delaware, and Croton “watersheds” – that total 2,000 square miles. For comparison, New York City covers only 305 square miles. Much of this combined watershed area is green with forests because trees, groundcover plants, and soft and absorbent soil naturally protect our water from fertilizer and pollution that runs off farms, factories, and roads. We mechanically filter very, very little of our water, thanks to forests!

The water you drink can come from up to 125 miles away! About 6,500 miles of huge pipes, deep tunnels, and aqueducts bring our reservoir water to us. That’s nearly ten times longer than all of New York City’s subway lines combined! What an engineering marvel! Even our reservoirs, though they look like lakes, are public works. Generations ago city engineers built dams so that rivers could fill valleys, which are the reservoirs we see today. In some cases people had to leave their towns and farms to make way for water storage for the good of fellow New Yorkers.

The work to maintain this wonder of nature and engineering never ends. Roughly 6,000 NYC Department of Environmental Protection employees test the water to make sure it’s clean and safe, care for the forests that surround our reservoirs, fix and improve the tunnels that carry our water, defend reservoirs against invasive species, and so much more. Let’s think of their work, the help of their many partners like Catskill Watershed Corporation, and especially of nature’s gifts each time we turn the tap to drink or shower!

Come paddling with HarborLAB/ReservoirLAB to learn more!

Please enjoy the gallery below. Photos by Erik Baard and Ray Tan of HarborLAB and Diane Galusha of Catskill Watershed Corporation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bunker to Bun-Ker Paddle Up the Creek!

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HarborLAB heads for Maspeth. Greg Mocker of WPIX  is at the stern of the Bernie Ente (see flag), named for the pioneering photographer of life on the creek and mentor of Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman. Photo by Diana Chang. 

HarborLAB volunteers and guests recently paddled from Hunters Point to Maspeth on the Newtown Creek to honor United Nations World Oceans Day by learning about menhaden (known as “bunker fish” in local vernacular and as pogi elsewhere) and exploring our Environmental Protection Agency estuary superfund. We also enjoyed some of the best Vietnamese food in NYC at Bun-Ker!

HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard shared a bit of menhaden science and lore with participants. Menhaden are essential to the Atlantic Ocean’s food chain. Or as Rutgers University historian H. Bruce Franklin puts it, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.” These roughly foot-long fish are filter feeders, with each member of their extraordinarily dense schools cleaning up to six gallons of water per hour as they swim. Some have argued that because bunker are mobile (they migrate all along the east coast of North America and Gulf of Mexico), they might be even more valuable than oysters in filtering algal blooms out of estuaries because shellfish ultimately return the excess nutrients they consume to the same waters when they excrete and die. This, however, is in dispute. What’s certain is that a host of predators, from striped bass to whales, depend on the overfished menhaden.

Why is this fish so delectable to seemingly everyone but humans? They’re very bony and oily. But that oil, from eating all that algae, is now so coveted by industry that the species is in peril. The market for DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids is booming as aging Americans seek to protect their brains and hearts with healthy fat supplements. This on top of demand for ground up menhaden for fertilizer, cosmetics, and industrial farm animal and aquaculture feed turned “reduction” into a very lucrative business. This use has a long history, with the species’ name linked to a Native American word for fertilizer. Today a single reduction company, Omega Protein, is responsible for over 80% of the menhaden catch. The balance is an aggregation of bait companies. Omega Protein has vigorously resisted caps on fish landings and most of its product is sold internationally. The company has begun to face competition from biotech companies that are growing algae and other microorganisms directly to harvest for Omega-3 oils and protein.

Menhaden also die in mass within inlets and coves for reasons that aren’t fully understood, though some blame viruses or more often low dissolved oxygen levels. Sadly these smelly “die offs” are how many coastal residents are introduced to menhaden. In the late spring of 2015, the Newtown Creek was littered with dead menhaden.

Biologist and author Carl Safina and co-author Elizabeth Brown neatly summarize “The Good and the Bad for Atlantic Menhaden” for National Geographic.

On our paddle we saw only killifish, which are tough little survivors. We also saw shellfish tucked into crumbling bulkheads and the Billion Oyster Project transfer site hosted by ExxonMobil (the company supports HarborLAB’s safety training as part of its community outreach associated with cleaning up its pollution in Greenpoint, Brooklyn).

One trip participant who was eager to clean up pollution was Greg Mocker, the WPIX news reporter. Greg and his companion were vigorous paddlers who paused to remove plastic trash as they went. He was astonished at the beauty of the inner reaches of the creek, where marsh plants and a fringe of trees soften the industrial atmosphere created by recycling plants, sewage barges, and fuel tanks.

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WPIX reporter Greg Mocker is savage in his zeal to clean the creek. Photo by Diana Chang.

We landed at historic Plank Road, or today’s 58th Road in Maspeth. We tied up to rebar loops in concrete to avoid damaging wooden artifacts from an old “penny bridge” that crossed the creek. Finding Bun-Ker from our landing take a bit of urban bushwhacking through a street clouded by construction material dust and an active truck lot. Erik led the crew over and returned to babysit he boats with Scott Wolpow. The Newtown Creek Alliance cleaned up Plank Road and added greenery and educational signage. During our time there, Erik seeded areas overtaken by mugwort with native pokeweed. The diners came back smiling and clearly sated by their delicacies.

What a wonderful introduction to the creek and “the most important fish in the sea!” By popular demand, we’ll repeat the trip soon.

Photo gallery below by Diana Chang.

Western Queens Waterfront Symposium

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Environmental panel. Photo by Dorothy Morehead of HarborLAB, Queens CB2, and Newtown Creek Alliance.  

HarborLAB was honored to be invited by the Waterfront Alliance to be part of the environmental panel of the Western Queens Waterfront Symposium. The event was convened by Waterfront Alliance, Green Shores NYC, and host Greater Astoria Historical Society. HarborLAB has made significant contributions to greening our shore with plantings and cleanups, advocacy for plant tissue testing on the Newtown Creek, and gained media notice for its pivotal role in improving water quality in Hallets Cove.

HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard (pictured in the orange HarborLAB shirt above) drew attention to the needs for cleanups (perhaps Environmental Protection Agency superfunds) of smaller inlets like Anable Basin, behind the famed Pepsi sign on the LIC waterfront. He also asserted that with cleaner next generation marine engines the Newtown Creek could see concurrent ecological and economic revivals. He emphasized that environmental services (the ways species and features sustain and protect us) must be fully valued in our economic planning.