Water Quality Cancelation.

(Most probable number (MPN) projections for enterococcus bacteria in NYC Water Trail Association’s 6/30/21 East River samples.)

One frustrating reality of New York Harbor life is that gorgeous sunny days for paddling can be ruined by days of rain preceding. This July 4th holiday weekend is such an occasion. But frustration can be instructive. Let’s learn why HarborLAB had to cancel programming, how we know it, and what you can do to help.

When it rains in New York City our antiquated system of combined sewer outfalls — which bring together household wastewater and stormwater from our streets — overflow with untreated effluent into the estuary. In short, when it rain, it poops. When the overflows are considerable, it can take quite some time for ultraviolet light and dilution to kill and disperse gut pathogens until it’s safer for humans and other species to be immersed. Because HarborLAB works with many novice kayakers, we have to assume some people will fall into the East River or Newtown Creek. As an environmental education organization, we also care that shellfish and other marine organisms are harmed and that this problem with worsen with the ongoing climate crisis’ sea level rise and heavy rains.

According to Riverkeeper, “More than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewage overflows (“CSOs”) into New York Harbor alone each year.” 

What you see above are the results of last week’s lab results through the “citizen scientist” water monitoring effort of the NYC Water Trail Association and Billion Oyster Project. HarborLAB samples water each week at Gantry Plaza State Park and the Hunters Point South Park public boat launch at 2nd Street. The figures displayed above are “most probable numbers” of a sewage indicator bacterium before a day of laboratory incubation. And below are safety ranges for those bacteria counts in a 100 milliliter sample. That’s right, a health advisory is issued for counts above 104 and by Thursday morning we blew past 24,000 at the upper limit of the test! And rain followed!

To learn more about NYC’s sewer system and its future, we recommend the following links:

NYC’s New Plan Would Let Massive Sewage Overflows Continue — Natural Resources Defense Council
Open Sewer Atlas

A handy summary of the NYC Water Trail Association/Billion Oyster Project’s testing routine is provided by the federal Advisory Committee on Water Information, which was rendered inactive in 2019 (worth looking into now?):

Colilert/Enterolert Method
• Add media to 100 ml of water
• Pour into multi-well tray
• Seal tray
• Incubate for 18 to 24 hours
• Score samples – E. coli: yellow and glow in UV – Enterococcus: glow in UV
Training video from a parallel effort in Virginia:

For its part in 2021’s vital water quality monitoring work, HarborLAB has to thank volunteer Sanjay Shirke. A Manhattan resident, Sanjay has built water sampling into his jogging routine with a route that take him over the Williamsburg Bridge and up through Brooklyn to LIC. Sanjay, who just qualified for the New York Marathon, has had time during his runs to reflect on his contributions toward a better future for his kids and NYC as a whole. He shared his thoughts:

“We live in a time of unprecedented change. Daily headlines speak of climate change; with apparent direct effects of weather, and larger climactic trends involving wildfires; droughts; floods, emerging biologic threats.
What effect can a small environmental organization, have on these powerful global forces? Perspective. The change in perspective from moving just a few yards into the water from well-trodden harborside paths is a bit more than one expects. Moving just a few yards down from the paths, and a few yards in from the pier provide an awareness that we ARE part of an ecosystem. The movement of the waves provides a sense that one is IN the environment; away from the double-edged marvels of edifice, commerce, and architecture. 

From this small act; from this small change in perspective, from a walker of sidewalks to a paddler of rivers, one changes to a product of the environment to a participant. The possibility of affecting the river is raised. Similarly, moving from a consumer of scientific information to a citizen-scientist lights a small candle. Collecting a small water sample, watching it glow brightly in response to the bacteria therein inserts the citizen scientist into the environment. 

Why does the bacterial bioactivity change from day-to-day? How do people decide when area beaches are closed? How does the cleanliness of Manhattan’s harborscape compare with beaches in more ‘pristine’ locations — Coney Island, to the Jersey Shore, to the glittering sands of Miami and beyond?  

It turns out…we’re not on so different a waterway. The first impression of a New Yorker of the shallows and depths of city waterways is one of cleanliness despite the clichés and stereotypes with which we’re familiar. Actually measuring and demonstrating this with your own hands challenges our preconceptions, and empowers the individual citizen scientist to feel connected, in a small way, to the local environment. From there, to familiar regional beachfronts. And on to the interconnectedness of the human experience.”

If you’d like to join Sanjay’s team, or perhaps even his run, drop us a note at volunteer@harborlab.org. Or perhaps you’d like to present to schools on this topic on behalf of HarborLAB? And anyone can help by simply letting their NYC City Council representative know that water quality and safety is important. Thanks for helping to turn disappointment into education and positive action!

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