Dear Friends, When the first humans arrived in what is today New York City, there was no East River and mastodons still squelched about in the swamps of Hunters Point. We’ve prospered through change, challenge, and yes, a bit of … Continue reading
HarborLAB volunteers had a wonderful time at the LIC Springs street festival, teaching kids and adults how to make seedballs. This means of planting native species helps restore habitat and stabilize shorelines. We focused on seaside goldenrod, which sustains migrating monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects in the autumn and shelters the eggs of black skimmer shorebirds. Our seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers and students from Hunters Point Community Middle School in coordination with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy.
We’re very grateful to Long Island City Partnership, our local business improvement district, for organizing this annual event, which is much more than a block party. Our lead volunteers for the day were Dylan Geil, Patricia Menje Erickson, David Borgioli, Scott Wolpow, and Erik Baard, with Thomas Dieter helping us get shipped out from the site. Thanks to David Kistner of sponsor Green Apple Cleaners as well, who did the leg work of picking up and delivering the 50 lbs bag of red clay powder needed for our seedballs.
We’re also grateful to our Seedball friends (http://http://seedball.us/) for teaching us this ancient propogation technique, which mimics the critical ecosystem process of endozoochaory (spreading seeds by animal droppings). We simply mix natural red clay powder, a pinch of sand, seeds, compost (cocoa husks), and a bit of water until the ingredients reach a cookie dough-like consistency. Then the “dough” is rolled into penny diameter balls. These are air dried for a few days and then bottled. Then HarborLAB distributes the seedballs along shorelines to stabilize them and provide habitat and sustenance for pollinators and birds. In cooperation with conservancies and governmental park agencies, we’ve seeded shorelines from Queens to Coney Island and Staten Island!
HarborLAB volunteers, environmental science students from CUNY LaGuardia Community College, and a mix of visitors from other schools and walks of life had a fantastic time tending to the Newtown Creek on Saturday! Our work was part of the annual Riverkeeper Sweep of Hudson River and estuary sites from New York City to Albany. Our Newtown Creek home base is a waterway so blighted with pollution that it qualifies for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program.
HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep had two basic components, cleaning and gardening. We offered a variety of activities so that people of all ages and abilities could participate. More than 30 people helped over the course of the day. We were especially grateful to have educators among us to add learning to the labor. Holly Porter-Morgan, Diana Szatkowski, Harald Parzer, and Thomas Dieter brought knowledge and encouragement to our students and volunteers.
The core of the program was removing plastics from our shoreline and the creek itself. Volunteers wend their way through broken bulkheads and boat lines to pick trash from the shores while our canoes went out in two waves to scoop up litter, mostly plastic bottles and bags. These smaller items filled seven large trash bags. Larger hauls included a lawn mower, two chairs, a 55-gallon steel drum, a bird feeder, and antiquated electronic sound systems.
We’re under no delusion that our cleanups will remove the tonnage necessary for an ecosystem rebound, but the exercise educates people about the severity of the plastics problem. So what works if picking up plastics is a measure that’s too little, too late? Recycling is also an inadequate solution by itself because it requires a great amount of energy (often from carbon-releasing fossil sources) and sustained administrative focus. With petroleum and other commodity prices low, private carters in New York City are recycling even less material than usual despite New York City’s public commitment to eliminating waste. While a reduction in unthinking, rampant consumerism is laudable, instilling new virtues across the culture will be a slow process. Real penalties and enforcement for littering will help a bit, but not enough. That leaves voters and activists to demand a reduction in wasteful packaging at the design and production stage. We must also push to eliminate combined sewer overflows, which gulch marine debris as well as pathogens and other pollutants.
Gardening was also a big part of the day, and is a huge part of HarborLAB’s work. Volunteers — especially a group from New Hyde Park High School — made thousands of native pokeweed seed balls that we’ll distribute as we land at rest stops on our harbor journeys across to stabilize shorelines, buffer storm surges and waves, feed birds, and sustain pollinators. Those up for heavier lifting helped restore our shoreline by layering cocoa husks from MAST Brothers Chocolate with burlap sacks, kitchen scraps, and soil in a system called “lasagna composting.” This fresh soil covers a broken brick substrate that mimics the glacially transported rocks of our region. The resulting slop will be planted with staghorn sumac, pokeweed, goldenrod, milkweed, and other indigenous species, and footed by smooth cordgrass and shellfish. Some of these species are already making headway. We were delighted to see that our dozens of shadbush saplings were fruiting copiously and our hackberry and American persimmon are also thriving. Our raised bed and container-grown dessert cultivars are doing great too, including apricots, apples, pears, and figs.
We’re tremendously grateful to all who came and helped, and to Riverkeeper for creating this unifying event and helping direct volunteers to sites.
HarborLAB partnered with Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman for a company day of “Celebration and Service” at the Hunters Point Community Middle School. Volunteers partnered with science teacher Mary Mathai for hands-on education about shoreline habitat restoration. HarborLAB has a longstanding relationship with the school, conducting seed gathering field trips, providing lectures about water quality, and other services. Special thanks to HarborLAB volunteer Diana Szatkowski for making this newest activity a success!
Our first focus was Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass. HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard gave a brief presentation on this saltwater marsh species, which is a bedrock of our coastal ecosystem. We discussed how landfill, runoff pollution, invasive species introduced humans, and other modern impacts have reduced acreage in New York City to less than 10% of historic coverage. Invertebrates shelter within the grass, feeding herons and other shore birds. The complex root systems of spartina marshes anchor sand and mud, stabilizing shorelines. Dense foliage reduces wave and wakes, protecting property and lives. This nearly eliminated grass uniquely sustains a butterfly species, the Saffron skipper.
To restore spartina to HarborLAB’s shore on the Newtown Creek, we’re creating pods made from burlap bags supplied by MAST Brothers Chocolate. Students learned about how burlap is made of fibers drawn from jute, another marsh plant in South Asia, and how generations ago the fibers were softened with whale oil (and now vegetable oils and sometimes mineral oil). We filled the burlap bags with sand, bundled them, and later we’ll slice holes in the tops. Then we’ll place plugs of spartina seedlings in the holes. Our seedlings are provided by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a facility operated by the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Those seedlings will be ready in June.
Students and volunteers then made seed balls from cocoa husks, natural red clay, a bit of sand, and velvety red staghorn sumac seeds. Sumac is another important species for our region’s shorelines. It grows with very little water and produces berry-like drupes that sustain many birds. Seedballs replicate endozoochory, or seed dispersal by animal droppings.
The Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman were vital to the program because it’s otherwise difficult to have adequate volunteer staffing on a weekday. The students benefited from the greater adult-to-minor ratio in safety, attention ,and encouragement.
Neversink Education Training at LaGuardia Community College
Learn about our city’s beautiful drinking water system, a wonder of nature and engineering! Share that new knowledge with NYC youth and kids!
LaGuardia Community College, Room C463.
Three generous couples have fulfilled HarborLAB’s vital marsh grass seedling budget for 2016! We give great thanks to Katherine Bradford and Gregory Leopold, Maura Kehoe Collins and David Collins, and Dylan Geil and Thomas Dieter for sponsoring 1,000 spartina (or cordgrass) seedling plugs that HarborLAB will plant along its Newtown Creek shore and in Jamaica Bay. These seedlings were grown by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island. This greenhouse and seedbank is part of the Natural Resources Group that cares for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s wild preserves.
You can help us plant even more native species by donating in HarborLAB’s name to the Natural Areas Conservancy.
Please make your donation online or by check here:
Natural Areas Conservancy
Be sure to put “HarborLAB” in the comment section online or in the memo line of your check!
We’ll also continue to grow spartina from seed through our Cordgrass in the Classroom program as supplies become available. In addition to the profound educational and emotional benefits to youth that paddling and planting days provide, there are great economic benefits to New York City. Learn more about the value of estuary marsh ecosystem services in this paper.
HarborLAB will commence its multicultural boatbuilding program in March with the International High School! We’re thrilled to serve these students, who are in an intensive college preparatory program for immigrant youth with limited English. IHS is housed within CUNY LaGuardia Community College.
We’ll make reed craft using invasive phragmites, which crowd out many of region’s indigenous estuary species. We’ll start with a demonstration inspired by the tankwa, an Ethiopian work boat made from papyrus on Lake Tana. Other models will follow, launching on June 8 for United Nations World Oceans Day. Our goal is for these boats to greet the arriving Hokule’a, a Hawaiian canoe circling the globe for environmental education. This is easily achievable at Gantry Plaza State Park, if permitted, directly facing the UN and a few minutes paddle from our launch.
We welcome volunteers to join the effort and donors to sponsor us!
Grass (family: Poaceae) and sedge (family: Cyperaceae) boats are among the most ubiquitous types because papyrus, bamboo, and reeds are renewable and readily available to those working the water as fishers, ferryers, and traders. Grasses and sedges also wonderfully pliable materials, providing both planking and twine. We’ll work with the United Nations community and immigrant cultural centers to maximize our inclusive service and multicultural representation.
This world heritage is truly ancient, as evidenced by petroglyphs depicting reed boats in Azerbaijan that date back 12,000 years. These boats quickly return to the soil, so archaeological evidence is spotty. Logic would indicate African origins. The earliest remains of a reed boat are 7,000 years old, unearthed in Kuwait. Palm fronds are also used in a similar fashion in the Persian Gulf. Even the story of Moses begins with him set afloat in a bulrush ark. The apexes of accomplishment in this art include ancient Egyptian papyrus voyaging vessels and the ornate craft of the living Uros culture of Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. Our most famous reed heritage boat in North America is the tule (pronounced too-lee). Watch one get built in the video below!
- Environmental science education: Indigenous/invasive species, rhizomes, ecological services, estuaries, wetlands, etc.
- Cultural and Economic Education: World heritages, commonalities and differences, economic development and identity, renewable resources and growth, etc.
- Habitat Restoration: Tangible results from removing invasive reeds (and removing seeds before construction). New, native plantings would bring even more value.
- Safety: No power tools are needed. Adults would maintain a good ratio and oversight of youth. All paddling would be done under HarborLAB insurance with Red Cross certified (Water Rescue, CPR, AED, First Aid, adult/pediatric) volunteers in safe areas. HarborLAB will provide safety support from sit-on-top kayaks, though these reed boats will be much more seaworthy.
- Youth empowerment: Students will do much of the building, paddling, documentation, and outreach themselves.
- Publicity: We’ll paddle these boats past the UN and skyline, generating great images and video. This would be a sight never seen on the East River. This is especially true if we are able to support the Hokule’a effort.
- Budget: The materials are harvested invasive plants and twine.
- Sustainability: The boats will last a season and then be composted to enrich planting areas for habitat or ornament (not edible gardens).
- Outreach: The students, educators, organizations, agencies, and companies involved will trumpet this unique project, delivering some aspect of its value to wider audiences. The boats will be brought to communities throughout NYC.
- Long-term Results: Thorough documentation will allow other educators to reproduce our results and build upon them. The excitement may seed the founding of a World Boatbuilding Museum (a place where the public can see small boats from around the world — reed, skin-and-frame, wood, and more) built before their eyes, and ride aboard them) that could be a major tourist draw.
If you’d like to volunteer with us and the students, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Boat Building.” To sponsor, please email email@example.com.
HarborLAB is grateful to Greg Mocker of WPIX and Tanya Kilch of NY1 News for sharing our “Cocoa Coast” work with fellow New Yorkers. You can click through to read and view NY1 story, “Student’s and Volunteers Use Cocoa Beans to Restore Queens’ Shorelines.” Gallery below by Erik Baard.
Both reporters did a great job of showing HarbotLAB, MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers, and Hunters Point Community Middle School are combining environmental service with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning. HarborLAB will be conducting classroom activities to build upon this field experience in late winter and early spring. The method we chose to generate soil in situ is called “lasagna composting.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
HarborLAB: Erik Baard
MAST Brothers: Tim Monaghan
A CHOCOLATE VALENTINE TO THE NEWTOWN CREEK
HarborLAB and MAST Brothers’ “Cocoa Coast” Brings Habitat to Superfund Waterway
When: Wednesday, February 10: 2:25PM-2:55PM
Where: 53-21 Vernon Boulevard, LIC, NY 11101
Reporters are also welcome to join HarborLAB volunteers as they pick up hundreds of pounds of cocoa husks from two MAST Brothers factories. Typically Wednesday and Sundays, 3PM-5:30PM.
HarborLAB and MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers have partnered for the past two years to turn tons of deliciously fragrant cocoa husks from the company’s bean-to-bar factories in Brooklyn into clean, fertile soil on the Long Island City waterfront of the Newtown Creek. This growing shoreline slope and berm at HarborLAB’s canoe and kayak launch is now home to an expanding habitat of native flowers and fruits for butterflies and birds. Chocolatey love for a long-unloved creek!
“We’re excited to rescue organic material from landfill to create a beautiful, clean landscape of native flowers and orchards in a place that needs love, on Valentine’s Day and every day,” said Erik Baard, founder of HarborLAB. “Our volunteers are grateful to MAST Brothers and to Queens Community Board 2 Environmental Chair Dorothy Morehead for building this offbeat, fun, and useful relationship.”
Check with organizers for updates regarding public officials who might speak.
Photo opportunities each Wednesday and Sunday (including Valentine’s Day):
- Students and volunteers spreading cocoa shells and burlap bags on the waterfront.
- Bag stamps: Madagascar, Tanzania, Peru, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea.
- HarborLAB waterfront and Manhattan skyline from Pulaski Bridge.
The Newtown Creek is a place New Yorkers usually associate with the smells of sewage, petroleum spills, and the sulfuric gases of anaerobic bacteria. The MAST Brothers’ husks, along with other plant matter, compost into rich and healthy soil in an area deprived of it. And for a time the place smells delicious!
Our soil creation technique is commonly known as “lasagna composting,” in which alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials interact. The husks cover volunteers’ kitchen scraps, tea bags, etc. Cocoa husks have a desirable 3:1:3 fertilizer ratio of Nitrogen: Phosphorous: Potassium. Burlap bags are made from jute plants, a type of mallow. With a small amount of additional soil and beneficial invertebrates and bacteria, a rich humus forms. Broken bricks rescued from landfill form a substrate mimicking our region’s glacially transported rock.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation encourages natural shoreline stabilization that relies on root systems instead of always building bulkheads. Growing at HarborLAB’s kayak and canoe “GreenLaunch”: Milkweed (on which Monarch butterflies depend), goldenrod, pokeberry, serviceberry, American persimmon, beach plum, hackberry, fig trees, Kazakh and other apples, Asian pears. The native seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers, CUNY and NYC Public School students, and provided by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center. Trees provided by New York Restoration Project, US Department of Agriculture, and Cornell University. Coming soon: fruiting vines and native spartina saltmarsh grass (for the intertidal zone).
About HarborLAB: Student and volunteer-run HarborLAB operates from a 125’ shoreline in Hunters Point outside the Circus Warehouse, a school for big tent performance arts, thanks to Schuman Properties. HarborLAB volunteers serve communities throughout the Hudson River estuary and watershed with free environmental education programs. HarborLAB provides educational kayaking and canoeing tours, paddling to shores that volunteers and students and clean and plant with native species, and open introductory paddles in parks. HarborLAB also enriches NYC public school curricula with field trips and activities in libraries and classrooms.
About MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers: MAST Brothers is a New York-based chocolate maker with flagship locations in Brooklyn and London. Founded by pioneering brothers Rick and Michael in 2007, is introducing chocolate to the world with an obsessive attention to detail, meticulous craftsmanship, groundbreaking innovation, and inspirational simplicity.
2015 Citizen Water Quality Testing Program Report
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