A Night for Snow Pillows

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Snow Pillow monitoring station. Photo by NYCDEP 

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SNOTEL with snow pillows. Image by USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service

The term “snow pillow” evokes a peaceful, muffling moonlit whiteness spreading a lull across the countryside. For New Yorkers, however, it’s a critical piece of hardware.

Much of the billion gallons of water used daily by nine million residents of NYC and surrounding counties arrives as snow. The white caps of the old, rounded Catskill Mountains nestling the Neversink Reservoir are a reserve bank that melts to meet our needs in warmer months. Snow melt can also swell rivers, so anticipating flood risks is very important to towns an farms. With so many lives affected by snow, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, in partnership with City University of New York and National Weather Service, is constantly looking for better ways to measure it.

At the end of the last decade NYCDEP began using “snow pillows,” essentially scales that weigh snow in remote locations and transmit data wirelessly in near real-time. The technology (first developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska) is often integrated into remote sensor stations in rougher terrains out west. The NYCDEP deployed its first snow pillow at the Schoharie Reservoir in 2008, and later near reservoirs in Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink. HarborLAB operates a canoeing and kayaking program at the Neversink for NYC youth groups and public school students to learn about their drinking water sources.

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Inner workings of the NYCDEP’s latest generation snow pillow. Photo by NYCDEP. 

The NYCDEP still uses aerial surveys and good old fashioned field work to measure snowpack, but the agency plans to more than double its constellation of snow pillows to 35 stations in coming years. Another sensor used is the Gmon, which helps researchers estimate snowpack by measuring the absorption of naturally occurring radiation. Future snow data collection might increasingly rely on satellites.

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For more about NYCDEP’s work to measure snowpack, please view this PowerPoint presentation by James H. Porter, PhD, Chief of Water Systems Operations at NYCDEP:

snowpack_monitoring_past_present_future-1

 

Sweet Sweep of the Creek!

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HarborLAB’s Newtown Creek Sweep, part of the Riverkeeper Sweep event at sites from NYC to Albany.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Phragmites Tankwa?!?!

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Ethiopian Tankwa boat. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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!

On the East Coast, science writer and ecologist David Samuel Johnson proved the viability of phragmites boat construction. Even young students can build these boats.

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David S. Johnson paddles a phragmites boat. Photo by Brian Landergan.

Benefits of this project:
  • 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 volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Boat Building.” To sponsor, please email support@harborlab.org.

 

Readying for Winter…and Spring! :)

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Diana, Miyeon, and EJ at work on the second shed.

HarborLAB volunteers had an amazingly productive Sunday, and had lots of fun in the process! Our goals were to winterize our Newtown Creek waterfront site and prepare it for transformation into the GreenLaunch in the spring. It sure felt like spring already!

We assembled a second shed and platform, repaired “The Jenni” tandem Folbot kayak for use by Baruch College environmental science classes (named for our late friend and CUNY alumna, Jenni Jenkins), set up planters and protected fruit trees from root freeze with vinyl and bags of cocoa shells, gathered seeds (especially pokeberry, goldenrod, and milkweed) for habitat and shoreline stabilization, and protected public boats from UV degradation with tarps. We donated many bricks to Build it Green, delivering them by van. Our bricks, which are molded with holes, are being built sideways into walls in South Africa to allow air circulation.

Many thanks to Patricia Erickson, who directed the day’s work as HarborLAB’s facilities manager and chair of the GreenLaunch committee. A special acknowledgment to Shawn and Miyeon Cornell, who were married just this month and shared this special time with us as stellar volunteers. They are CUNY students, as is Diana Arias, another fantastic volunteer who threw herself into the work (we met her through the great Baruch College ECO Club). Rounding out the crew were Irene McLoughlin, Alessandro Byther (daring Alpinist of bricks and plastic heights), Jenna Nugent, Davis Janowski, Erik Baard, and EJ Lee (HarborLAB operations manager and a CUNY alumna).

Great thanks also to Schuman Properties for our launch and to Citizens Committee for NYC for the initial GreenLaunch project grant.  Much gratitude also to Folbot, Lamar Outdoors, Dorothy Morehead for our supplies.

Willow Lake Canoeing!

Interspecies fun on Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Starting in June we’ll offer paddling the first Sunday of each month. We offer both Partner Paddles to augment the missions of schools and community organizations, and Community Paddles for the general public to enjoy during open program hours.

Location:

https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zp5sKABHidJA.kkJL-nerYf0I

We’re deeply grateful to the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy for its advocacy for this premier green space, and for aiding HarborLAB with permits and outreach. The organization’s leadership is reflected in the naming of Pat Dolan Trail for its first president.

Our goal is to through demonstrations seed a local eco-educational, non-competitive paddling, and nature stewardship group at Willow Lake and Flushing World’s Fair Marina’s kayak launch. For those looking to paddle race or row, try these two great nearby groups: New York Dragon Boat Race Club or Row New York!

The Willow Lake habitat restoration in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was closed to the public for a long stretch while the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation restored and replenished natural areas. We’re excited by the improvements and hope to contribute to further progress through water and sediment testing, new plantings of native species, and mitigation and remediation of highway runoff waters. Paddling provides unique views of the herons, egrets, turtles, and other beauties of Willow Lake. At a later date we’ll write about the history of Willow Lake and its larger twin, Meadow Lake, and proposals for the future of the greater Flushing Creek watershed.

Through the years other groups, including Boy Scouts, John Bowne High School, Yale University, LTV Squad, New York World, and CUNY Macaulay Honors College have worked for the betterment of the park’s Forever Wild areas and to document its life and needs. We give thanks also to the NYC Urban Park Rangers, who provided the first public canoeing in Willow Lake and will certainly continue to be a leading presence! We hope that HarborLAB can partner with these organizations, bringing the added joy and access of a canoe fleet! HarborLAB also has sit-on-top kayaks, but canoes are a safer (drier) bet until we have water quality data.

 

PADDLING WILLOW LAKE

 

So what’s it like to paddle Willow Lake with HarborLAB? It’s an amazing New York City experience!

 

What are those strange people up to under the traffic? Photo by Erik Baard

What are those strange people up to under the Van Wyck Expressway traffic? Canoeing, of course!

 

We're under the Van Wyck Expressway, just north of Jewel Avenue, across from the park's Ballfield #13.

We’re under the Van Wyck Expressway (I-678), just north of Jewel Avenue, across from the park’s Ballfield #13.

 

HarborLAB's "secret launch" to Willow Lake. You start in the shade of a  Robert Moses cave that thrums and thunders with Smart Cars and 18-wheelers above. Your canoe awaits in a small canal that links Willow Lake to Meadow Lake.

HarborLAB’s “secret launch” to Willow Lake. You start in the shade of a Robert Moses cave that thrums and thunders with Smart Cars and 18-wheelers above. Your canoe awaits in a small canal that links Willow Lake to Meadow Lake.

 

The little creek thrown wide at Willow Lake.

Is it the Bayou? Nope. Our little canal gives way to a creek, which is thrown wide open at Willow Lake.

 

Paddling to Oz? The  Observatory Towers and Unisphere of the 1964 World's Fair glimmer in the background.

Paddling to Oz? The Observatory Towers, New York Pavillion, and Unisphere of the 1964 World’s Fair glimmer in the background.

The happy return.

The happy return.

 

Some of the day's crew.

Some of the day’s crew. Our friendly volunteers provide safety tips, environmental literature, activities, community notices, and more!

 

PBS: “Our Fishy Brain”

From the PBS series, "Your Inner Fish":  While the human brain may seem exceptional, the truth is that it has some deep similarities with many other animals', including fish. Anatomist Neil Shubin dissects a fish brain and a human brain and shows us how much we have in common with sea-dwelling creatures.

From the PBS series, “Your Inner Fish”: While the human brain may seem exceptional, the truth is that it has some deep similarities with many other animals’, including fish. Anatomist Neil Shubin dissects a fish brain and a human brain and shows us how much we have in common with sea-dwelling creatures.

Much of the blueprint for the human body was sketched out underwater. This spring a new PBS series, “Your Inner Fish,” will trace human evolution from the sea to your seat. “Our Fishy Brain” is a great short video excerpt that introduces viewers to the continuity of brain structure from a shark to a human. A great resource for students.

Comparative neurology and brain structure are specializations for HarborLAB advisers Dr. Vladimir Brezina of Mt. Sinai Hospital and Dr. Sarah Durand of CUNY LaGuardia Community College. Dr. Brezina is an avid kayaker who co-writes the blog, “Wind Against Current.” Dr. Durand is leading ecosystem damage educational studies and innovative restoration efforts on the Newtown Creek. The Hunter’s Point South bank of the Newtown Creek, in southern LIC, Queens, is the home launch of HarborLAB, though our programs take place throughout the region and Catskills.

We look forward to bringing students kayaking with Dr. Brezina and canoeing with Dr. Durand this season as part of our educational mission!

South Brother Island Cleanup! 9/28

South Brother Island in foreground

This is a unique opportunity. Landing on South Brother Island is normally forbidden. Even NYC Parks staff rarely visits.

The event:

The Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation has kindly given us the opportunity to continue our volunteers’ tradition of removing plastic debris from South Brother Island as part of the American Littoral Society’s annual New York Beach Cleanup. We’re also grateful to our estuary stewardship and education sponsors, the United Nations Federal Credit Union, Con Ed, and the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program (stemming from City of Water Day).

Our primary partner will be CUNY, to bring students on a roughly 1:1 ratio with volunteers. Our capacity is limited. We would welcome Rocking the Boat and Bronx River Alliance to participate if Parks approves and we can keep numbers small and manageable and stay to the same schedule.

Public paddlers will be invited to participate as new volunteers through our outreach (like here and Facebook), but must be screened, selected, and confirmed by HarborLAB — no general “walk ups” may come to the island or be waitlisted. HarborLAB participants must be over 18 years old, approved by HarborLAB (via professors, in the case of CUNY students), and bring waivers signed and dated, with the bottom note, “SBI.” Here’s our waiver: https://harborlab.org/waivers/

Participants must RSVP to edu@harborlab.org for this event. Subject line: South Brother Island. List your skills (we have needs far beyond paddling) and interests if you’re a prospective volunteer. Professors must provide student lists by Friday morning at 10:00 AM. Waitlisted guests can come to Barretto Point Park and have a great picnic if our boats are filled to capacity. We strongly encourage people on the waitlist to come, rather than have empty boats. If volunteers are willing and not exhausted, there’s a chance of a brief pleasure paddle along the Bronx coast for waitlisted people after the event.

Applicants for this event will be notified on Friday if they’re on the trip or waitlisted. Participants will receive more details via email. 

BACKGROUND:

South Brother Island is located between the Bronx mainland (and belongs to that borough) and Queens, twinned with the more famed North Brother Island. Also nearby are Rikers Island Prison and Randalls Island. It’s one of NYC’s most important Harbor Heron refuges and near the western extreme of the project boundary of the Long Island Sound Study. The nearest convenient park is Barretto Point Park, our launch site for the day.

Here are photos from one of the previous cleanups:

https://picasaweb.google.com/103694355762672710514/SouthBrotherIslandCleanup2009?noredirect=1

And photos of some aspects of the island’s natural beauty:

https://picasaweb.google.com/103694355762672710514/SouthBrotherIslandBeauty?noredirect=1

And a brief video of the Monarch butterfly migration sustained by the island’s goldenrod:

This cleanup began at our public initiative, it’s one of HarborLAB’s top service highlights, and we’re very grateful to NRG for making this unique educational opportunity possible. We make no pretense of removing most (or even much) of the plastic debris tossed by waves, wind, and wakes onto this beautiful little island. But we hope our outing will provide students of biology, environmental science, and photojournalism with experiential learning through service. Perhaps our work will also draw positive attention to the island, and thereby resources from foundations and donors.

We visit after the herons have migrated out and land our boats below the high water mark, but must remain extremely sensitive to the island’s ecosystem. NRG’s representative will provide direction or a veto in all matters regarding conservation and protection — where we land, clean, gather filled trash bags, etc.

Great HarborLAB Launch Work Party!

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Boat launch property before most work hard begun. Photo by Wesley Miller.

HarborLAB volunteers cleaned up our 125′ x 21′ waterfront space and installed a boat launch so that in 2014 we can offer more frequent programming, host and assist student research projects, and bring robust community life and a richer ecosystem to the shore. We’re very grateful to Community Board 2 Environmental Chair Dorothy Morehead for storing our boats for the summer in the yard behind her Sunnyside office, with our gear and materials in her basement.

Our space, which is at the end of Vernon Boulevard, is generously provided by Schuman Properties (family owned, along with Propper Manufacturing). We have great co-tenants, including the Circus Warehouse. The chief inspiration for the site revamp was our recent purchase of a boat trailer from Jersey Paddler. Other recent funds enabled us to budget for security cameras, locks and chains, sheds, and property improvements.

The property was unusable due to Hurricane Sandy debris and recovery period dumping, as well as loose pallets of bricks and dense and extensive weed growth. The crumbling bulkhead also left us with a steep and unstable gradient. The first reclamation work was done by Wesley Miller, who single-handedly weeded much of the tract, allowing a trailer to roll in while leaving weeds that held down soil on slopes. Wesley also restacked bricks that fell from pallets.

Then came HarborLAB’s work party! Our labor was fueled by amazing Italian food from Manducatis Rustica, which is further up Vernon Boulevard. We were glad to welcome three new volunteers, Dr. Minerva Ahumada (professor of philosophy at LaGuardia Community College — and boy do her students love her!), David Pugh (a Time’s Up! activist referred to us by HarborLAB board member Joel Kupferman, founder of the NY Environmental Law and Justice Project), and artist Becky Chipkin.

Schuman Properties kindly ordered a dumpster, which ten volunteers filled rapidly with all manner of junk. We also moved thousands of bricks by hand, assembly line style, to further open up space near the gate. We also installed a mailbox, began gate repairs, and installed a wooden boat launch. LIC-based artist and sailor Ilan Averbuch creates massive sculptures, so he’s offered to help move some pallets of bricks with his forklift.  HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson oversaw all work, while Mairo Notton particularly focused on our boat launch.

Our boat launch is inspired by Viking-style wooden ramps, which Rob Buchanan of the Village Community Boathouse also called a “dory ladder.” These are still in common use, for example in Newfoundland. In our case, to save time and some of HarborLAB’s budget, Founder Erik Baard donated his futon frame. Whatever works!

Future plans include salt-tolerant native species to hold the shoreline together, spartina marsh grass planting, a work platform for research, a dock, shipping containers for storage once the bricks are removed this winter, and much more! We’re also working to ensure our improvements are inclusive of the sailors already present, with stronger tie-ups, stairs and paths down (also sparing planted areas), and community building activities.

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Overgrown space with dumping, including heavy buckets with unknown contents. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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Some of the many bricks on the site that had to be moved and stacked. In total, there are perhaps 50,000 bricks. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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Now the work can begin with gusto — the dumpster arrives! Photo by Erik Baard.

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Volunteer Co-Manager Caroline Walker lassos the gate post to pull it upright, while Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson directs from below and sets the line.

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Sally Attia, Mairo Notton, and David Pugh install the boat ramp, which Mairo assembled out of Founder Erik Baard’s futon frame. David’s shirt also provides a great chance to salute pioneering urban environment group Time’s Up! Photo by Erik Baard.

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Mairo Notton tests the repelling aspect of his boat ramp masterpiece. Photo by Erik Baard.

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David Pugh and Becky Chipkin inaugurate the boat ramp, both launching and landing, while Sally Attia helps. . Photo by Erik Baard.

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David Pugh, Sally Attia, and Manny Steier organize the huge task of moving bricks out our working area. Patricia Erickson was the spur and inspiration that made us believe we could do it in a day. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Mairo Notton upped the ante in brick carrying, with 15 at a time. Sometimes 18, simply to show off. He also tested Erik Baard’s ability to do so — Erik passed, but this remained Mairo’s signature achievement. Photo by Erik Baard.

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More bricks, bricks, bricks. We did it in a continual human chain, with specialized stackers at either end. Here camera shy Dr. Minerva Ahumada, professor of philosophy at LaGuardia Community College, scoots out of frame while HarborLAB Operations Manager EJ Lee enters. One wonders if the myth of Sisyphus prepared Minerva for this task. Photo by Erik Baard.

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We still had time for love. David Pugh, Becky Chipkin, a dumpster, a sign warning of the END, and the new World Trade Center rising over the Newtown Creek mouth. Photo by Erik Baard.

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In an unusual move, a seaplane used the Newtown Creek as a runway — toward Manhattan. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Making us more official, Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson and Mairo Notton install a mailbox by the gate. Photo by Erik Baard.

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As we feasted on Manducatis Rustica’s food, our North Brooklyn Boat Club neighbors across the Newtown Creek set off on an overnight Manhattan circumnavigation. We called out our well wishes for the canoeists, kayakers, and rowers. Photo by Erik Baard.

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In daylight we saw the full dumpster. Photo by Erik Baard.

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And off goes the site junk! Photo by Erik Baard.

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Canoes and trailer on site and secured. Kayaks to soon follow. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB’s Water Sampling Recommences

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Vial on beam at Newtown Creek launch sampling site. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

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Vial on beam at Newtown Creek launch sampling site. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

Before HarborLAB had a single boat, we initiated weekly “citizen scientist” water sampling in Queens and Randalls Island through the NYC Water Trail Association. The River Project was the first testing center for this program, which is funded in part by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation.  We soon invited the environmental science program at CUNY LaGuardia Community College to participate in the program (HarborLAB’s board includes faculty from the college). This year The River Project is our testing site again, so we must deliver samples in cooler packs to Pier 40 in lower Manhattan (Hudson River at West Houston Street). That’s a great opportunity for our newer volunteers to meet a model estuary education nonprofit, but also a logistical stretch.

Now that HarborLAB has found its sea legs this summer — launched our fleet and held programs across the harbor — we’re recommencing our citizen scientist participation. On August 1, Emmanuel “Manny” Steier biked to our Newtown Creek launch and sampled water about six inches deep. If you’d like to participate, please click onto our Facebook event page here.

This program tests for intestinal bacteria, but sewage is only one risk factor in western Queens. HarborLAB opposes sit-on-top paddling for children in western Queens sites like the Newtown Creek, Anable Basin, and Hallets Cove. This is because bacteria levels are frequently high in these locations — especially Hallets Cove — and also because we struggle with the consequences of industrial pollution from generations past. The Newtown Creek is an Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund Site because of sediment contamination and because Standard Oil caused our nation’s largest urban petroleum spill. Anable Basin, a former Standard Oil barge slip, has been described by some as a potential “mini-Newtown Creek” because the adjacent land was so fouled by underground refineries that the Queens West development required massive soil remediation. Indeed, as the Queens Chronicle notes, “steel sheeting had been installed to keep outside pollution from seeping into the site.” That is, the residential site needed to be protected from pollution from Anable Basin.

So while we are huge fans of testing for bacteria, western Queens requires more comprehensive testing as soon as funding allows. Moreover, we must all show restraint despite kids’ welcome eagerness to paddle — lobby hard for cleanups now, and then provide programs when conditions are better. Recreational programs should be truly controlled by the community and subject to the informed judgment of voting parents. No sign-on-the-fly liability waiver can reasonably empower parents to place children in wet-riding sit-on-top kayaks into such highly polluted waters.

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Sample drop box at The River Project. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

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2012 testing at LaGuardia Community College. Photo by Erik Baard.

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2012 testing at LaGuardia Community College. Photo by Erik Baard.

City of Water Day Memories

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Volunteer Co-Manager Caroline Walker takes two kids out in the embayment while the rest of their family shared another boat. Photo by Scott Sternbach.

HarborLAB was honored to serve at the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance‘s request as the public kayaking program at the Governors Island center of City of Water Day, the largest annual harbor festival in our region. We enjoyably and safely shared a very busy little dock with New York Outrigger and East River C.R.E.W. (Community Education and Recreation on the Water) rowers. We set 146 members of the public afloat within the protected Pier 101 embayment between 11am and 4pm, despite the happy interruptions of arriving groups of kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders, and canoeists, and a wildly popular and zany cardboard kayak race.

We couldn’t have achieved these good things for the community without the support of our sponsors and allies. At this event we were proud to fly sustainably produced banners that included both our logo  and those of TF Cornerstone, Con Ed, and the United Nations Federal Credit Union.

HarborLAB was represented by two dozen volunteers, students, and supporters. CUNY students, especially LaGuardia Community College, were especially helpful in our estuary and watershed education tent. They also documented the day’s attractions. Our dock was staffed throughout by Daisy Hope Benjamin, an emergency room nurse with child and adult life saving certifications, as an added level of safety. She was also just great company on the dock! The day’s on-water safety and event production, under which we served, was directed for MWA by Ray Fusco, whose professionalism and kindness made this hard work for public benefit a pleasure.

Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance officials described our program variously as “brilliant,” “great,” and “amazing.” Our success follows similar raves at the Clearwater Festival. Though this is our first season, our core volunteers have years of service on the harbor under their belts, or life vests. Founder Erik Baard has a special tie to City of Water Day — he started the Five Borough Harbor Ramble (the first event through which paddlers and rowers touched all boroughs), which MWA aided greatly (special thanks to Carter Craft!). When the MWA asked to adopt the Ramble as its fully-owned signature annual event, Erik joyfully agreed. Since then the MWA has rebranded the event using the title of its excellent documentary, and profoundly grown City of Water Day as no other organization could.

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Volunteer Co-Manager Danushi Fernando stepped down from the desk to communicate a message to the dock crew while new volunteer (met that day) and teacher Kamala Redd hams it up with her niece. 🙂

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The day started in Sunnyside, Queens, where our boats are temporarily stored at the private office of Community Board 2 Environmental Chair Dorothy Morehead. Our great innovation of the morning was to heat seal sustainably printed decals to our boats using a blowdryer. Thanks to a Harbor Estuary Program grant for City of Water Day, we rented a box truck to carry boats — we URGENTLY need a trailer (sponsor our purchase of this 16-boat trailer!) and often shuttle boats bit by bit in a HarborLAB Facilities Manager Pat Erickson’s van, but our volunteers had enough work ahead of them. A huge help came from NY Waterway, which sent a special East River Ferry to Hunters Point for HarborLAB to get boats, gear, and volunteers to Governors Island ahead of the crowds.

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Operation Manager EJ Lee on decal duty.

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ER Nurse Daisy Benjamin brings fantastic precision to her work.

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Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson with six of our ten Ocean Kayak Malibu 2 XL tandem sit-on-top kayaks.

HarborLAB’s morning crew of volunteers and supporters. Photo by Scott Sternbach.

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On the island, gear was transported to Pier 101 by Ray Fusco’s van. Volunteer Emanuel “Manny” Steier had a creative solution for moving the boats!

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Volunteer Zamira Kamal takes a quick, well-deserved break. Photo by Ana Espinal.

HarborLAB volunteers operated two tents, one of which we brought to the island aboard the ferry. The first held waivers and great safety and stewardship information from  the American Canoe Association (HarborLAB is a Paddle America Club). The second, red canopy was our estuary and watershed education desk. At that table we highlighted CUNY LaGuardia Community College research and provided literature from the Harbor Estuary Program, NY State DEC, NYC DEP, ACA, and other great environmental groups and agencies.

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Volunteer Co-Manager Danushi Fernando and Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson staff the HarborLAB waiver and American Canoe Association information table. Photo by Ana Espinal.

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Photo by Ana Espinal.

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Operations Manager EJ Lee at the education table. Photo by Ana Espinal.

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Teacher David Perrin flanked by EJ Lee and Vernon ShengWuey Ong at the education table.

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HarborLAB’s education table. Photo by Ana Espinal.

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Photo by Ana Espinal.

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Down on the ramp, dock, and water our volunteers had a blast despite the pressures of managing crowds and coordinating safe sharing of the embayment. It helped that NY Outrigger and East River C.R.E.W. are both friendly, community-spirited, and highly competent groups. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with them was a privilege.

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A beautiful East River C.R.E.W. boat captained by Mary Nell Hawk.

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Volunteers Omar Barrios, Daisy Benjamin, and Danushi Fernando sharing a laugh on the dock.

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Steve Sanford on safety patrol in the MetroBoat, HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard’s mass transit and estuary “brain child” with Folbot (http://folbot.wordpress.com/tag/metroboat/).

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HarborLAB Board Member Scott Sternbach, CUNY LaGuardia Community College photo director, on safety patrol in his own boat. Photo by Ana Espinal.

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Erik Baard managed kayak group arrivals during program hours to keep the dock from getting dangerously crowded. Here he holds HarborLAB boats out on the water while LIC Community Boathouse (also founded by Erik Baard), Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club, and Sebago Canoe Club boats arrived in one flotilla.

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“Boat Hill” fills in as paddling groups arrive.

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CUNY students and HarborLAB volunteers George Blandino-Ripley and Ana Espinal.

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The go-go Greenpointers of the North Brooklyn Boat Club who impressed us all with determination and filled us with envy that they got to take a swim. Photo by Scott Sternbach.

The go-go Greenpointers of the North Brooklyn Boat Club who impressed us all with determination and filled us with envy that they got to take a swim. Photo by Scott Sternbach.

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Part of the afternoon HarborLAB crew. Yes, a bunch of us pulled double shifts!

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Even a hose shower was a blessing.

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Students and volunteers enjoyed exploring the island, which is rich in art. Photo by Daniel Cassady.

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At least half of us camped over on the island.

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Sunrise over Brooklyn. Time to go home.

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Daniel Cassady and the rest of the crew carried boats down for an early launch.