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.

 

 

 

Spartina, Sumac, and Kid Power!

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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.

 

Paddle and Potluck!

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Photo by Erik Baard

HarborLAB closed out our paddling season much later than expected, as mild air and water temperatures continued. We’d say “thanks to unusually warm air and water,” but even such a pleasant and localized anomaly brings to mind the global warming trend — and related ocean acidification and sea level rise — that threatens all coastal and marine ecosystems.

But all that said and considered, we were blessed with a terrific day of urban exploration. The outing also afforded us the opportunity to gather enough seaside goldenrod seeds for at least two classroom seedball making days, and do some phragmites scouting. We plan to cut down stands of this invasive reed to make boats in traditional Ethiopian, Bolivian, Greek, Iraqi, and Egyptian styles!

This outing was also a fundraiser for HarborLAB, arranged as a birthday present by LIC resident Maura Kehoe Collins for her husband, David. Their son, Zach, brought helpful muscle and knowledge of detritivores to the party. We were delighted to be joined by the Collins’ special guest, Curtis Cravens, author of Copper on the Creek. No less of a grit-and-brine maven than Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman (author of Newtown Creek for the Vulgarly Curious) is a huge fan of the book. Cravens worked for our neighbor across the creek, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, and now serves as Senior Advisor for Coastal Resiliency at New York City Office of the Mayor.

Our course took us to the mouth of the Newtown Creek to view the Manhattan skyline and then back Plank Road, where the Newtown Creek Alliance has placed an educational sign and planted native habitat with support from the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program and New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC). The site was once the Queens side of a wooden bridge. Cravens pointed out the landings of a former Penny Bridge, which led from Brooklyn to Calvary Cemetery. More about that in Forgotten New York. We all admired the engineering marvels behind the construction of the new Kosciuszko Bridge.

At Plank Road we were delighted to encounter a fine artist at work! Painter Scott Williams was patient with our disruption, warmly sharing the stories behind his work. He’s made the Newtown Creek his occasional subject since 1992! HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard quickly envisioned a showing of photos and paintings by Waxman, Williams, Bernie Ente, and others called “Picture a Creek.” We’ll be exploring this educational opportunity over the winter.

Another future program inspired by the outing is our planned June 5 “Bunker Symposium.” One of the hottest restaurants on the creek was our walk-up from Plank Road, Bun-Ker Vietnamese. It happens that “bunker” is a local name for Menhaden fish, which has been dubbed “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” for its ecological services and commercial value. The creek is crammed with bunker each late spring and summer.

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Photo by Erik Baard

Our guests scooted off (with our great thanks!) to their next celebration, while we had ours! Despite the chill, our Thanksgiving Potluck was warm with joy. Thomas Dieter brought a delicious quinoa dish while EJ Lee made an amazing assortment of stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and other delicacies. David Pugh and Becky Chipkin contributed yummy pickled beats and crisp apples while Erik Baard and Danushi Fernando baked apple pie pockets. Diana Szatkowski rounded out the feast with the indispensable and scrumptious butternut squash with cranberries. It was all vegan, not only to be inclusive but because the United Nations Environment Programme found that “a substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

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Photo by Erik Baard

We’d barely cleared the table when our cloudy day transformed into a golden dusk by the alchemy of atmospheric refraction. The wondrous beauty only deepened as purples and pinks ascended. The contrasting textures of cloud layers rode over each other like woodwinds and brass over strings, over percussion. What a glorious way to close out our 2015 paddling season!

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Photo by Erik Baard