Raccoons’ Amazing Use of Water

 

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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by Erik Baard

HarborLAB volunteers (including a little one, Lily) recently spotted snow tracks at the GreenLaunch. Not our usual guard cat prints. The fingers weren’t webbed. At first we thought we might have fresh evidence of our resident muskrat. The tracks led up and down our growing native habitat slope from the water to the uplands, so that made sense. Ah, but there was no tail line. That leaves us with raccoon!

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Similar animal tracks. Credit: Lawrence Wade, The Old Naturalist

 

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Raccoon forepaw. Credit: Gaby Muler via Wikimedia Commons. 

The lack of webbing is very unusual for mammals in the order carnivora. What makes raccoon paws absolutely unique, however, is their sensitivity. More than 60% of the sensory perception areas of the raccoon’s cerebral cortex is given to touch. A raccoon’s dexterous fore paws are covered in tiny sensory spikes. The density raccoon pressure sensitive cells (called mechanoreceptor cells) is quintuple that of most mammals, matched only by primates like humans.

The primacy of their fore paws is reflected in the species’ names, including proto-Algonquin via Powhatan ahrah-koon-em (“one who scratches or rubs with its hands”) and part of the Latin one given by Carl Linnaeus (lotor or “washer”). The myth that raccoons wash their hands or food is rooted in amateur observations of their actual use of water: when submerged the sensory micro-bristles soften and become even more sensitive. A raccoon dips objects in water, fully submerging its paws, to even more acutely feel its surfaces. This video of a raccoon accidentally dissolving his treat of cotton candy is for only the most stone-hearted.

Even prolonged time in cold water doesn’t seem to diminish this sensitivity. Naturally this helps them to find small creatures, eggs, and some plants to eat in aquatic or muddy environments. Their fur is also well adapted to repel water.

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Once raccoons have learned of food sources, they won’t soon forget. In laboratory tests they remembered complex tasks for years afterward. Their ability to recall, problem solve, and think abstractly ranks them with Rhesus monkeys in evaluations of animal intelligence. So, say hello to our smart new neighbor! Maybe a furry new volunteer?

Worrying Dawn of the Blue Era

Water Wonk Wednesdays

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

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Erik Baard at Hallets Cove in 2015. Photo by NYCDEP for HarborLAB. 

by Erik Baard

The East River has so far rolled through this winter unadorned by a white speckling of sea ice (photos here are from 2015). On the Hudson River, bald eagles and seals have no ice floes to ride from the foot of the Palisades to the skyline. HarborLAB volunteer Thomas Dieter, director of CUNY Start at LaGuardia Community College, relays his observations from his home in Hunters Point South:

“We haven’t spotted ice yet this winter, and at this point I’m guessing we won’t. From our apartment at Hunters Point South Park, we can see that the inlets and coves just north of Newtown Creek haven’t iced over. In the past, the inlet where the ferry docks and the cove south of the fishing pier iced over at some point–but no such luck so far this year that we could see…The water in these areas doesn’t move as quickly as the river, and it’s far shallower, so I expected ice to collect there again this January and February.”

Our local disappointment echoes the vanishing polar sea ice aspect of the global climate change crisis, though some seek to take advantage of it for undersea fuel extraction, military maneuvers, and shipping. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card on sea ice, glaciers, snow cover, temperatures, indigenous cultures, and animal health is profoundly grim. A special concern is ocean acidification in the Arctic, which is undermining the regional ecosystem’s less diverse food chain.
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Scientific American/Climate Central report that winter sea ice at both poles has retreated to record lows. This is a sharp reversal from a record Antarctic peak last year, but a continuation of a trend of historic lows in the Arctic. Ice sheets ashore — notably in Greenland — are shrinking and thinning too. Winter heat waves are lashing the Arctic as warm air pushes north.
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Gantry Plaza State Park in 2015. Photo by Mark Christie, Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. 

Naked Gobies in Newtown Creek

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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Naked Goby. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.)

 

by Erik Baard

Skinny dipping in the Newtown Creek Superfund Site might seem unwise, particularly in February, but it’s a way of life for naked gobies (Gobiosoma bosc). These very small, bottom-dwelling fish of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf states are extremely common yet rare to see. That’s a shame because gobies — one of the most diverse families of fish, with over 2,000 species — have rich and fascinating lives packed into typically less than four inches and four years.

Ecologists for city, state, and federal agencies did encounter naked gobies in early studies to profile the life and pollutants of what became HarborLAB’s home waterway. They discovered an abundance of goby eggs at the mouth of the creek but not further in, indicating that spawning happened where cleaner East River waters swirled in with each tidal cycle. No surprise given that naked gobies and their eggs and spawn are often found in the fish-protecting screens covering intake tubes at the nearby Ravenswood Power Plant. Bear in mind, however, that this is opposite of the natural state of affairs. Fish normally lay eggs and spawn in sheltered areas outside the swift main channel of waterways. The East River is dredged, constricted by landfill, and edged with bulkheads that make for even faster currents. The slower-moving four-mile stretch of the Newtown Creek should by rights be the East River’s nursery.

As it is, only adult “gobies were prevalent in the mid-section of the Creek,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report linked above. Still, what a testament to this species’ hardiness, given that the creek bed (commonly described as being like “black mayonnaise”) is sedimented with toxins and stripped of naked gobies’ natural habitat of oyster beds and salt grass clusters. Females prefer to lay their amber-colored eggs into empty oyster shells. In the Newtown Creek, they make do with rock, crumbled concrete bulkheads, partly interred plastic trash, bottles, and other debris. In the winter, they bury themselves into that poisonous black mayonnaise.

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(South Florida Water Management District)

Naked gobies feed on worms and small crustaceans, which concentrate in their tissue the toxins of a century of oil spills, refinery and tannery effluents,  and illegal dumping.  Cloaked by the muck and the murk, these “naked” prey fish for better known species like striped bass, eels, and bluefish are still taking no chances. The species is scaleless and camouflaged in green and brown blotches. Their eyes are close together, atop the head. At a glance they look like lizards. The young are translucent.

Naked goby pelvic fins have evolved to fuse into suction cups, a neat trick for anchoring themselves. Scientists have noted that gobies can remember how to navigate complicated obstacle courses for at least 40 days, and judge and remember spatial relationships, useful for hopping from tidal pool to tidal pool. Some cousin species of goby have also evolved complex behaviors and symbiotic relationships. For example, one species climbs waterfalls that to human scale is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest three times over — check out this video! Others groom the parasites off larger fish. Another enjoys an “Odd Couple” relationship with a large burrowing shrimp. The fish and crustacean cohabitate and deposit eggs in the same burrow. They touch each other (with tail and antennae respectively) constantly to know if the other is agitated or retreating, relying on each other’s complementary senses. And we are still discovering new species of goby!

 

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Naked Gobi range. 

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:

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Eastern White Pine, the “Great Tree of Peace”

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
This week’s entry by Erik Baard, Courtesy of Nature Calendar. 

Eastern White Pines. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eastern White Pine. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Far inland, a wind
lifts fine snow from ancient pines.
Shimmers like sea spray.

I wrote that haiku over a quarter century ago, intending to show the sensual commonality of contrasting locales, pointing toward our shared experiences across superficial cultural divides. Only later did I learn of the deep connection Eastern White Pines once had with the ocean.

Within twenty years of landing on the Eastern White Pine-spired shores of New England, the Pilgrims were exporting trunks for ship masts to ports as far away as Madagascar. The New World, from Nova Scotia to Georgia and out west to Minnesota, boasted Eastern White Pines standing over 80’ (24m), with reports of individual trees soaring up to 230’ (70m). Though this species is the tallest pine in North America, healthy ones are also pin straight.

As the colonies grew, so did competition for use of Eastern White Pines. In no mood to pay market rates for its materials, the British government carved the trunks of choice trees with the “broad arrow,” reserving them for Navy ships and exacted heavy penalties from violators. Colonists came to resent that heavy-handed claim on what they felt were their assets and began falsely marking lesser stands while selling the navy’s best as more profitable lightweight, strong, knotless, and pale (hence the tree’s name) plank wood. Though it’s little remembered today, friction over the issue contributed to revolutionary sentiments among New Englanders. During the vicious “Pine Tree Riot” a sheriff was lashed with pine switches and his horses were maimed. The Minute Men thumbed their noses at the crown by putting an Eastern White Pine in the white canton of their flag, where the cross of St. George used to be.

You can still see a broad arrow carved into white pine in New York City today, but not in a way one might expect. The pinewood door of an 18th century mansion belonging to the wealthy, rebel Blackwell family of western Queens bears the mark from a British soldier’s saber as a sign of punitive confiscation. The house has long since been demolished, but the door (with melted bottle windows in a neat bit of early recycling) is on display at the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

The rapid growth of the new United States was fed by raging deforestation. Henry David Thoreau was troubled: “The pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure,” he wrote in Autumn

Of course, human appreciation the Eastern White Pine long precedes that European imperial tussling and Yankee commodification. Native Americans depended on the trees for much more than their wood. Their Vitamin C-rich needles can be made into a tisane, or “herbal tea.” The inner bark, called the cambium, can be beaten into a flour extender in hard times. Cones can be stewed and the seeds are edible. The sap, resin, and tar have medicinal value. Resin can be used to waterproof materials, from baskets to boats.

Across a wide swath of North America, Eastern White Pines feed white-winged crossbills (whose bills are specialized for prying open cones), pileated woodpeckers, flying squirrels, red squirrels, beavers, snowshoe hares, porcupines, mice, rabbits, and voles. Bald eagles, moths, chickadees, morning doves, common grackles, and nuthatches shelter in them when they stand, while in fallen trees you’ll find woodpeckers and hibernating black bears nesting. They become such a bedrock of the ecosystem because they efficiently spread seeds by wind and mature trees are somewhat fire resistant.

Sadly, it’s tough to find what naturalists reverently call the “virgin whites,” specimens aged over 350 years. After centuries of rampant exploitation (and vulnerability to blister rust that’s carried by cultivated ribes) we’re beginning to make restitution. A few mature stands can be found within the boroughs, notably along the Kazimiroff Nature Trail in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and at the Jackson Pond pine grove of Forest Park in Queens. In northern Manhattan, visit Inwood Hill Park near Payson Street. Look for tall, blue-green pines with finely serrated needles measuring between 2” and 5” (5-13cm), and bundled in groups of five. The cones are soft and slender and about 5” long. For me, the most beautiful part of this tree is its almost fractal expression: branches, needles, and cones all spiral in a Fibonacci sequence.

Here’s a great little video lecture snippet:

 

Conifers like the East White Pine are marvelously well adapted to snow and cold. The smaller and more numerous needles (compared with typically broad, deciduous leaves) remain evergreen and exceptionally dark to absorb maximum sunlight in the dim northern winter. Photosynthesis isn’t the aim in the dormant season, but rather simple heat, because like humans, trees survive best in a limited temperature range. With few pores and a waxy coat, they also retain water well. Unlike the skyward reaching branches of some species, their branches angle downwards before curling up at the end, to slough off snow before the weight can cause damage.

Future generations of New Yorkers will enjoy more Eastern White Pines than we do. It’s a core species of the Million Trees NYC drive. I organized a crew of volunteers to plant white pines in Floyd Bennett Field under the guidance of Friends of Gateway. Our little Charlie Brown Christmas Tree-like saplings surrounded dying Japanese black pines, which were planted under a “Beautify America” program spearheaded by Ladybird Johnson. Those exotic transplants are falling to the blue stain fungus, which doesn’t affect indigenous white pines, explained Dave Lutz, chair of Friends of Gateway. Earth Day NY rounded up people to plant some more for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation this autumn and I was glad to participate. Another recent “Million Trees” planter of a white pine was Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden. Volunteer tree planters are needed.

For an urbanite, the greatest value of a stand of Eastern White Pines might be spiritual, in a way that transcends any one religion or the Christmas holiday. As Thoreau wrote, “I saw the sun falling on a distant white-pine wood…It was like looking into dreamland.” When we look upon the tree for itself, and not for its uses, the effect is immediate and the cause is clear for why the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people called this the Great Tree of Peace.”

H2O2: Bubbles Without Troubles

Water Wonk Wednesdays! 

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

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Even the simple act of cleaning can be chemically problematic! This is especially the case for HarborLAB because we plan to reuse “gray water” to nurture orchard trees, fruiting vines, and native plant areas through underground irrigation hoses.

The antibacterial agent triclosan became nearly ubiquitous but ran afoul of regulators because it does little for human health, disrupts the endocrine systems of marine organisms, and encourages the evolution of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes. Chlorine bleach lasts a long time in our waterways and is toxic at every stage of its existence, emitting pollution in production and forming compounds like dioxin (a carcinogen) with the chemicals it encounters in our estuary. Phosphates can spur algal overgrowth that snuffs out other marine life. Traditional soaps can contain salts, which over time ruin upland soil for plants not evolved to tolerate high salinity.

Here are our recommendations for simple cleaners that will keep soil and water healthy and happy:

Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) Solution: Sunshine can fade many stains, and for tougher ones this kissing cousin of water does a great job. Its reaction with the organic compounds of stains — especially the catalase present in living things — breaks chemical bonds and results in molecular oxygen (O2) bubbles that lift particles away. The other product is water.

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Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: For simple scrubbing and bathing, the liquid line of this old standard is powerful and safe, according to California-based Ecology Center, which developed a great list of “dos and don’ts” for grey water management.

White Vinegar: You can combine this kitchen staple with hydrogen peroxide and soap to amplify their effectiveness. One trick is to spray surfaces with H2O2 and then white vinegar (acetic acid, or CH3CO2H, made by bacteria) before wiping. The acid neutralizes quickly and leaves no harmful traces. You can soak stained, smelly, and rusty objects in it too.

 

Watershed Training Report

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Thomas Dieter, a leader of the HarborLAB communications crew and Director of CUNY Start at LaGuardia Community College, was our note taker for a recent NYC Department of Environmental Protection training session to qualify HarborLAB volunteers are Watershed Docents. This was our second session for the required instruction.

Report by Thomas Dieter. Photos by Ray Tan, Erik Baard, and Patricia Menje Erickson.

March 29, 2016

LaGuardia Community College

AGENDA: ReservoirLAB Orientation with NYCDEP

5:30 PM: Introductions

Attendees: 2 NYCDEP representatives; HarborLAB volunteers; New guests, including an educator from NYCH2O. There were 15 people trained and one late volunteer who is committed to supporting the certified docents. 

(Though these sessions, along with Red Cross certifications (AED, CPR, First Aid, Basic Water Rescue for assisting both adults and juveniles), are required for our Neversink Reservoir leaders, we welcome volunteers to join us in bringing these wonderful learning experiences to NYC public school students and youth groups. Skilled paddlers are valued, but so are people to help with life vest fittings, waivers, and kid corralling!)

HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard started the meeting by welcoming all attendees and facilitating brief introductions.

5:45 PM: HarborLAB Overview

What is HarborLAB?

HarborLAB focuses on environmental learning through service—the “LAB” stands for “learning,” “adventure,” “boating.” HarborLAB has been around since 2012 on paper and 2013 on the water, and the fleet is purely motor-free.

What is ReservoirLAB? (Mission/vision, resources, fleet, funding, schedule, who is served.)

ReservoirLAB is an initiative to introduce students to learn about their drinking water, from the source to the sewer. It will aim to give students a FREE and comprehensive experience of the NYC water system, through a mixture of class-time, service-learning and boating trips.

A Catskill Watershed Corporation grant purchased the ReservoirLAB fleet of ten tandem kayaks and five canoes (plus life vests and paddles), and the current schedule is modest, involving monthly Friday and Saturday trips to serve schools and youth groups. As the volunteer base grows, the idea is to expand service offerings.

What is a Watershed Docent? What certifications are required?

A watershed docent is an educational guide for students and youth group  partners who want to learn about their potable watershed. Such docents engage participants in discussions and explorations of the regions and systems that make fresh water possible where they live—for us, that’s the Catskills Watershed, the Delaware Watershed, and the Croton Watershed.

Watershed docents are trained by qualified developers. The DEP Director of Education and Deputy Director of Education led the docent training at LaGuardia Community College on 3/29/2016. (See notes below.)

Program descriptions: Class paddles. Proposed: Partner Paddles, Community Paddles.

Currently ReservoirLAB offers class paddles at the Neversink Reservoir to NYC public school students. As ReservoirLAB scales up, partner paddles and community paddles could start as well, depending on the NYCDEP, its Catskills partners, and the needs of licensed commercial outfitters.

The Open Space Institute (OSI), which now serves as HarborLAB’s fiscal sponsors, purchases and protects land in the Catskills Watershed. HarborLAB will work with OSI to extend its regional outreach.

4/27/16 will mark our next volunteer orientation trip to Neversink.

Logistics: Transportation for us and schools/partners, lodging, storage.

Permits are necessary for entry to Neversink Reservoir. The permit is free, but must be obtained in advance to ensure access.

Logistics, storage and lodging to be investigated.

Watershed Agricultural Council grants cover some class visits to the reservoir provided that the classes combined paddling with forestry studies, and learn how forests protect watersheds.

ReservoirLAB is exploring separate travel grants to help defray some transportation costs. Currently, NYC residents will manage carpooling.

Catskills resources to augment trip value.

6:00 PM: NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

Presenters:

Kim Estes-Fradis, Director of Education. Robin Sanchez, Dep. Dir. of Education.

Materials provided:

A “Neversink: Recreational Boating” program; information cards entitled “NYC Water Supply,” “NYC Water Works,” and “NYC Water Distribution”; copies of New York City 2015 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report; and copies of The Magic School Bus: At the Waterworks.

Activities

The group learned simple, inexpensive activities that we could bring to classrooms, teacher training, libraries, and youth groups to teach watershed hydrodynamics. Topics covered by the activity include how topography, hard vs natural surfaces, and temperature affect water flow. We also demonstrated how toxins can spread in surface water bodies and groundwater.

The NYC drinking water system’s infrastructure, relationship to nature, and history

A watershed is an area of land that feeds into the waterways of a particular area. Forests act as natural filters of our drinking waters.  Soil, root structures, and snow pack slowly release water into rivers and natural and human-made reservoirs. Three watersheds feed NYC: The Catskills Watershed, the Delaware Watershed and the Croton Watershed, and together they cover over 2,000 square miles, 75% of which is forested.

The Department of Environmental Protection follows the ethos of protecting water at the source. A significant portion of watershed lands are owned or protected by the DEP; the land and water are regularly tested, and the Catskills Watershed and Delaware Watershed do not need to filter their water.

NYC’s roughly 8.5 million residents use more than 1 billion gallons of water each day, and the city continues to grow. Centuries ago, the first residents originally drew their water locally, but it became an issue of water quantity and quality. Waterborne diseases like typhoid fever and cholera made water dangerous to drink, and limited access to fresh water harmed the city’s responsiveness to great fires and other natural disasters.

Leaders looked up to Westchester County, and in the 1800s Croton Watershed started feeding the city through aqueducts. The late 1800s saw the creation of the New Croton aqueduct which is still in use today, in part because in 1890 NYC became 5 boroughs. This aqueduct delivers 290 million gallons of water each day, all of it treated by filtration and disinfection.

Today, all three watersheds, the Croton, the Delaware and the Catskills, collect fresh water in 19 reservoirs and three protected lakes and hold roughly 580 billion gallons of water in storage.

The Neversink Reservoir is the smallest reservoir in the Catskills Watershed (92 sq. mi.); it has the highest elevation and reaches a depth of 175 feet. It was constructed in 1941 by damming the Neversink River and in 1954 was the second to begin operating in the watershed. To create the reservoir, two hamlets, Neversink and Bittersweet, were condemned and flooded.

To get to NYC, water from the Neversink goes through the 85 mile-long Delaware Aqueduct, the world’s longest tunnel. At certain places, the tunnel can run more than 500 feet below ground. Today, the tunnel has a substantial leak near the Hudson River, losing more than 18 million gallons per day. When City Water Tunnel 3 is completed, the city will be able to do repairs to Tunnels 1 and 2 which will have served NYC continuously since 1917 and 1936, respectively.

Where does the water go? It travels from its respective watershed and aqueduct into the Kensico Reservoir where the water then goes on to be disinfected and treated at the Catskill/Delaware UV Disinfection Facility. The water then funnels through the city’s primary service lines to more than 6,800 miles of underground water mains. The gift of gravity creates enough force for the water to travel from its watershed to six floors up most NYC buildings.

Once the water has been used, it returns to a network of tunnels, this time in the form of 7,400 miles of sewers. NYC houses 14 wastewater treatment plants where used water is processed, cleaned and return to our waterways. The Newtown Creek treatment facility is the largest in NYC, and it cleans the solid waste, or sludge.

According to the New York City 2015 Drinking Water Supply and Quality Report, the local water quality is the cleanest in 100 years, since 1909 when measurements began.

Expectations (deliverables) for the program.

Docents need to know about the three watersheds that serve NYC, as well as the unique systems that transport and treat the water, and be able to communicate this information in an engaging and educational way to volunteers and participants.

Docents should engage participants in open discussions about the importance of fresh water and the implications for its use, misuse and overuse in the context of a place as rich, diverse and large as NYC. Topics of discussion can include why it is important to conserve water, the methods by which wastewater is treated and released, the average daily use of water in NYC (~75 gallons/person), and the changes we have made over time, including with the infrastructure, science and human behavior.

Some facts:

71% of the Earth is surface water.

Less than 1% of it is clean, fresh and drinkable. 2% is icepack.

NYC has the largest surface water reservoir system.

The 2.5 mile bypass that is being constructed for the Delaware Aqueduct leak (there are actually 2 leaks) will shut down the aqueduct in 2022 for about 12 months.

               

                Resources

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/newtown_wwtp.shtml

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/index.shtml

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/teacher_resource_guide.pdf

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/workbook.shtml

http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/edactivities.shtml

6:50 PM: Concluding remarks and Q & A.

May 25, Orchard Beach and Pelham Bay

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Bioluminescent comb jelly. Photo by Alex Pavlov.

Bioluminescent comb jelly. Photo by Alex Pavlov.

HarborLAB volunteers scouted Orchard Beach Lagoon and Pelham Bay in May. We intend to bring young people and community groups on Nature Paddles in these cleaner, safer waters. Photos by Alex Pavlov.

Orchard Beach Lagoon is an amazing bit of NYC, tucked away in the western Long Island Sound. You’ll be amazed that you’re still in NYC, splashing off the Bronx shore. Kids paddling here will see night herons, egrets, turtles, shellfish, bioluminescent comb jellies, jellyfish, sea grasses, foliated metamorphic rock, and numerous fish. HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard even saw a juvenile bald eagle there with David Burg of Wild Metro. HarborLAB Operations Manager EJ Lee fishes in Pelham Bay often and was the driving spirit of the day.

 

Cordgrass in the Classroom

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Spartina nursery at the Greenhouse at the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island. Photo by Erik Baard.

Our estuary is suffering great losses. In the past century, 85% of the New York and New Jersey area’s saltwater wetlands were destroyed by development and pollution. In 2012, the municipal government released its Wetlands Strategy as part of PlaNYC. The document also provides an excellent overview Independent nonprofits like the American Littoral Society, Regional Plan Association, and Riverkeeper, as well as state and federal initiatives like the Harbor-Estuary Program, have long advocated for protection and restoration through smarter growth and replanting.

HarborLAB Founder and Executive Director Erik Baard took the crisis as an opportunity for service learning across the city. He conceived “Cordgrass in the Classroom.” This distributed program, if fully realized, would affordably empower educators and students to improve our environment in a way that might integrate in standard curricula. Many thanks to the Greenbelt Native Plant Center and Murfie, a tech startup that digitizes and streams personal CD and vinyl music collections, for making this project possible. Expert consultants from Louisiana State University have also helped greatly.

A building block species for ecosystems in our bays and inlets is spartina, commonly known as cordgrass. Both names, ancient Greek and English, refer to how this marsh grass was used to make rope in olden times. Its greater value, however, is how it stabilizes shorelines with complex rhizomatic root systems. A dense area of cordgrass is called a “baffle,” and it collects silts and organic matter like an upside broom. This builds up to a rich, mucky more terrestrial habitat for invertebrates, other plants and fungi, and the shorebirds and mammals that eat them. Without cordgrass, you won’t see herons and egrets, and water erosion will strip coastal communities of storm protection.

Cordgrass in the Classroom takes inspiration from earlier successes like Trout in the Classroom, MillionTreesNYC, and the Billion Oyster Project. Erik introduced the program at the Steinway Branch branch of the Queens Library as part of Greening Queens Libraries initiative of the North Star Fund. Here’s how it went:

1) A dozen kids and six adults gathered in the library’s community room. They received New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program posters of estuary life. Each participant was asked to name a living thing depicted in the poster until one teen said, “Grass.” The exercise highlighted how we easily overlook the organism that occupies the most space in the landscape and upon which the others depend.

2) A second page depicting wetlands let us discuss what an estuary saltwater wetlands is, as opposed to a beach or a freshwater swamp. We discussed how the complex root systems hold sand and silt together while the upper grasses feed butterfly larvae, provide shelter from predators, and are home to many creatures.

3) Modifying an idea from the Community Science Workshop Network, Erik taught the kids how to make mini-greenhouses from used CD cases donated by Murfie. Another option for local supplies for those not in a rush is NYC WasteMatch. This is a great opportunity to discuss recycling, the plaque of plastics, and how evolution is a constantly-adapting technology that doesn’t become obsolete. That said, even nature can overuse a technology to its near self-destruction; consider how the lignin that made trees possible may have later also overfed  microbes that excreted wastes that nearly smothered our world hundreds of millions of years ago.

Community Science Workshop Network (http://cswnetwork.org)

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4) The Greenbelt Native Plant Center kindly supplied guidance along with sand and seeds in brine. Many thanks to HarborLAB Operations Manager Patricia Erickson for driving. At the library, the kids mixed sand, seeds (gathered from the wild), and water. They then smoothed that mixed into CD cases and shut them. When tilted toward the sun and sitting and sitting in a shallow layer of water, the seeds will germinate and blades will shoot upward. Thanks to the CD’s thinness, kids will watch the roots and shoots in a cross-section, much like an ant farm.

5) When the grass outgrows its CD case, it will be transplanted in bunches into small, biodegradable (wood fiber, peat blend) seedling pots, covering their root crowns. When the grass seedlings reach 6′-8″ high, they’ll be ready for transplantation into nature. Among possible sites are HarborLAB’s launch or Jamaica Bay. At our site, we might fill jute rice bags from Jackson Heights will sand and slash them to receive transplants. That, along with stones, might protect the new colony from being washed away by barge wakes.

A girl draws roots onto a CD case greenhouse schematic. Photo by Erik Baard.

A girl draws roots onto a CD case greenhouse schematic. Photo by Erik Baard.

For those wanting to create more ambitious CD case greenhouses, Erik built the one below in five minutes using clear tape. It can be built taller to protect more mature plants. Like the simpler form, there’s adequate ventilation.

Cubed CD case mini-greenhouse. Photo by Erik Baard.

Cubed CD case mini-greenhouse. Photo by Erik Baard.

Some have gone hog wild with CD case greenhouses. For walk-in sized greenhouses made of reused plastics, many opt for discarded bottles.