EPA Clean Water Rule Rollback

Water Wonk Wednesdays

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

 

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President Trump issued an executive order yesterday to roll back the Clean Water Rule issued by President Obama to extend 1972 Clean Water Act protections to smaller streams and wetlands that feed rivers, lakes, and estuaries. President Trump stated that this reversal reflected his emphasis on economic activity and states rights. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is leading a coalition to litigate against President Trump’s order. The New York Times published a useful article about this debate.

 

 

 

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. 

Green Apple Cleaners Refreshes Our Vests!

HarborLAB gives great thanks to Green Apple Cleaners for gently and thoroughly removing salt, mud, grit, and greasy muck from over 50 of our life vests!Some of you might recall meeting company Co-Founder David Kistner and his twins when they volunteered at HarborLAB events!

Our adult and juvenile life vests are used by thousands of people each season in saltwater and on all manner of shorelines. That’s a great way to get really dirty. We need life vests to be clean for our winter Instruction for Inclusion pool program, so who better to ask than longtime supporter Green Apple Cleaners? This pioneering company is the only clothing cleaner in the NYC metropolitan area to use exclusively the methods recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency: high tech, efficient water systems and captured and compressed carbon dioxide. The CO2 is captured from brewers’ emissions and cleaning machines recapture and reuse the gas for several cycles.

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The dry cleaning fluid perc (tetrachloroethene, or perchloroethylene) is a common contaminant in soil and water (including at Superfund cleanup sites) and a hazard to human health. This is both a consumer and even more an environmental justice issue because a great number of dry cleaning industry workers are lower-income immigrant people of color. They face ailments and potential ailments ranging from skin and eye irritation to neurological and reproductive problems, organ failure, and cancer. Other methods, like silicon and hydrocarbon, are dubiously marketed as “green.” Silicon accumulates in fish tissue and contaminates water bodies, and “hydrocarbon” is just another name for petroleum products. Who knew “casual Fridays” were protecting the Earth?

Naturally our life vests were washed in low-water machines, not dry cleaned. Clean life vests last longer and Green Apple Cleaners’ slower spin and plant-derived solvents help guard against wear and tear. That saves us money on maintenance and replacement, leaving more funds available for free environmental education programming! We are grateful to Green Apple Cleaners for this service and for using benign methods that reduce water waste and protect our marine ecosystems.

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Children’s life vests getting spiffy again at Green Apple Cleaners.

More about Green Apple Cleaners in a CNN report here:

The EPA Must Test the Plants of Newtown Creek.

HarborLAB caused quite a stir recently by drawing attention to the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t testing plant tissues in the Newtown Creek. This great research gap had not been addressed before. We raised the point at the October meeting of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group with the EPA about Superfund progress.

Our concern is informed by our periodic biota surveys. We thank the United Nations Federal Credit Union and Con Ed for their support of our environmental work.

The EPA noted in its presentation that it tests the tissues of some fish species, especially those most likely to be eaten by people, but admitted in response to HarborLAB’s questioning that no plant tests were conducted or scheduled to be conducted. The EPA also asserted that because the creek was so thoroughly bulkheaded, there wasn’t a plant population to test. HarborLAB has conducted bioblitzes of the creek and strongly disagreed, suggesting that nonprofits and universities could begin plant tissue tests even if the EPA wouldn’t. Representatives from Riverkeeper, North Brooklyn Boat Club, and LaGuardia Community College quickly seconded HarborLAB’s concerns.

HarborLAB’s launch already boasts indigenous, salt-tolerant goldenrod, pokeberry, milkweed, and other species that support birds and pollinators. We’re working to add cordgrass, beach plum, and more as part of our GreenLaunch project. Marsh grasses, reeds, and other plants fringe the creek where there are no bulkheads or where bulkheads have crumbled. Above the bulkheads but still within occasional flood zones are a number of plant species, whether native, invasive, or cultivated. There are even fruit trees, including fig, apple, pear, and mulberry. Within the creek, HarborLAB has observed sea lettuce, bladderwrack, mosses, and more.

At the request of LaGuardia Community College biologist Sarah Durand, PhD, HarborLAB has been photographing shoreline and aquatic plants. Dr. Durand and her students have begun growing marsh grass in buckets and planters as experiments in anticipation of installing habitat restoration platforms. We will soon join the Newtown Creek CAG, which counts Dr. Durand as a steering committee member, in formally urging the EPA to reconsider its assessment and add plant tissue testing.

It’s absolutely necessary that the EPA expand testing to include plants and smaller animal organisms, like invertebrates and killifish who spend their entire lives in the creek. These are the complex organism building blocks this blighted corner of the estuary. As Newtown Creek Alliance Mitch Waxman remarked to HarborLAB after the meeting on the narrowness of the EPA’s work: “What the EPA is doing is a human health impact study, not an environmental impact study.”

Gallery of Newtown Creek plants by Thomas Zellers and Erik Baard.

Videos by Roy Harp showing moss and algae.

Video by Roy Harp showing spartina installations.

“Jane’s Walk” to Our Reawakening Waterfront!

 

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Mitch Waxman, crouching, and MAS Jane’s Walk participants in front of the HarborLAB gate and boats. Newtown Creek Alliance board member Laura Risi Hofmann towards the left, in bright blue shirt. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB was honored to be a featured stop on the Greenpoint-to-Long Island City “DUPBO” 2014 Jane’s Walk.  Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman guided the tour, a walking conversation, sharing insights about development, preservation, sustainability, resilience, and cultural vitality. In NYC, the prestigious Municipal Art Society organizes the annual, free urban planning walks honoring Jane Jacob‘s spirit of criticism and query.

Erik Baard, who interviewed Jane Jacobs in the 9/11 aftermath, greeted the crowd that arrived at the end of Vernon Boulevard, where a bridge once spanned the Newtown Creek to Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn.

What made our site so interesting? It’s that we’re creating the greatest length of green, soft shoreline on the Newtown Creek!

Many thanks to Citizens Committee for NYC for our seed grant (more on that to come) to begin transforming our 125′ waterfront, kindly provided to us by Schumann Properties. Rather than rebuilding our crumbling bulkhead, we’ll follow New York State Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines for using salt tolerant native plantings to stabilize shorelines. We’ll also restore wetlands in the intertidal zone with spartina, mussels, oysters, and other indigenous life. Upland we’ll grow edibles in planters, including hardy kiwi and grape for shade. To maximize the service learning value of this project, we’ll invite college students to participate and follow the advice and directives of biologists Dr. Holly Porter-Morgan and Dr. Sarah Durand of LaGuardia Community College.

HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson will oversee safety stairs, platforms, the dock, and other improvements, aided by Mairo Notton and other skilled volunteers. Our space has been too crowded with bricks on pallets since occupation to do much work, but that’s scheduled to change over the next few weeks.

HarborLAB has also begun a campaign to create a bioswale and rain garden at the dead end of Vernon Boulevard. In some sense, this revives a decade-old effort that New Yorkers for Parks ushered into a design in 2006. With our launch site reworked and a green pocket park, Vernon Boulevard will end in a beautiful long stretch of green that improves Newtown Creek water quality by reducing combined sewage overflows.

The Newtown Creek Superfund designation, however, is based on carcinogenic sediments that line its bed and can sometimes rise through the water column when disturbed. Advocacy for dredging is our chief activity on that front. Our vital ally there is the Newtown Creek Alliance. We were happy that this Jane’s Walk included Newtown Creek Alliance Board Member Laura Risi Hofmann, a greenpoint health and green spaces activist, among its saunterers.

Because of the sometimes high sewage bacteria levels (common to all of western Queens’ waterfronts) and industrial pollutants (exceedingly high also in Anable Basin and Steinway Creek), HarborLAB has two blanket policies:  1) We bring boats to cleaner, safer waters in the region for children to enjoy. The Newtown Creek launch is for adults only. 2) We use canoes for venturing East of the Pulaski Bridge, and sit-on-top kayaks for paddling west, where water quality is much better.

 

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HarborLAB boats and the raw 125′ shoreline, facing East to the Pulaski Bridge. Photo by Erik Baard.

The HarborLAB "boat ladder," a launch system used by cultures around the world. Note the crumbling shoreline that we'll slope and stabilize with plantings.

The HarborLAB “boat ladder,” a launch system used by cultures around the world. Note the crumbling shoreline that we’ll slope and stabilize with plantings.

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Intertidal area that will be planted with spartina or other native species. Photo by Erik Baard.

 

 

“Muskrat Love” on the Newtown Creek…

Muskrat  swimming against the tide and toward the white late afternoon sun trail, past the HarborLAB launch.  Photo by Erik Baard.

Muskrat swimming against the tide and toward the white late afternoon sun trail, past the HarborLAB launch. Photo by Erik Baard.

After a long day of producing a public paddle event at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, HarborLAB volunteers were treated to the sight of a new (or at least newly sighted) neighbor at our Newtown Creek launch. A muskrat!

We believe this creature hasn’t been verifiably reported in the Newtown Creek in living memory. The Newtown Creek’s chief chronicler and photographer, Mitch Waxman, says there have been murmurs about it for over a year. 

For urbanites like us, a muskrat conjures images of fur trappers and musk collectors from centuries past. This indigenous, semi-aquatic burrowing rodent is ubiquitous over much of North America. Indeed, Algonquin and other Native American creation stories credit the muskrat with swimming to the primordial ocean floor to scoop up the mud that formed the lands of the world. This animal is also depicted as the mother of humanity in some tales, and often as an auspicious symbol promising wealth. Perhaps HarborLAB has found a mascot?

Surprised to see this critter in the Newtown Creek? We were too, but perhaps we shouldn’t have been; muskrats survive in sulfurous streams polluted by coal plants, where frogs and fish have been wiped out. These herbivores (they’ll only occasionally eat small amphibians, invertebrates, and shellfish) thrive in wetlands, but have found niches in more challenging areas disrupted by development. One benefit of muskrats is that they eat invasive phragmites reeds, which choke out native plants in fresh and brackish waters. The fate of muskrats (locally breeding or arriving) factored into a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study on the possible scope of industrial damage to the Newtown Creek’s natural resources. No doubt many muskrats once inhabited this waterway, but not in living memory. A study for the Environmental Protection Agency done by HarborLAB sponsor AECOM posited that muskrats might use the creek:

“Birds are likely to be the principal aquatic-dependent wildlife species that occur in and around the Study Area, although some mammals such as muskrats may use the area. Members of various avian feeding guilds may, at one time or another, also be present in the Study Area.” — Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study  Work Plan  Newtown Creek (AECOM Environment)

This muskrat might be living in a burrow dug into the soft slope where the bulkhead has disintegrated on the Queens side of the Newtown Creek. Muskrats are usually nocturnal or crepuscular, so they’re not easy to spot. We have few muskrat predators here, though these rodents (especially their young) might still find themselves on the menu for cats, raptors, some large fish, and turtles.

Muskrats prefer slow-moving waterways, but can transit on swifter courses like the East River. They aren’t likely to drown in strong currents because they can hold their breath for up to 17 minutes!

We’re not sure what this neighbor was up to. It swam against a mild but burgeoning flood tidal current, using its distinctive vertically-flat tail as a flagellum to propel it toward the white sun trail of late afternoon. Its partially webbed hind feet are a secondary means of swimming. What we do know is that it looked so serious about its agenda, which made it look even more painfully cute.

“It’s serious stuff, being an urban muskrat,” remarked Waxman. 

It may have been seeking new territory, for mating advantage or because it belonged to a population that had consumed its food sources. Muskrat populations often boom and bust with available edible plants. Sadly, most muskrats don’t live more than a year.

Where we are, toward the Newtown Creek mouth, water quality is better than inland reaches. This is because ocean water flowing through the East River strait swirls into the creek west of the Pulaski Bridge. Dissolved oxygen levels are higher than the creek average, allowing for more fish and invertebrates and therefore a heartier ecosystem. Also, we’ve had a dry spell, so pipes combining storm water with household sewage haven’t overflowed into the creek recently. That said, however, the sediment pollutants that warrant U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund designation remain a carcinogenic hazard for mammals feeding in the creek or having repeated exposure. Muskrats have been shown to concentrate, or bioaccumulate, metals in their tissues.

As for protecting the human mammal, HarborLAB uses canoes on the creek to reduce water contact greatly. Our sit-on-top kayaks are exclusively for harbor voyages. We never have children paddle from the Newtown Creek site or contaminated nearby sites like Anable Basin and Hallets Cove. We make the effort to host children’s paddling in cleaner regional waters, while advocating for local cleanups.

HarborLAB hopes this little guy finds a healthier habitat to call home soon. But for one afternoon, we enjoyed “Muskrat Love.”