2015 Gantry Plaza State Park Water Quality

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2015 Citizen Water Quality Testing Program Report

by Josue Silvestre, Engineer in Training
HarborLAB Water Quality Sampling Coordinator

HarborLAB takes part in the Citizen Water Quality Testing Program (CWQTP), an initiative of the New York City Water Trail Association that coordinates weekly grassroots monitoring of metropolitan area waterways for a 20-week period from May through October. I had the opportunity to lead HarborLAB’s participation in 2015. Our focus was again Gantry Plaza State Park, where we serve cumulatively thousands of children, teens, and adults through public paddling programs and special partnerships with organizations serving disadvantaged youth.

We received training from The River Project and a research team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute on water sampling at docks and shorelines. The sampling season launched on May 28 with 38 sites from Yonkers to Jamaica Bay. We measured nitrate and phosphate with in-situ testing kits and brought chilled samples rapidly to five labs to test for Enterococcus, a gut bacterium indicative of sewage. While nitrate and phosphate levels are immediately registered, bacteria must be incubated for more than 24 hours.

Gantry Plaza State Park is on the East River, a tidal strait within the Hudson River Estuary. The CWQTP concerns itself with wastewater contamination of the East River due to past and recurring contamination from combined sewer outfalls (CSO) and malfunctioning of wastewater treatment facilities. Paddling groups and nonprofit littoral ecology experts assert that because NYC Department of Environmental Protection surveys sample in deeper water, official statistics don’t account for bacterial colonies near shore, where human contact and wildlife activity is greatest. NYC Department of Health water testing focuses on swimming beaches, not kayak and canoe launches.

HarborLAB cancels programming at Gantry Plaza State Park on days following significant rain as a precaution against CSO contamination.

Enterococcus levels are presented as a Most Probable Number (MPN), or the number of colonies per 100 ml of water counted after incubation. These numbers set thresholds for recommending public notifications or temporary closures. New York City Department of Health Enterococcus standards for swimming are as follows:

MPN <35 = acceptable for swimming

MPN between 35 and 104 = unacceptable if level persist

MPN >104 = unacceptable for swimming

Throughout the 2015 CWQTP season (see figure 1) lab results showed that the presence of Enterococcus at Gantry Plaza State Park usually measured within acceptable conditions for swimming. It was observed that on three occasions Enterococcus levels at the site were unacceptable for swimming. Similar results were obtained in the previous 2014 CWQTP season (see figure 2) with one measurement exceeding the limit acceptable for swimming.

These spikes might correlate to rainfall prior to measurement (with one of the three a possibly anomalous result), as seen in figure 3, provided by the Riverkeeper organization through the citizen testing data web tool hosted on its website. That is, a wetter season in 2015 may be the cause for having have three peaks in Enterococcus counts compared to one peak in 2014. The amount of rainfall in the 2014 season, from May 22 to October 02, was 14.76 inches, according to the National Weather Service Forecast Office. That was 1.59 inches less than the 2015 season’s 16.35 inches for a same period (May 21-October 01).

Nitrate (NO3) and Phosphate (PO4) in-situ testing was new to the 2015 season. Nitrates and phosphates from urban runoff can cause eutrophication, a process that depletes lakes, streams, and rivers of oxygen. The procedure for in-situ testing was straight forward. The test kit consisted of two small tubes with nitrate and phosphate reactors and a small cube (see figure 4). Each tube would absorb water from a small cube of the sampled water. The tubes would change color after a few minutes indicating the level of NO3 or PO4 respectively. Throughout the season, low concentrations of Nitrate and Phosphate testing were recorded and these remained constant.

For me, as an international student with an engineering background in water resources, and an advocate of sustainable water management, constant monitoring of water bodies is of utmost relevance. It informs environmental regulators whether the water body supports a healthy aquatic ecosystem. While participating with HarborLAB collecting water samples, I came to appreciate the importance of keeping New York City’s waterways pollutant free. It helps revitalize shores once plentiful with aquatic life and maintain a balance in the ecosystem. In addition to revitalizing shores, effectively protecting our water bodies from pollutants creates an increased public interest in recreational water activities.

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Fig. 1 2015 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results

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Fig. 2 2014 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results

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Fig.3 Enterococcus count and rainfall correlation. (Extracted from Riverkeeper.org/water-quality/citizen-data.)

 

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Fig. 4 Nitrates and Phosphates in-situ testing kit

 

Seedball Making at LaGuardia Community College!

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Seedballs. Photo by Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens.

Hurricane Sandy, pollution, and development have stripped away much of our dune and coastal meadow habitats, so HarborLAB is joining the effort to restore them! To this end, HarborLAB and other conservationists are following Permaculture farmers in adopting an ancient Japanese and North American no-till agriculture tool that mimics the natural dung distribution of seeds (called endozoochory). It’s simple: make a ball of clay, compost, and seeds and toss them over the area to be revived. The warmth and rains of spring and summer then signal the seeds to germinate. Before long we’ll green the shores of NYC by bombarding them with seed love from our armada of kayaks and canoes!  😉

HarborLAB volunteers learned the art from SeedBall NYC‘s Co-founder and President Anne Apparu in a room made available to us by Dr. Sarah Durand of the Natural Sciences department at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. We made several hundred seed balls, and will make thousands more! The trick is to get the proportions right so that the balls hold together firmly but dry out before the seeds germinate. In terms of consistency, think cookie dough.

Another great instruction resource comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

HarborLAB used seeds we gathered with Hunters Point Community Middle School and Dr. Stephen Grosnell‘s Baruch College conservation biology students from Gantry Plaza State Park, Hunters Point Park, and our own GreenLaunch, along with seeds provided by SeedBall NYC and Briermere Farms. Hunters Point Parks Conservancy Vice President Mark Christie kindly help guide us in our seed gathering. Species included aster, milkweed, beach plum, beach pea, goldenrod, viburnum, pine, switchgrass, pokeberry, and the humorously named panicgrass (gallery below). These salt-tolerant species support endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and feed birds. They also stabilize the shoreline, allowing complex ecosystems to develop while also protecting property from surges and erosion. We also gathered beach rose from Hunters Point South Park but must be very careful about where to use them, if at all, for biological productivity without enabling invasion.

See Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman‘s great write up of one of our outings at Queens Brownstoner.

We’re also grateful to Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens for participating and to Gil Lopez, president and co-founder of Smiling Hogshead Ranch Urban Farm, for inviting a naturalist to join us. We also thank the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permission to gather seeds. An especially welcome newcomer was Philip Anthony Borbon, a sailor who moors on the Queens waterfront of the Newtown Creek.

Our next step is to go into classrooms to make seedballs with kids, and to then bring the balls with us when we paddle to areas in need of habitat restoration! If you’d like a classroom talk and seedball making activity with HarborLAB, please email us at edu@harborlab.org!

Seed Gathering Day!

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Mark Christie, HarborLAB volunteer and Vice President of Hunters Point Parks Conservancy, with bouquets of goldenrod seeds. Hunters Point Community Middle School student in the background. (Photo by Erik Baard)

HarborLAB had a fantastic winter day of gathering goldenrod and beach rose seeds with Hunters Point Community Middle School students! Many thanks to biology teacher Mary Matthai and Principle Sarah Goodman, and to the students! Thanks also to Vice President Mark Christie of the Hunters Point Parks Conservancy and to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.

Through this exercise the students learned about bioremediation, shore ecology, evolved means of seed propagation, combined sewer overflows, and genetic diversity. We asked that the school choose only five students for each round of work to avoid trampling habitats.

HarborLAB is creating a marine-to-uplands habitat restoration on the Newtown Creek. We call this project the “GreenLaunch.” Citizens Committee for NYC gave us funds for initial work, which HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson oversees. We’ve applied to the Hudson River Foundation for a larger Newtown Creek Fund grant. We hope our City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and State Assembly Representative Catherine Nolan will also partner with us as a wonderful (and only) Queens environmental group based on the creek, and support our work.

Central to the GreenLaunch, conceived by HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard, is a living shoreline stabilized using methods recommended by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. We’re applying for fresh earth from the NYC Soil Bank. Roots from native, saltwater tolerant plantings will hold soil down. We’re gathering seeds from milkweed, pokeberry, goldenrod, beach plums, and beach rose to start. We have MillionTreesNYC shadbush (service berry), hackberry, sassafras, and other native saplings to further strengthen this slope. Milkweed and goldenrod sustain endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Our berry bushes and trees, and rose hips, have deep root systems and feed birds. Below this slope, in the intertidal zone, we’ll grow cordgrass and mussels.

The Gift of Greater Safety!

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HarborLAB is very happy to announce that this week we’ll be purchasing a dock ladder for Gantry Plaza State Park to make it easier, less stressful, and safer for people to climb out of the water. To our volunteers and partners, an even safer 2015 is the best holiday gift of all!

Unintended swims are a natural, if rare, part of kayaking. All participants and dock workers wear life vests, so not every dunk is an emergency. But every dunk has the potential to become an emergency should wakes, medical conditions, currents, or other factors add complications and dangers. It’s best to have a quick and safe way out of the water to where volunteers are ready to help.

HarborLAB volunteers have been advocating for public paddling programs at Gantry Plaza State Park for over a decade, even before our organization existed! We’re grateful and thrilled that through the efforts of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation and Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance that our dreams were realized. We’re also deeply grateful to the Hunters Point Point Parks Conservancy for partnering on outreach and volunteer recruitment for the public program. We pioneered public paddling and floating science programs in the park this year, to the benefit of Baruch College, Hunters Point Community Middle School, 350.org, and other environmental education partners.

The ladder we install will also be a boon to other programs at Gantry Plaza State Park, such as the recreational paddling program produced by the Long Island City Community Boathouse, which was also founded by Erik Baard, founder of HarborLAB.

HarborLAB is grateful to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permitting this ladder work and partnering with our skilled volunteers (contractors and mechanics) to see to the sturdiest and most user-friendly installation. We’ll look to the State to make the final determination of what ladder would be proper before we make the purchase from West Marine. We’re looking at lifting ladders and flip ladders to prevent slippery fouling of the lower rungs and damage at low tide.

And hey, if you’re wondering about water quality in Gantry Plaza State Park, we have great news! Water sampled by HarborLAB volunteers at Gantry Plaza State Park, as gauged by specific bacteria counts, routinely tests in LaGuardia Community College labs as far better than any other paddling program spot in western Queens! But though Gantry water is often swimming quality, we’re all about the boats, ’bout the boats. No treading…   😉

HarborLAB at Gantry Plaza State Park. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB at Gantry Plaza State Park. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB Intern Presentation on Water Quality

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HarborLAB Environmental Science Intern Erik Yax Garcia of Keuka College made a presentation about water quality sampling and testing to the Hunters Point Community Middle School this week. He demonstrated sampling and explained the need for precise, uniform techniques. Then in the classroom he gave a PowerPoint presentation about the science used to identify water quality problems and solutions.

“For me it was a great experience to work with middle school students and it was very challenging because they would ask for details and deep explanations,” Erik said. He noted that a central question was, “what can we do to have clean water?”

Thanks to a grant from the United Nations Federal Credit Union, Erik takes weekly water samples from Willow Lake and Gantry Plaza State Park for pathogen testing at The River Project. He also picks up Bronx Kill samples taken by Randall’s Island Park Alliance. The lab’s looking for Enterococcus, a kind of bacteria that normally lives in human intestines and can therefore reveal the presence of sewage in a waterway. Rainstorms overwhelm our waste water treatment facilities because household water and street runoffs pour into the same tubes and containments. When that happens, raw sewage is released into the estuary in “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs) to prevent disease-bearing foul waters from backing up into homes and streets.

Erik’s visit melded with the students’ curriculum, said science teacher Mary Mathai. “Erik Yak’s presentation was very informative. This worked very well since in their present unit of study, we have been talking about the enterococcus bacterial levels in the water and about CSO’s,” she said.

Mathai praised how methodical Erik was in his instruction. “He introduced students to the sampling sites in his presentation. He also showed them a video on the CSO’s.  This was followed by a demonstration of how water samples are collected with importance given to preservation of the samples and avoidance of contaminating the samples.Photographs of the enterococcus bacteria were shown to students.  This was very much tied into what students were learning in the classroom, since they were involved in a project based learning activity regarding CSO’s and water quality in New York Harbor.  Students were then taken to the sampling site in Long Island City, where Erik demonstrated the water sample collection.  This was followed by a question and answer session,” she recounted.

 

NYC is behind schedule in fixing the CSO problem, but has spent billions of dollars toward that end in recent years. Traditional engineering solutions are termed “grey infrastructure” because they rely on concrete catch basins and new facilities. Another set of solutions gaining favor now are grouped together as “green infrastructure” because they rely on plants and are sustainable and resilient. Green roofs, bioswales, tree pits, and other planting absorb rainwater into soft earth and up through roots so that less pours into the sewer system.

We’re happy to report that water at Gantry Plaza State Park, where HatbotLAB will offer public paddling this summer, has tested as cleaner than other western Queens sites (Hallets Cove, Anable Basin, Newtown Creek) in this year’s first few weeks. This activity is part of a broader “citizen science” project coordinated by the NYC Water Trail Association, a network of paddling and rowing groups that HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard also initiated and co-founded.
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The students revealed that they have a big stake in improving water quality, Erik said. “I also spoke about HarborLAB’s paddling program and many students seemed to be excited about it!”

East River Ice Floes and “Ice Bridges”

HarborLAB launch on the Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge. Photo by Steve Scofield of the Transportation Queens Activist Committee (http://transalt.org/getinvolved/neighborhood/queens).
HarborLAB launch (beige building to the right) on the Newtown Creek from the Pulaski Bridge. The East River and its branches, like the creek, are saltier and so don’t freeze as easily, but perhaps the creek’s water treatment plant’s outflows and street runoffs are freezing? Photo by Steve Scofield of the Transportation Alternatives Queens Activist Committee (http://transalt.org/getinvolved/neighborhood/queens).

1867 etching of a flow of humanity across the frozen East River. One of eight times the strait froze over during that century. Image via Gothamist (click for link).

Ice floes on the East River are a rare sight in recent years, but the Brooklyn Bridge is a daily reminder of how extreme even relatively recent planetary climate fluctuations have been. Let’s explore how that is so, and take a fun detour into the molecular structure of water.

When scientists worry about climate change and global warming, they’re not ignoring the fact that Earth has experienced wildly different atmospheric compositions and temperatures over its 3.8 billion years as a living world. What we’re destabilizing, they worry, are the conditions that for 12,000 years have fostered the neolithic agricultural revolution and civilization itself.

Some worry that the more energy retained by the atmospheric system (global warming) through higher CO2 concentrations, the more chaotic it might become in mid-latitude coastal areas (our temperate zone) as we become a pass-through for storms that transport energy between the tropics and arctic. But just as a cold snap in one region or continent doesn’t refute the mounting evidence of global warming, it can be argued that we can’t say with certainty that storms like Hurricane Sandy are the result of warming.

That said, there are records, written and archeological, of worldwide changes that lasted years or even centuries. Might we enter another “Little Ice Age” like that of roughly 1300-1870? To get an idea of how severe winters of that period could be, several times the East River froze over. Brave souls walked over “ice bridges” from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but ferries vital to commerce were locked in place. After this happened again in the winter of 1866-67, businesses in our growing metropolis had enough and lobbied hard for a long-contemplated “Great East River Bridge” to keep commerce flowing in all weather. As it happens, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, eight years after the East River last froze over solid. In a sense, the Brooklyn Bridge touches down on the shores of two boroughs and on the shores of two climatic ages. And we might have a Brooklyn Bridge because the Sun lacked spots!

A few things can cause the planet to cool. Some ascribe the deepest points of the Little Ice Age to the Maunder Minimum, a period sunspots and solar flares were extremely rare. Our sun is in a lull right now, but a 2012 NASA study found that recent solar inactivity hasn’t impacted our planet’s “energy budget” much.  A 2013 study by researchers with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (part of the National Science Foundation) and partners concluded that a Maunder Minimum redux wouldn’t save us from global warming.

Just as adding carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane to the atmosphere can warm the planet, kicking up dust and soot can cool it. Volcanoes have caused global cooling, as perhaps have asteroids and comets (even beloved Halley’s Comet). Some people even advocate for “geoengineering” projects that would cool the planet, but implementation could bring their own disasters. Besides, Ocean acidification, which could collapse the planetary ecosystem, would proceed apace if we continue to burn fossil fuels, even if we dust up to cool down.

East River ice floes and Hunter's Point South. Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes and Hunter’s Point South (and the ice-whitened mouth of the Newtown Creek). Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes floating past Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, Queens. Photo by Mark Christie of Friends of Gantry and Neighborhood Parks (http://friendsofgantry.org/).

East River ice floes. Photo by Steve Sanford (http://www.stevesanfordartist.com)

East River ice floes. Photo by Steve Sanford (http://www.stevesanfordartist.com)

Bald Eagles on Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Bald Eagles (those little black dots) on Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Snow covered Palisades with Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Snow covered Palisades with Hudson River ice floes. Photo by David Burg of WildMetro (www.wildmetro.org).

Finally, a fun thing to ponder: What if ice didn’t float?