Sweet Sweep of the Creek!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

13177153_782640391836247_2121871728077104651_n

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.

IMG_4187

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.

 

 

 

Watershed Training Report

IMG_3628

E9810004-4F8B-419B-84A9-C04E6C862F11

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.

March 29: Reservoir Training!

neversink cove

Neversink Education Training at LaGuardia Community College

A

Learn about our city’s beautiful drinking water system, a wonder of nature and engineering! Share that new knowledge with NYC youth and kids!

LaGuardia Community College, Room C463.

A
Please share this to build our volunteer base for this program!
 A
Come get trained to be a Watershed Docent, a volunteer who’ll help introduce NYC school kids and other youth to our drinking water supply. This is NOT paddling skills training and you needn’t be an expert paddler; this is a night to learn about our drinking water system and the Neversink Reservoir itself. This program will activate HarborLAB’s second boat fleet on the Neversink Reservoir in the Catskills. This program is made possible by the NYC Department of Envionmental Protection, the Catskill Watershed Corporation, and HarborLAB volunteers.
A
Please email harborlab@gmail.com with the subject line “Neversink Training” to participate. Additionally, please join and share here: https://www.facebook.com/events/968029069940341/
 A
Volunteer candidates will be screened by our volunteer co-managers and ED.
 A
(If you received Red Cross certification funded by HarborLAB’s sponsors you have a special responsibility to this program. Please make every effort to ensure its success.)
 A
neversink-reservoir

Phragmites Tankwa?!?!

tankwa

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.

phragboat3

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.

 

Seedball Making at LaGuardia Community College!

20150208_152103

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!

African Americans in Marine Sciences

African Americans have made contributions to maritime history and the sciences from the colonial period forward. The first wave of academically credentialed African American marine scientists, however, would not be born until toward the end of the 19th century. HarborLAB serves budding African American scientists through its youth programs each year, and for Black History Month honors trailblazers from years past.

Outstanding among the first generation of African American university scholars in the marine sciences were Ernest Everett Just and Roger Arliner Young, both born in the 1880s. Both went to prominent universities and did field-shaping research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but white students were deprived of their gifts as teachers because of racial bigotry. Fortunately Dr. Just and Dr. Young received faculty appointments at historically black institutions where they inspired new generations of scientists.

just

Ernest Everett Just

Dr. Just was renowned as a master designer of experiments. Though he died before the discovery of DNA, Dr. Just focused on eggs, especially those of marine invertebrates, because he saw them as the key to understanding life as an emergent complex system. An excellent biography of Dr. Just is Black Apollo of Science, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Roger_Arliner_Young

Roger Arliner Young

Dr. Young was the first African American woman to earn a PhD in zoology. She studied under Dr. Just and they both shared a mentor in Frank Rattray Lillie, a founder and first president of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She performed cutting edge experiments on the effects of radiation on marine eggs. Her radiation work, study of cellular salt regulation, and dehydration and rehydration of living cells can be seen as a precursor to today’s booming field of extremophile studies. Understanding the extreme tolerances of terrestrial organisms aids astrobiologists searching harsher worlds for signs of life.

Despite the achievements of the generation of Dr. Just and Dr. Young, and those who followed, even today to be a black marine biologist or oceanographer is pioneering. Dr. Ashanti Johnson, oceanographer, shares her experiences and inspiration in the video above. Students entering the field will likely have few or no black professors. HarborLAB’s message to these students is a simple one: Please, don’t be discouraged. Don’t allow yourself to feel excluded. We need as many bright young people as possible to study these fields because with fish stocks crashing and coral reefs dying, and ocean acidity increasing due to carbon dioxide pollution, advancement of marine sciences is a matter of survival.

A great resource for students of color seeking careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields is the Institute for Broadening Participation’s Pathways to Science program. HarborLAB strongly recommends studying with our Natural Sciences partners at CUNY LaGuardia Community College and CUNY Baruch College. And of course, HarborLAB volunteers serve students by introducing them to the greatest teacher of all: Nature. As Dr. Just describes his first classroom, it was not with four walls:

“[It] was full of birds and flowers, especially in the spring, when the wrens awakened to the smell of wisteria and dogwood. Azaleas and camellias blossomed along the ditches where tadpoles swam, and Spanish moss gleamed from the trees…”

If you are part of a school or community group and want to join HarborLAB in environmental service learning on our boats or ashore, please email edu@harborlab.org.

The Gift of Greater Safety!

ladder

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.

Readying for Winter…and Spring! :)

WP_20141123_007

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.

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.

Hallets Cove Still Needs Help

Film on the water at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard

Film on the water at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard

HarborLAB is sad to relay the news from CUNY LaGuardia Community College that bacteria counts remain elevated days after the New York City Housing Authority capped open drains that allow sewage to discharge from the Astoria Houses into Hallets Cove. As we noted earlier, there’s no “silver bullet” to raising water quality. Dogs and birds frequently defecate on the beach. HarborLAB photographed paw prints and birds yesterday afternoon. As the NYC Department of Environmental Protection noted, wild birds can’t be effectively managed.

Most parts of the estuary suffer fecal bacteria when rain causes combined sewer channels to overflow. Hallets Cove is blighted even in dry weather. Here’s this month’s observed rainfall.

We as a community must sample the water and sand further (HarborLAB will do this in the colder months), work with NYCDEP and CUNY LaGuardia Community College for regular testing, and institute both basic and innovative mitigation measures. HarborLAB need volunteer samplers to keep a neighborhood watch on Hallets Cove water quality. Please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line, “Hallets Cove.”

Here are questions HarborLAB posed to scientists with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and CUNY in an email conversation that included Rob Buchanan of the NYC Water Trail Association, which coordinates water sampling throughout the harbor:

1) Could such a prolonged exposure (referring to the NYCHA discharge) translate to a slower decline?
2) Could sand culturing of the bacteria cause it to persist?
3) How might activated effective microorganisms be used to mitigate this situation? Does the DEP have a research program or field implementation in place? Partners from the Permaculture movement are interested in contributing to such an effort.
4) How might we reduce dog defecation on the beach?

As measured by Dr. Sarah Durand’s lab at LaGuardia Community College, indicator bacteria counts were again in the “red zone” with183-197 CFU (colony forming units) per 100 ml of water. Observing over 104 enterococci per 100 ml in salt water indicates that an area is unacceptable for swimming, according the the US Environmental Protection Agency. From the EPA website:

What levels of indicator bacteria are considered acceptable?

Based on studies conducted in the 1980s, EPA has determined that a geometric mean (a measure of an overall average) in samples from recreational waters of less than 126 E. coli per 100 milliliters (ml) of fresh water or 35 enterococci per 100 ml of salt water is acceptable for protection of swimming. The geometric mean should be calculated from more than five samples within the previous 30 days. If a single sample exceeds 235 E. coli per 100 ml in freshwater and 104 enterococci per 100 ml in salt water, EPA recommends that the beach be closed, or posted, for swimming until levels are lower. (Some states, such as New Hampshire and Vermont, recommend that advisories be posted at more protective levels of indicator bacteria.) Because elevated fecal indicator bacteria are often associated with storm water runoff, some agencies post beaches preemptively if rainfall exceeds a set amount, based on site-specific studies.

durandtests

Contaminated samples fluoresce under UV light due to a chemical reaction between bacterial excretions and a laboratory agent. Photo by Dr. Sarah Durand, PhD, CUNY LaGuardia Community College.

There are no universal health standards for water quality restrictions on such high-water contact activities as introductory sit-on-top kayaking. Even without falling in, children and adults engage in splashing and have frequent hand-to-mouth and hand-to-eye transference of water. Children and adults do fall in (this is normal, but shouldn’t be risked in fouled water) , and after hours children do wade, swim, make sandcastles at Hallets Cove. It’s reasonable to believe that public boating might encourage children and families to believe the water is acceptable.

Sand is more of a concern than was believed in previous generations. Some useful links:

“Microbial Load from Animal Species at a Recreational Beach”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2771205/

“Fecal Bacteria May Be Hiding in Beach Sand”

http://www.care2.com/causes/fecal-bacteria-may-be-hiding-in-beach-sand.html

“Bacteria Swarm Keeps Oceanfront Revelers Out of Water”

http://hamptonroads.com/2014/08/oceanfront-swimming-advisory-completely-lifted

paws

gulls