Spartina, Sumac, and Kid Power!

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HarborLAB partnered with Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman for a company day of “Celebration and Service” at the Hunters Point Community Middle School. Volunteers partnered with science teacher Mary Mathai for hands-on education about shoreline habitat restoration. HarborLAB has a longstanding relationship with the school, conducting seed gathering field trips, providing lectures about water quality, and other services. Special thanks to HarborLAB volunteer Diana Szatkowski for making this newest activity a success!

Our first focus was Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass. HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard gave a brief presentation on this saltwater marsh species, which is a bedrock of our coastal ecosystem. We discussed how landfill, runoff pollution, invasive species introduced humans, and other modern impacts have reduced acreage in New York City to less than 10% of historic coverage. Invertebrates shelter within the grass, feeding herons and other shore birds. The complex root systems of spartina marshes anchor sand and mud, stabilizing shorelines. Dense foliage reduces wave and wakes, protecting property and lives. This nearly eliminated grass uniquely sustains a butterfly species, the Saffron skipper.

To restore spartina to HarborLAB’s shore on the Newtown Creek, we’re creating pods made from burlap bags supplied by MAST Brothers Chocolate. Students learned about how burlap is made of fibers drawn from jute, another marsh plant in South Asia, and how generations ago the fibers were softened with whale oil (and now vegetable oils and sometimes mineral oil). We filled the burlap bags with sand, bundled them, and later we’ll slice holes in the tops. Then we’ll place plugs of spartina seedlings in the holes. Our seedlings are provided by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a facility operated by the Natural Resources Group of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Those seedlings will be ready in June.

Students and volunteers then made seed balls from cocoa husks, natural red clay, a bit of sand, and velvety red staghorn sumac seeds. Sumac is another important species for our region’s shorelines. It grows with very little water and produces berry-like drupes that sustain many birds. Seedballs replicate endozoochory, or seed dispersal by animal droppings.

The Citizens Committee for New York City and Neuberger Berman were vital to the program because it’s otherwise difficult to have adequate volunteer staffing on a weekday. The students benefited from the greater adult-to-minor ratio in safety, attention ,and encouragement.

 

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!”