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

 

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!”

Trip Report: Hour Children on Jamaica Bay

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After our paddling and nature walking, a final group shot. The kids felt triumphant that they’d learned so much and kayaked! Photo by Erik Baard.

On  August 22, HarborLAB took 15 kids from Hour Children, with their counselors, on an outing to the Jamaica Bay portion of the Gateway Wildlife Recreation Area. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic resource for conservation education, and the site provides a model for wetlands restoration. The children saw osprey, all manner of shells, a burrowing wasp, rosehips in flower and fruit, goldenrod, tent caterpillars, saltwater marshes, and other sights that they’d never witnessed. HarborLAB volunteers loved the kids’ humor, mutual support, and unflagging curiosity.

We started at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge visitor and education center, with an orientation provided by National Park Rangers and a lengthy and fun nature walk. The kids were given clipboards and activity sheets, which they completed with seriousness and enthusiasm. These exercises enriched the later paddling, as the kids watched for the animals and plants they’d learned about earlier (a great chance to also discuss the need for nutrients (vitamin C in rosehips, for example) found in nature — real foods). They more deeply understood they were paddling in a natural system, not an oversized swimming pool. Some requested that we return when the diamondback terrapin turtles are laying eggs and when horseshoe crabs come to shore in early summer.

It was a bit windy, so instead of using all eight boats we trailered to the site, we used only two for the kids, plus on guide boat. The kids and staff shared boats staffed by HarborLAB volunteers in the stern. We stayed along the shorelines in an area that enjoyed wind and current shelter, thanks to the old seaplane ramp at Floyd Bennett Field, and remained in water shallow enough to stand (you can see bottom in photos and from the boats). The kids, however, still found it to be an amazing adventure.

HarborLAB now has a trailer, so we’re able to bring kids on field trips with partners who arrange for their transportation. HarborLAB, in consultation with experts in government and academia and in response to tests, has determined that water in western Queens isn’t suitable for children’s programs — Hallets Cove has a steadily high population of sewage bacteria according to tests by The River Project (part of a NYC Water Trail program), indicating an infrastructure problem; Anable Basin is the site of lingering industrial pollution from its former use as a barge slip for an oil refinery, paint factory, and other notorious toxic spillers that forced huge soil remediation efforts; Steinway Creek is similarly blighted by pollution; and the Newtown Creek is an EPA Superfund site with a pollution problem especially east of the Pulaski Bridge. We prefer Pelham Bay Park, which is swimmable at Orchard Beach, and Jamaica Bay, and parts of the Hudson River, Long Island and New Jersey.

Hour Children helps children who were born in prison or whose mothers are incarcerated or rebuilding their lives after incarceration and the errors that brought them into the prison system.

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Ranger Will teaches the kids about osprey nests and hunting methods. Photo by Erik Baard.

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An Hour Children staff person discovers the cutest grasslands critter. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Ranger Will lines the kids of for osprey nest viewings. We also saw them in flight as we walked the nature path. Photo by Erik Baard.

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The kids were given clipboards and assignments for observation, which they undertook with enthusiasm and keen insights. Here they are scanning the canopy. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Goldenrod, a staple of migrating monarch butterflies and also for moths. Photo by Erik Baard.

Goldenrod and rosehips in fruit and bloom.  and rosehip in fruit and bloom. We discussed how all the nutrients we need, like vitamin C, come from nature. It was a great chance to remind kids about the important of real foods. Photo by Erik Baard.

Goldenrod and rosehips in fruit and bloom. and rosehip in fruit and bloom. We discussed how all the nutrients we need, like vitamin C, come from nature. It was a great chance to remind kids about the important of real foods. Photo by Erik Baard.

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The synchronistically vibrating tent caterpillars were a hit with the kids. Maybe a nice preview of Halloween too? Photo by Erik Baard.

Burrowing wasp. The kids were fascinated. Photo by Erik Baard.

Burrowing wasp. The kids were fascinated. Photo by Erik Baard.

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At the far end of our nature walk. One girl took the binoculars and pointed back to the education and visitor center of the Wildlife Refuge and said, “I”m lookiing at my sandwich!” Hint taken. 🙂 Photo by Erik Baard.

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HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson paddles as perimeter keeper and safety escort while Erik Baard and EJ Lee bring the kids paddling in shallow water. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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HarborLAB Operations Manager EJ Lee with her seafaring friends. Photo by HarborLAB Board Member Lisa Belfast, After School and Summer Camp Program Manager for Hour Children.

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EJ Lee and Hour Children kids. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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HarborLAB Founder, Executive Director Erik Baard with Hour Children kids. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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Wesley Miller launches and lands the kayaks. Photo by Lisa Belfast.

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Frolicking in the sand. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Connecting with the water and sand. Photo by Erik Baard.