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.

 

 

 

2015 Gantry Plaza State Park Water Quality

sampling2

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.

2015ent

Fig. 1 2015 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results

ent2014

Fig. 2 2014 CWQT Season Enterococcus test results

entrain

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

 

nitratetest

Fig. 4 Nitrates and Phosphates in-situ testing kit

 

I’ll Take Menhaden!

Okay, maybe Rosemary Clooney never sang “I’ll Take Menhaden,” but this fish is lately turning our city into islands of joy.

Reports are coming in from the Newtown Creek, Hudson River, and upper East River that menhaden, locally known as pogy and most often bunker fish, are appearing in huge numbers. The video above was posted by Riverkeeper, the most active nongovernmental estuary environmental litigator in our estuary. That’s great news for whales and other sea mammals, as well as bluefish, striped bass, herons, egrets, and other larger fish predators. You’ll see huge swaths of water dance and glint when bunkers breach to escape predators below. Before they’re ever visible, they ride currents into our estuary as eggs and hatch here, to grow from larvae into adult fish.

Bunkers do more than directly sustain these other cherished species as food. For their ability to clean water, these silvery schoolers can be seen as mobile oysters. As “Four Fish” author Paul Greenberg notes, “An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute.” Much like huge baleen whales, little bunkers are filter feeders. When their numbers plummet, brown algal tides overtake bays, creating dead zones.

Before European colonization, Native Americans ate these fish and used them as fertilizer because their oiliness is both delectable (fishers say you’ll never have to butter a bunker) and a powerful nutrient. Indeed, the words menhaden and pogy derive from Algonquin terms referencing the fertilizing practice.

Sadly, bunker fish haven’t had a good century. they died in masses in the 1980s when bluefish herded them into hypoxic shallows in the the Long Island Sound. They’ve been overfished for 32 of the past 54 years, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Commercial operators spot schools by airplane, deploy refrigerated ships to the area, and catch bunkers with nets and, because they school so densely, vacuums. A single fish oil and fish meal company, Omega Protein, is responsible for 90% of the nation’s catch. It’s not active in the NYC region.

Interestingly, what could spare the bunker is what it eats: algae. Companies are starting to farm algae in vats to produce omega-3 fatty acids and other goods for nutritional supplements and livestock feeds. The controlled setting also prevents mercury contamination and other potential pollutants from entering human food systems.

May 9: Riverkeeper Sweep Season Opener!

The HarborLAB GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek.

The HarborLAB GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek.

Thinking ahead to spring yet? Well, here’s a glimpse of our May 9 season opener!

We’ll hit the water for the first time next season as part of the great Riverkeeper Sweep!

Here’s our Facebook event link:  https://www.facebook.com/events/1637103389849867/

Community groups throughout the estuary will clean our waterways.  Plastic debris is carried into the Newtown Creek from streets by combined sewer overflows (http://www.riverkeeper.org/campaigns/stop-polluters/sewage-contamination/cso/) and wind.

We’ll gather at 9AM, paddle the length of the creek (especially the Queens side) by canoe, and then return by 4PM. High water will be shortly after 2PM. We’ll share a celebratory meal afterwards! Perhaps at The Creek and The Cave (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Creek-and-The-Cave/113823948652531)? Where else? 🙂

If you can’t participate in HarborLAB’s sweep, sign up with a partnering organization near you:

http://www.riverkeeper.org/news-events/events/rvk-events/riverkeeper-sweep-2015/

Willow Lake Canoeing!

Interspecies fun on Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

Starting in June we’ll offer paddling the first Sunday of each month. We offer both Partner Paddles to augment the missions of schools and community organizations, and Community Paddles for the general public to enjoy during open program hours.

Location:

https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zp5sKABHidJA.kkJL-nerYf0I

We’re deeply grateful to the Flushing Meadows-Corona Park Conservancy for its advocacy for this premier green space, and for aiding HarborLAB with permits and outreach. The organization’s leadership is reflected in the naming of Pat Dolan Trail for its first president.

Our goal is to through demonstrations seed a local eco-educational, non-competitive paddling, and nature stewardship group at Willow Lake and Flushing World’s Fair Marina’s kayak launch. For those looking to paddle race or row, try these two great nearby groups: New York Dragon Boat Race Club or Row New York!

The Willow Lake habitat restoration in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was closed to the public for a long stretch while the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation restored and replenished natural areas. We’re excited by the improvements and hope to contribute to further progress through water and sediment testing, new plantings of native species, and mitigation and remediation of highway runoff waters. Paddling provides unique views of the herons, egrets, turtles, and other beauties of Willow Lake. At a later date we’ll write about the history of Willow Lake and its larger twin, Meadow Lake, and proposals for the future of the greater Flushing Creek watershed.

Through the years other groups, including Boy Scouts, John Bowne High School, Yale University, LTV Squad, New York World, and CUNY Macaulay Honors College have worked for the betterment of the park’s Forever Wild areas and to document its life and needs. We give thanks also to the NYC Urban Park Rangers, who provided the first public canoeing in Willow Lake and will certainly continue to be a leading presence! We hope that HarborLAB can partner with these organizations, bringing the added joy and access of a canoe fleet! HarborLAB also has sit-on-top kayaks, but canoes are a safer (drier) bet until we have water quality data.

 

PADDLING WILLOW LAKE

 

So what’s it like to paddle Willow Lake with HarborLAB? It’s an amazing New York City experience!

 

What are those strange people up to under the traffic? Photo by Erik Baard

What are those strange people up to under the Van Wyck Expressway traffic? Canoeing, of course!

 

We're under the Van Wyck Expressway, just north of Jewel Avenue, across from the park's Ballfield #13.

We’re under the Van Wyck Expressway (I-678), just north of Jewel Avenue, across from the park’s Ballfield #13.

 

HarborLAB's "secret launch" to Willow Lake. You start in the shade of a  Robert Moses cave that thrums and thunders with Smart Cars and 18-wheelers above. Your canoe awaits in a small canal that links Willow Lake to Meadow Lake.

HarborLAB’s “secret launch” to Willow Lake. You start in the shade of a Robert Moses cave that thrums and thunders with Smart Cars and 18-wheelers above. Your canoe awaits in a small canal that links Willow Lake to Meadow Lake.

 

The little creek thrown wide at Willow Lake.

Is it the Bayou? Nope. Our little canal gives way to a creek, which is thrown wide open at Willow Lake.

 

Paddling to Oz? The  Observatory Towers and Unisphere of the 1964 World's Fair glimmer in the background.

Paddling to Oz? The Observatory Towers, New York Pavillion, and Unisphere of the 1964 World’s Fair glimmer in the background.

The happy return.

The happy return.

 

Some of the day's crew.

Some of the day’s crew. Our friendly volunteers provide safety tips, environmental literature, activities, community notices, and more!