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 Helps Tree Giveaways!

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Forest Hills tree giveaway. Photo by Erik Baard. Tulip tree saplings in the foreground.

Seven HarborLAB volunteers helped make the Forest Hills Tree GIveaway organized by Michael Perlman at the Forest Hills Jewish Center and MacDonald Park on October 13 a great success. Help get more trees planted in western Queens with the Queens Public Library! Both events were coordinated with campaign leaders New York Restoration Project and MillionTreesNYC.

If you’d like to join our team in supporting the western Queens tree giveaway, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Broadway LIbrary Trees.” It also helps to join through our Facebook event. Please indicate if you’d like to work the entire event, or the first shift (noon-2PM) or the second shift (2PM-4PM). The program runs from 1PM-3PM.

This is a MillionTreesNYC event coordinated by New York Restoration Project and its local partner, Queens Library at BroadwayGreening Queens Library. HarborLAB volunteers will follow their directions. Our help was requested by Greening Queens Library.

Here’s the link to register for your tree, or to register a tree for the HarborLAB launch site:  http://treegiveaways.com/qnlib. Here’s a general page for NYRP-coordinated tree giveaways in all five boroughs.

Trees and other plants reduce combined sewage overflows, which raise pathogen levels in local waterways. Let’s do all we can as advocates and greeners to make Hallets Cove and other NYC inlets safer, especially for kids. The ability of these trees to absorb CO2 also reduces ocean acidification, perhaps the world’s greatest looming threat to food supplies and ecosystems.

HarborLAB enjoyed great success helping the Forest Hills tree giveaway. Let’s do it again! This is also a great opportunity for HarborLAB to earn salt-tolerant fruiting trees for our launch! We have shadbush (aka service berry) trees for our launch now, and will add persimmon. Maybe some tulip trees, which were the trunks of choice for the first canoes of this harbor?

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The Forest Hills tree giveaway’s cutest volunteers (Harpo the pooch puts it over the top). Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB’s Water Sampling Recommences

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Vial on beam at Newtown Creek launch sampling site. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

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Vial on beam at Newtown Creek launch sampling site. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

Before HarborLAB had a single boat, we initiated weekly “citizen scientist” water sampling in Queens and Randalls Island through the NYC Water Trail Association. The River Project was the first testing center for this program, which is funded in part by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation.  We soon invited the environmental science program at CUNY LaGuardia Community College to participate in the program (HarborLAB’s board includes faculty from the college). This year The River Project is our testing site again, so we must deliver samples in cooler packs to Pier 40 in lower Manhattan (Hudson River at West Houston Street). That’s a great opportunity for our newer volunteers to meet a model estuary education nonprofit, but also a logistical stretch.

Now that HarborLAB has found its sea legs this summer — launched our fleet and held programs across the harbor — we’re recommencing our citizen scientist participation. On August 1, Emmanuel “Manny” Steier biked to our Newtown Creek launch and sampled water about six inches deep. If you’d like to participate, please click onto our Facebook event page here.

This program tests for intestinal bacteria, but sewage is only one risk factor in western Queens. HarborLAB opposes sit-on-top paddling for children in western Queens sites like the Newtown Creek, Anable Basin, and Hallets Cove. This is because bacteria levels are frequently high in these locations — especially Hallets Cove — and also because we struggle with the consequences of industrial pollution from generations past. The Newtown Creek is an Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund Site because of sediment contamination and because Standard Oil caused our nation’s largest urban petroleum spill. Anable Basin, a former Standard Oil barge slip, has been described by some as a potential “mini-Newtown Creek” because the adjacent land was so fouled by underground refineries that the Queens West development required massive soil remediation. Indeed, as the Queens Chronicle notes, “steel sheeting had been installed to keep outside pollution from seeping into the site.” That is, the residential site needed to be protected from pollution from Anable Basin.

So while we are huge fans of testing for bacteria, western Queens requires more comprehensive testing as soon as funding allows. Moreover, we must all show restraint despite kids’ welcome eagerness to paddle — lobby hard for cleanups now, and then provide programs when conditions are better. Recreational programs should be truly controlled by the community and subject to the informed judgment of voting parents. No sign-on-the-fly liability waiver can reasonably empower parents to place children in wet-riding sit-on-top kayaks into such highly polluted waters.

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Sample drop box at The River Project. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

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2012 testing at LaGuardia Community College. Photo by Erik Baard.

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2012 testing at LaGuardia Community College. Photo by Erik Baard.