Worrying Dawn of the Blue Era

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Erik Baard at Hallets Cove in 2015. Photo by NYCDEP for HarborLAB. 

by Erik Baard

The East River has so far rolled through this winter unadorned by a white speckling of sea ice (photos here are from 2015). On the Hudson River, bald eagles and seals have no ice floes to ride from the foot of the Palisades to the skyline. HarborLAB volunteer Thomas Dieter, director of CUNY Start at LaGuardia Community College, relays his observations from his home in Hunters Point South:

“We haven’t spotted ice yet this winter, and at this point I’m guessing we won’t. From our apartment at Hunters Point South Park, we can see that the inlets and coves just north of Newtown Creek haven’t iced over. In the past, the inlet where the ferry docks and the cove south of the fishing pier iced over at some point–but no such luck so far this year that we could see…The water in these areas doesn’t move as quickly as the river, and it’s far shallower, so I expected ice to collect there again this January and February.”

Our local disappointment echoes the vanishing polar sea ice aspect of the global climate change crisis, though some seek to take advantage of it for undersea fuel extraction, military maneuvers, and shipping. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card on sea ice, glaciers, snow cover, temperatures, indigenous cultures, and animal health is profoundly grim. A special concern is ocean acidification in the Arctic, which is undermining the regional ecosystem’s less diverse food chain.
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Scientific American/Climate Central report that winter sea ice at both poles has retreated to record lows. This is a sharp reversal from a record Antarctic peak last year, but a continuation of a trend of historic lows in the Arctic. Ice sheets ashore — notably in Greenland — are shrinking and thinning too. Winter heat waves are lashing the Arctic as warm air pushes north.
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Gantry Plaza State Park in 2015. Photo by Mark Christie, Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. 

Seedball Making at LIC Springs!

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. This group of seedballers was perhaps the most fierce of the day.    🙂

 

HarborLAB volunteers had a wonderful time at the LIC Springs street festival, teaching kids and adults how to make seedballs. This means of planting native species helps restore habitat and stabilize shorelines. We focused on seaside goldenrod, which sustains migrating monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects in the autumn and shelters the eggs of black skimmer shorebirds. Our seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers and students from Hunters Point Community Middle School in coordination with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy.

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. Some were super serious seedballers. 🙂

We’re very grateful to Long Island City Partnership, our local business improvement district, for organizing this annual event, which is much more than a block party. Our lead volunteers for the day were Dylan Geil, Patricia Menje Erickson, David Borgioli, Scott Wolpow, and Erik Baard, with Thomas Dieter helping us get shipped out from the site. Thanks to David Kistner of sponsor Green Apple Cleaners as well, who did the leg work of picking up and delivering the 50 lbs bag of red clay powder needed for our seedballs.

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We’re also grateful to our Seedball friends (http://http://seedball.us/) for teaching us this ancient propogation technique, which mimics the critical ecosystem process of endozoochaory (spreading seeds by animal droppings). We simply mix natural red clay powder, a pinch of sand, seeds, compost (cocoa husks), and a bit of water until the ingredients reach a cookie dough-like consistency. Then the “dough” is rolled into penny diameter balls. These are air dried for a few days and then bottled. Then HarborLAB distributes the seedballs along shorelines to stabilize them and provide habitat and sustenance for pollinators and birds. In cooperation with conservancies and governmental park agencies, we’ve seeded shorelines from Queens to Coney Island and Staten Island!

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Sweet Sweep of the Creek!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Green for Grass: Thank You!

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Three generous couples have fulfilled HarborLAB’s vital marsh grass seedling budget for 2016! We give great thanks to Katherine Bradford and Gregory Leopold, Maura Kehoe Collins and David Collins, and Dylan Geil and Thomas Dieter for sponsoring 1,000 spartina (or cordgrass) seedling plugs that HarborLAB will plant along its Newtown Creek shore and in Jamaica Bay. These seedlings were grown by the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island. This greenhouse and seedbank is part of the Natural Resources Group that cares for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s wild preserves.

You can help us plant even more native species by donating in HarborLAB’s name to the Natural Areas Conservancy.

Please make your donation online or by check here:

Natural Areas Conservancy
http://naturalareasnyc.org/donate/

Be sure to put “HarborLAB” in the comment section online or in the memo line of your check! 

We’ll also continue to grow spartina from seed through our Cordgrass in the Classroom program as supplies become available. In addition to the profound educational and emotional benefits to youth that paddling and planting days provide, there are great economic benefits to New York City. Learn more about the value of estuary marsh ecosystem services in this paper.

 

Paddle and Potluck!

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Photo by Erik Baard

HarborLAB closed out our paddling season much later than expected, as mild air and water temperatures continued. We’d say “thanks to unusually warm air and water,” but even such a pleasant and localized anomaly brings to mind the global warming trend — and related ocean acidification and sea level rise — that threatens all coastal and marine ecosystems.

But all that said and considered, we were blessed with a terrific day of urban exploration. The outing also afforded us the opportunity to gather enough seaside goldenrod seeds for at least two classroom seedball making days, and do some phragmites scouting. We plan to cut down stands of this invasive reed to make boats in traditional Ethiopian, Bolivian, Greek, Iraqi, and Egyptian styles!

This outing was also a fundraiser for HarborLAB, arranged as a birthday present by LIC resident Maura Kehoe Collins for her husband, David. Their son, Zach, brought helpful muscle and knowledge of detritivores to the party. We were delighted to be joined by the Collins’ special guest, Curtis Cravens, author of Copper on the Creek. No less of a grit-and-brine maven than Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman (author of Newtown Creek for the Vulgarly Curious) is a huge fan of the book. Cravens worked for our neighbor across the creek, Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, and now serves as Senior Advisor for Coastal Resiliency at New York City Office of the Mayor.

Our course took us to the mouth of the Newtown Creek to view the Manhattan skyline and then back Plank Road, where the Newtown Creek Alliance has placed an educational sign and planted native habitat with support from the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program and New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC). The site was once the Queens side of a wooden bridge. Cravens pointed out the landings of a former Penny Bridge, which led from Brooklyn to Calvary Cemetery. More about that in Forgotten New York. We all admired the engineering marvels behind the construction of the new Kosciuszko Bridge.

At Plank Road we were delighted to encounter a fine artist at work! Painter Scott Williams was patient with our disruption, warmly sharing the stories behind his work. He’s made the Newtown Creek his occasional subject since 1992! HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard quickly envisioned a showing of photos and paintings by Waxman, Williams, Bernie Ente, and others called “Picture a Creek.” We’ll be exploring this educational opportunity over the winter.

Another future program inspired by the outing is our planned June 5 “Bunker Symposium.” One of the hottest restaurants on the creek was our walk-up from Plank Road, Bun-Ker Vietnamese. It happens that “bunker” is a local name for Menhaden fish, which has been dubbed “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” for its ecological services and commercial value. The creek is crammed with bunker each late spring and summer.

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Photo by Erik Baard

Our guests scooted off (with our great thanks!) to their next celebration, while we had ours! Despite the chill, our Thanksgiving Potluck was warm with joy. Thomas Dieter brought a delicious quinoa dish while EJ Lee made an amazing assortment of stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and other delicacies. David Pugh and Becky Chipkin contributed yummy pickled beats and crisp apples while Erik Baard and Danushi Fernando baked apple pie pockets. Diana Szatkowski rounded out the feast with the indispensable and scrumptious butternut squash with cranberries. It was all vegan, not only to be inclusive but because the United Nations Environment Programme found that “a substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

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Photo by Erik Baard

We’d barely cleared the table when our cloudy day transformed into a golden dusk by the alchemy of atmospheric refraction. The wondrous beauty only deepened as purples and pinks ascended. The contrasting textures of cloud layers rode over each other like woodwinds and brass over strings, over percussion. What a glorious way to close out our 2015 paddling season!

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Photo by Erik Baard