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

 

Hallets Cove Still Needs Help

Film on the water at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard

Film on the water at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard

HarborLAB is sad to relay the news from CUNY LaGuardia Community College that bacteria counts remain elevated days after the New York City Housing Authority capped open drains that allow sewage to discharge from the Astoria Houses into Hallets Cove. As we noted earlier, there’s no “silver bullet” to raising water quality. Dogs and birds frequently defecate on the beach. HarborLAB photographed paw prints and birds yesterday afternoon. As the NYC Department of Environmental Protection noted, wild birds can’t be effectively managed.

Most parts of the estuary suffer fecal bacteria when rain causes combined sewer channels to overflow. Hallets Cove is blighted even in dry weather. Here’s this month’s observed rainfall.

We as a community must sample the water and sand further (HarborLAB will do this in the colder months), work with NYCDEP and CUNY LaGuardia Community College for regular testing, and institute both basic and innovative mitigation measures. HarborLAB need volunteer samplers to keep a neighborhood watch on Hallets Cove water quality. Please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line, “Hallets Cove.”

Here are questions HarborLAB posed to scientists with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and CUNY in an email conversation that included Rob Buchanan of the NYC Water Trail Association, which coordinates water sampling throughout the harbor:

1) Could such a prolonged exposure (referring to the NYCHA discharge) translate to a slower decline?
2) Could sand culturing of the bacteria cause it to persist?
3) How might activated effective microorganisms be used to mitigate this situation? Does the DEP have a research program or field implementation in place? Partners from the Permaculture movement are interested in contributing to such an effort.
4) How might we reduce dog defecation on the beach?

As measured by Dr. Sarah Durand’s lab at LaGuardia Community College, indicator bacteria counts were again in the “red zone” with183-197 CFU (colony forming units) per 100 ml of water. Observing over 104 enterococci per 100 ml in salt water indicates that an area is unacceptable for swimming, according the the US Environmental Protection Agency. From the EPA website:

What levels of indicator bacteria are considered acceptable?

Based on studies conducted in the 1980s, EPA has determined that a geometric mean (a measure of an overall average) in samples from recreational waters of less than 126 E. coli per 100 milliliters (ml) of fresh water or 35 enterococci per 100 ml of salt water is acceptable for protection of swimming. The geometric mean should be calculated from more than five samples within the previous 30 days. If a single sample exceeds 235 E. coli per 100 ml in freshwater and 104 enterococci per 100 ml in salt water, EPA recommends that the beach be closed, or posted, for swimming until levels are lower. (Some states, such as New Hampshire and Vermont, recommend that advisories be posted at more protective levels of indicator bacteria.) Because elevated fecal indicator bacteria are often associated with storm water runoff, some agencies post beaches preemptively if rainfall exceeds a set amount, based on site-specific studies.

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Contaminated samples fluoresce under UV light due to a chemical reaction between bacterial excretions and a laboratory agent. Photo by Dr. Sarah Durand, PhD, CUNY LaGuardia Community College.

There are no universal health standards for water quality restrictions on such high-water contact activities as introductory sit-on-top kayaking. Even without falling in, children and adults engage in splashing and have frequent hand-to-mouth and hand-to-eye transference of water. Children and adults do fall in (this is normal, but shouldn’t be risked in fouled water) , and after hours children do wade, swim, make sandcastles at Hallets Cove. It’s reasonable to believe that public boating might encourage children and families to believe the water is acceptable.

Sand is more of a concern than was believed in previous generations. Some useful links:

“Microbial Load from Animal Species at a Recreational Beach”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2771205/

“Fecal Bacteria May Be Hiding in Beach Sand”

http://www.care2.com/causes/fecal-bacteria-may-be-hiding-in-beach-sand.html

“Bacteria Swarm Keeps Oceanfront Revelers Out of Water”

http://hamptonroads.com/2014/08/oceanfront-swimming-advisory-completely-lifted

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NYCDEP Discovers a Major Source of Hallets Cove Bacteria!

HarborLAB brought Hunters Point Community Middle School teachers to meet with Socrates Sculpture Park, which administers Hallets Cove under an agreement with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. HarborLAB also delivered oysters to the neighborhood for the Billion Oyster Project.

HarborLAB brought Hunters Point Community Middle School teachers by kayak to meet with Socrates Sculpture Park, which administers Hallets Cove under an agreement with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. HarborLAB also delivered oysters to the neighborhood for the Billion Oyster Project.

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection has discovered that one of the NYC Housing Authority buildings on Hallets Point has been discharging untreated sewage into Hallets Cove. About 140 people live in each of the 22 buildings of the Astoria Houses.

The discharge was revealed when the DEP put blue dye into the system and observed the dye entering the cove, a method for which HarborLAB has long lobbied publicly and in private meetings with the NYCDEP. We’ve been the leader among boating groups in lobbying for water quality improvement at Hallets Cove and are very grateful for the NYCDEP’s extra efforts, despite many other obligations, which produced this great new progress. We also thank NYCHA managers for requesting additional testing of its systems, which directly led to this new knowledge.

Further testing, as promised by the NYCDEP, must be done. This first clear identification of a contamination source, however, is a great start. HarborLAB looks forward to providing educational and fun programming at Hallets Cove if water quality there vastly improves.

HarborLAB is also grateful to Howard Hemmings through the NYCHA Green and Gardening program, who took our concerns seriously and relayed them through official channels, and to Astoria Houses Residents Association President Claudia Coger, who first informed us of sewage backups and related health concerns there. We also thank Vanessa Jones-Hall,  also an official with the residents association, for being a steady conduit of communication. HarborLAB volunteer and western Queens environmental leader Lynne Serpe introduced HarborLAB to these community partners. We’re also grateful to former NYCDEP Associate Commissioner for Public Affairs Matthew Mahoney, now with United Water, who first suggested dye testing.

Preliminary findings by NYCDEP investigators, at Mr. Mahoney’s request in 2012, were that dog and bird feces might be the culprit (much was seen), as it often is throughout the country. Water tests further from shore, in greater depths, were less worrying. We must still test for non-human sources of contamination.

In early September, HarborLAB stepped up its efforts to address the Hallets Cove issue by pushing for a meeting with the NYCDEP. We wanted to both put Hallets Cove on the front burner and to rebuild some lost public confidence. Responding to information from HarborLAB, NYCDEP also invited the NYC Water Trail Association, which coordinates regional water sampling by volunteers. At the meeting the NYCDEP agreed to do more testing in partnership with HarborLAB (sampling in the off-season of late autumn through early spring), whenever possible including the CUNY students we serve. Interestingly, the NYCDEP agreed to also sample sand, to determine the species of bacteria, and therefore hosts, an even more exciting educational opportunity. Sand has only recently been more adequately recognized as a growth medium for bacteria and a transport mechanism. Results and program details will be released in the spring.

Today, however, a NYCDEP official released this exciting information to HarborLAB:

Erik – On September 22, DEP personnel responded to a request from management to inspect the sanitary drains in the Astoria Houses. They discovered uncapped drains that were allowing sanitary flow from one of the buildings to enter the storm sewer and discharge into the cove. This was confirmed by means of a dye test. They issued a Commissioner’s Order for the condition to be corrected (within 30 days), and a follow-up inspection will be made to confirm that the work has been done or the Houses will be issued a Notice of Violation to be adjudicated before the Environmental Control Board.

Children playing with the sand at Hallets Cove. Public boating may have encouraged a false sense of safety at the cove, where bacteria counts are high. Photo by HarborLAB volunteer Audrey Dimola.

Children playing with the sand at Hallets Cove. Public boating may have encouraged a false sense of safety at the cove, where bacteria counts are high. Photo by HarborLAB volunteer Audrey Dimola.

HarborLAB has for its existence opted to not provide children’s programming at Hallets Cove because intestinal bacteria counts in its near-shore waters were alarmingly high, even in dry weather. Normally such elevations are caused by combined sewer overflows when it’s raining. Runoffs from streets force engineers to open sewer gates, rather than have fouled water back up into neighborhoods, because rain and toilets go into the same pipes and treatment plants.

HarborLAB initiated weekly water sampling at Hallets Cove as part of the NYC Water Trail Association’s “Citizen Science” program, coordinated by Rob Buchanan. Testing was done at The River Project and LaGuardia Community College, and Riverkeeper provided great public outreach. Bacteria counts were so high and sustained that HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard called for children’s programs to be suspended at Hallets Cove until the problem was identified and addressed. That we saw high bacteria counts in dry weather told us that even occasional favorable results from weekly sampling on Thursdays were meaningless as a guarantor of public safety on weekends because without knowing the source (not rain) we couldn’t know when contamination would spike again. Erik also founded the LIC Community Boathouse, which continued with children’s programming at Hallets Cove. Some doubted the reliability of the sampling and redundantly sampled Hallets Cove (we later withdrew from that activity rather than be wasteful or political), but received similar results.

For years, HarborLAB has lobbied for green infrastructure, dye testing, and other innovative measures at Hallets Cove, which should be a safe destination for educational recreation in a habitat restoration. We still believe that Hallets Cove should have the agreed upon extra testing and should be a showcase for green design and clean-tech innovation.

Waterfowl at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard.

Waterfowl at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard.