Dear Friends, When the first humans arrived in what is today New York City, there was no East River and mastodons still squelched about in the swamps of Hunters Point. We’ve prospered through change, challenge, and yes, a bit of … Continue reading
Water Wonk Wednesdays
A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.
by Erik Baard
Today is the United Nations designated International Women’s Day. Let’s take this opportunity to recognize that where governments have failed their citizens, obtaining and protecting water is women’s work.
The Women for Science section of the Inter-American Network of Academies of Science maintains an excellent Gender and Water page, providing links to relevant women’s professional networks, data, issues and case studies, training manuals, and other practical resources. Another great resource for women seeking to enter water science and engineering is the Association of Women in Water, Energy, and the Environment.
Men still dominate the engineering agencies and companies that make clean and convenient water a fact of daily life in wealthier nations, but it’s women who fetch and defend water for billions of others, especially in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. This work demands immense strength and daily determination for the many who must trek long distances in the search for water free or pathogens and chemical contaminants, and resourcefulness for those who must clean their water to safeguard their children from illness.
Some international agencies and nonprofits are promoting innovative ideas like micro-finance “water credits” through female community leaders and individual mothers.
In many regions the right to water for life is threatened by the taking of water for profit, for resale or use in development. industrial processes, mining, energy extraction, and agribusiness. This is especially true when those struggling for drinking and sanitation water are poor or from marginalized indigenous communities. There women must demonstrate great physical courage to confront those powerful interests.
The struggle isn’t only a rural one. The world is rapidly urbanizing, straining municipal water systems and creating sprawling fringe shantytowns where no waterworks exist. Even in established cities in wealthier nations neglect and disastrous decisions have dangerously fouled water for some, especially in lower-income communities of color. The women of Flint, Michigan joined the Women’s March in Washington to demand clean water. The DeLoitte Review recently took on the topic in an academic article called, “Thirsty for Change: The untapped potential of women in urban water management.”
Water justice will be achieved only when women’s voices are heard inside board rooms and planning meetings. Women in water sciences are certainly making gains, and in industry and at the UN there’s a growing awareness that achievers should be honored. HarborLAB encourages young women to enter these disciplines and to apply for scholarships that might help them realize their goals, this Women’s Day and all days.
Water Wonk Wednesdays
A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.
by Erik Baard
I was recently wandering through the slush of Tompkins Square Park for a vegan cherry pie when I chanced upon a fountain west of the dog run. It was topped by post and lintels, four austere friezes each bearing what I immediately recognized as Victorian Era feminine virtues: Hope. Faith. Charity. Temperance.
Temperance? That tipped me off. This fountain was a bit of gentle 19th century civic persuasion to not surrender to the animal spirits loosed by alcohol. Let cool, clean waters heal you.
This Temperance Fountain stands at the heart of what was once the “Little Germany” neighborhood. Stereotypes about the “idleness, imposture, [and] crime” of 19th century Irish and German immigrants panicked the upper crust of New York City society, who associated the immigrants’ supposed failings with drunkenness. A repugnant Nativism and religious bigotry arose, often linked to suspicions that Catholics were loyal to the Papacy and not America. Legislative measures to encourage teetotalism infamously culminated in Prohibition’s gang wars. A few sympathetic (albeit perhaps equally prejudiced) Progressive clerics and women of means strove to uplift the new, alien masses by providing an alternative to booze: reliable drinking water.
Generations of New Yorkers since Dutch colonization of Manahatta had fouled the potable springs and ponds at their feet with garbage and sewage, and so instead drank cider, beer, and hard liquor mixed with water. Immigrants participated in this pollution, and the loss of fresh, local water was a living memory for established New Yorkers in the mid-19th century.
Temperance societies — often affiliated with enlightened causes like Women’s Suffrage — grew through the latter part of that century. The activist women and philanthropists like Henry D. Cogswell (dentist to the California Gold Rush) funded Temperance Fountains, often topped with statues depicting Charity. Today few remain, though another is in nearby Union Square Park. Another, in Washington, DC, bears the same inscription of virtues as the one in Tompkins Square Park. According to the Washington Post, a California Senator once derided the fountain as that city’s “ugliest statue.”
But in a sense, you drink from a Temperance Faucet at home every day. The temperance movement, alongside disastrous fires and a cholera epidemic, was instrumental in the creation of NYC’s world renowned waterworks. The completion of the Croton Reservoir Aqueduct in 1842 made the our city’s first such fountains possible, and continued lobbying by temperance groups helped NYC stretch its water projects into upstate mountains.Maybe the teetotalers had a point, if not a pint: the Catskill town of Neversink, where HarborLAB’s reservoir paddling program is located, just ended Prohibition in 2015.
In the African American experience, racism perverted even water — the mother of life — into an instrument of oppression. Through the Middle Passage, the Atlantic Ocean connected commerce but separated families and separated people from their right to life and liberty. Fire hoses meant to protect life and property were instead turned on peaceful civil rights protesters. Water fountains marked “white” and “colored” turned a necessity into a daily reminder to African Americans that they were officially regarded as lesser.
Today we too often witness official neglect of water systems in communities with higher percentages of residents of color, most notably in lead-contaminated Flint, Michigan, but well beyond. Solid waste transfer stations and sewer plants cluster more densely on waterfronts in African American and Latino neighborhoods, imposing environmental injustices. Trucks aggravate asthma in the same communities because barging is squeezed out by municipal economic policies. Combined sewer overflows and leaks have fouled areas of respite like Hallets Cove, at the foot of the NYC Housing Authority projects in Astoria.
HarborLAB works to make access and education on our estuary and watershed inclusive and inspiring. We hope that participants come to even more deeply recognize our common humanity through dependence on and celebration of water.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service please take a moment to tell us how HarborLAB might bring even more free educational paddle tours, classroom activities, and ecological restoration to underserved communities. Maybe yours? Just drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your requests and ideas!
Intrigued by these images? Then head over to our Facebook Fan Page (https://www.facebook.com/HarborLAB) to enjoy the challenge of our Saturday Science Stumper! Each week we present an image that relates to our estuary and watershed ecosystems, plus a hint to help you identify it. The following week, we provide the caption.
HarborLAB is an environmental service learning organization, not a club, so we’ll shamelessly geek out on the wonders of science around us. Join the fun!
Hey teachers, students, and homeschoolers, March 1 is the deadline for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s 2014 Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest! Students (second through twelfth grade) can enter individual and group creations on the following themes:
- Water—A Precious Resource: To highlight the importance of the quality of our tap and harbor water.
- The New York City Water Supply System: To understand the history of the NYC drinking water system.
- The New York City Wastewater Treatment System: To examine how the City treats nearly 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater every day.
- Water Stewardship: What Can I do to Help Conserve Water? To bring attention to the value of water and ways to conserve it, and the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan as a cost-effective way to manage stormwater and ensure a clean NYC harbor.
The contest link again is: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/artpoetry.shtml
Please contact email@example.com with questions and inquiries. Tell them HarborLAB sent you! 🙂
Pete Seeger, who gave so much to peace, rests in peace. Our mourning is exceeded only by our love and gratitude.
Our hearts are with the Seeger family and friends at the Clearwater organization who carry forward his work. We will lovingly serve the Clearwater Festival again this year, on the Hudson River he did so much to clean, with a public paddling program and education table.
If Dr. Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would be 84. That’s ten years younger than Pete Seeger, who still champions our waterways. It’s easy to imagine a 2014 with Dr. King walking among us, his eloquence, passion, and organizational genius bending “the arc of history” toward environmental justice.
We HarborLAB volunteers are honored to partner with WE ACT and the Bronx River Alliance, which carry this work forward in Harlem and the South Bronx. We ask you today to email us (firstname.lastname@example.org) with additional ideas for water access and cleanups in lower-income areas, and other means of serving the community in 2014. We offer access and programs on both New York Harbor and the Neversink Reservoir. Please make this environmental justice brainstorming part of your “day of service.”
“Environmental justice is based on the principle that all members of a society have the right to clean air, water, and soil, as well as a right to live in communities where they can raise their families and send their kids out to play in healthy and nurturing natural environments. Further, it embraces the notion that no one possesses the right to degrade and destroy the environment, whether the government at all levels, private industry, or individual citizens. Finally, environmental justice includes a guarantee of equal access to relief and the possibility of meaningful community participation in the decisions of government and industry.”
A fuller declaration of the principles of environmental justice is linked here.
This is a fitting extension of Dr. King’s legacy and vital to those for whom he labored and died. It might also be the engine of environmental progress. Why might campaigns for environmental justice drive the future environmental movement as a whole? They fix gimlet eyes on greenwashing. They press on even when weary because the moral urge is visceral — humans, like other animals, are wired to hunger for justice.
We have pushed the resilience of our planet’s ecosystem so far that habitat and human health are now felled by the same blows. The American ideal is that justice should be blind, but we know that for too long, and for too many aspects of life, color matters. The faces in NYC communities plagued by asthma, obesity, polluted water, and toxic soils are far more often brown than white. Environmental justice for all, however, will be blue and green. Let’s grow it and share it.
For more thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s gifts to the environmentalism, we suggest these essays:
LIveScience: “The Environmental Movement’s Debt to MLK”
Grist: “Beautiful Struggle“
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.
Help the NYC Department of Environmental Protection improve the watershed and estuary by filling out its Strategic Plan Update Survey.
It’s been two years since the NYC DEP released its Strategy 2011-2014 plan and list of 100 initiatives. The DEP has claimed success on many of these fronts in subsequent progress reports. With your input, the DEP will issue a revised strategic plan. This is your chance to help the DEP prioritize its goals, both for the near term and longer-range strategic shifts.
Those who built our water system thought BIG and they worked for generations unborn. It’s time for us to do the same. HarborLAB will soon be the first group to offer educational boating for the public in our highland reservoirs and estuary reaches. We hope you take the time to let the DEP know what matters to you from this encompassing perspective.