Month: December 2019

LRWP’s Most popular posts of 2019

Many thanks to all our blog contributors in 2019!

We learned so much from authors like Joe Mish and Joe Sapia who share observations of the natural world in our on-going “Voices of the Watershed” series. We are grateful for regular information-sharing from Streamkeepers and civic science volunteers, including writers Margo Persin and Howard Swerdloff. Folks like Rutgers doctoral candidate Kate Douthat teach us about plants and hydrology and stormwater flows through focused blog series. And student interns TaeHo Lee and April Callahan did a great job developing interviews with LRWP Board Members and others active in the watershed.

The following are the most read / viewed web pages on the LRWP website in 2019:

#5 The water world around us we do not see, by Kate Douthat

#4 Elmwood Cemetery BioBlitz, by Howard Swerdloff

#3 LRWP’s Top 10 Environmental Issues, 2019 Edition, by Heather Fenyk

#2 South River’s “Brick Beach”, by Heather Fenyk

#1 Mile Run Clean-up, the Video, by Jessica Dotson

January Snow, An Open Book Exam

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A red fox walks along the South Branch following rabbit tracks and unaware it is being observed from the water below. Following an animal’s tracks in the snow to see where it goes and what it does, is like having an open book exam with answers to the questions in the back of the book.

The snowflakes reflected in the street light outside my bedroom window to give hope to a day off from school and a predawn visit to the land where the wild rabbits roamed. Rabbits were at the far end of the spectrum of big game animals but shared the stage with cape buffalo, lions, leopards, rhino and elephants. Locally, rabbits were the best we could do and were attributed full big game status typically accorded to the celebrated, ‘dangerous five’ that roamed the continent of darkest Africa.

Rabbit tracks are easy to recognize with the two widespread hind feet and two centered front paws. The obvious first question to be answered when first seeing rabbit tracks is always, ‘which way are they headed’. Seeing a bunny and backtracking it will reveal the important directional information.

For a budding naturalist, fresh fallen snow is akin to taking an open book exam and a guaranteed A+. Animal tracks were everywhere and in the best tradition of Sherlock Holmes, invited investigation, imagination and a theory of resolution. The maze of rabbit tracks evident in the predawn light were nearly impossible to untangle. It appeared as if hundreds of bunnies randomly danced to some mysterious tune leaving footprints reminiscent of an Arthur Murray, ‘learn to dance’ floor mat with outlined footprints. The foxtrot and bunny hop surely had to be popular among the cottontail youth.

If you find tracks in the early morning snow, realize they were made hours earlier and appear to trace endless miles of travel in a rather confined area. “What was this bunny thinking?” would be a valid question.

Food is a primary concern and feeding areas will have the most tracks as local bunnies recognize where the supermarkets grow. Of course an active social life interferes with nibbling an oak twig or a withered raspberry leaf and that is reflected in the snow lining the aisles of the cold food section.

The obvious conclusion to unraveling the confusing tracks was to wake up earlier in hopes of finding a single track or perhaps actually seeing a bunny. Problem was the snow had already been tracked up in an undecipherable mess that required tracking abilities far beyond boyhood skills. The only hope for another chance was a new snow fall.

Flipping the tv dial from the Our Gang Comedies to catch the next day’s weather forecast seemed sacrilegious or perhaps antagonistic to my little sister, but anticipation of new snow was insatiable. Loss of faith in the weatherman led to observing the nighttime sky for signs of impending snow. If the temperature hovered at or below 32 degrees and there was a ring around the moon, hopes were high that snow was on its way and the next trip to Bunnyville would be a resounding success.

What would success look like if it were to happen?

Though rabbits were substituted for leopards, the hope was to unlock the mystery of a wild animal’s movement to reveal its most intimate secrets and eventually accumulate skills appropriate for tracking lions and African elephants.  None of this could ever happen unless fresh snow covered the cold ground and school was cancelled.

The most fun is to find the tracks of a startled rabbit and pace off the distance between leaps. I watched a fox sneak up on a pair of bunnies and it was clear the fox couldn’t make a decision as to which critter to take to dinner. His indecision left him looking like a foolish fox, who, after a short chase, failed to appreciate the acrobatic display the two rabbits put on. The tracks they left were decipherable only because the scene was observed.

Favorite foods will be surrounded with tracks and the telltale sign of an angled cut, sliced as if with a razor, are a rabbit’s trademark. Deer, on the other hand, have no upper front teeth and leave a ragged tear as they trim your shrubbery.  Cottontail rabbits actually have four upper front teeth which classifies them as lagomorphs rather than rodents

Persistent pursuit over brimming with hope, fresh snow and rabbit tracks eventually began to unravel and reveal a satisfactory knowledge of what rabbits did and where they did it. Not surprising, the rabbit tracks led to a lifetime of curiosity and wonder which spread out as a ripple in a quiet pond to reach far beyond the shores of the neighborhood claybanks.

Following rabbit tracks in the snow had become the loose thread that begs attention and always leads to reveal the weave of the cloth. Overwhelming and complex concepts or problems are best approached by following what appear to be insignificant loose threads.

A fresh snow, imprinted with deer, rabbit or fox tracks, is sure to arrive this January. Some curious person will be compelled to follow those tracks that will lead to a lifetime of natural curiosity, wonder and transferable skills, useful in as yet, many unimaginable ways.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

#LookForTheRiver, Jersey Water Works Opening Plenary Speech

On December 13, 2019 LRWP collaborator and coLAB Arts co-producer and Director of Education John Keller delivered the opening plenary to the 2019 Jersey Water Works annual statewide summit at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick, NJ. John talked about the intersection of art, and our work in the watershed. He gave lots of examples of our collaborative effort these past 5 years. With thanks to John for allowing the LRWP to share his words.

Good Morning Everyone,

Uh, oh. I have to be that first person who annoyingly chastises you for being lack luster in your morning greeting. Think of it this way. It is Friday! You are coming to have a great time at this symposium, learn lots of stuff, have some good conversations, have la meal and still be out by 2:30! And as long as you don’t have a boss who is a party pooper it’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to go back to the office for just a few measly afternoon hours so that means found time! Maybe you’ll stop by your favorite independent coffee shop and have a nice afternoon latte in your favorite reusable cup. Then go over to the local day-spa maybe get a message or a nice facial (as long as it doesn’t have any microplastics in it), then meet up with some friends or family for a movie afterwards, but you will bring your own refillable BPA free water bottle because you are a little dehydrated from the latte, message, and facial and don’t want to pay $12 for a bottle of water at the theater. Then you will get out of the movie and think to yourself… wow that was a pretty good day.

So, let’s start this over.

Good morning everyone!

My name is John Keller and I have titled this presentation. 5 years of art in 9 minutes.

I am the director of education and outreach for a non-profit arts organization called coLAB Arts. You can find us on all the social media stuff as @colabarts.

I am here to tell you a story. The story is how an arts organization found itself motivated and inspired to facilitate conversations around our watersheds, and our relationship to water.

First, a little background. What is coLAB Arts and how does our mission drive us to collaborate with non-arts based social advocacy organizations, government institutions, and community groups?

Our mission is quite simply an equation. We engaged artists, advocates, and communities to created transformative new art-work. For us transformation must be three things. It must be sustainable, positive, and community focused. We work in areas as diverse as juvenile justice reform, transgender rights, domestic violence prevention, and dignity for our immigrant neighbors.

But this one is about water. So here we go.

In 2015, myself and two coLAB Arts’ board members attended a watershed education workshop with the then recently formed Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). After the workshop we adopted a local stream and found what so many find in our urban areas: a stream in need of some love. We asked ourselves what we ask ourselves whenever engaging with a new advocacy concern:

How does the artist engage in this space?

What are the core issues that the advocacy partners are wrestling with? What are the historic contexts? What are the socio-political barriers to equity, diversity, inclusion, Justice and Access that the arts might help dismantle? Who are the communities not yet at the table? What are the questions not being asked? What are the ways artists can influence and augment research? – quantitative and qualitative data gathering. What are the complex ideas that artists can infuse into the conversation to make advocacy and even infrastructure better?

When LRWP heard these questions. And challenged us with some of their own for us to ponder. It was kismet. We began working together. Two organizations, arts and science. We formed a working group of artists, landscape architects, community organizers, and civic scientists, to wrestle with arts-based interventions to our natural and built environments. Early recognition from the American Architectural Foundation and their Sustainable Cities Design Academy gave us the opportunity generate bold ideas around on how the arts can drive sustainable changes to complex structural challenges.

We centered on a seemingly simple idea to drive the story of the work. It is the idea that the river is both a physical entity in our landscape, but it is also a powerful metaphor in our daily lives. It is all around us. It does not just exist in the physical limitations of the banks of a body of water, but it exists in our storm water systems, in the run-off from our homes, in our sprinklers, our faucets, in our dreams for quality of life, in our stories of migration, and our desperation in times of crisis. We began asking ourselves as well as the artists and communities brought into the work to #LookForTheRiver in all things.

We began work in earnest. Going alongside the LRWP on stream clean ups. Participating in macro invertebrate trainings, touring spaces and landscapes that maybe weren’t the most obvious places of water stewardship. We began engaging professional artists through programs like our National Endowment for the Arts funded residencies where we partner an artist with a non-arts based organization and task each with creating an engaged arts project that facilitates a conversation with community that generates new works of art inspired by some big problem or question that advocacy org is wrestling with. The model of that residency which now has multiple artists with a diverse group of organizations is successful in no small part to LRWP piloting that program our first year. Our Watershed Helping Hands Sculpture Project on display in the lobby is one such example of one of the community based art engagement programs that resulted from that artist residency.

Once the communities have been engaged and you have built a critical mass of participation. You have to think next steps.

At the end of the day we are an arts organization and the greatest way to partner with artists is to provide opportunities for them to create bold artistic gestures.

Our work has been both conceptual and literal.

We have used the process of cleanups, data collection and public access as our points of inspiration to create works that both reuse found materials as well as engage with artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines such as sculptural work, dance, theater, and mixed media.

To integrate both professional arts creation with community arts creation. Recognizing that while not everything can be called great art, great art can come from anywhere. We balance the ethereal of the performative with the substance of created artifacts; both a natural growth from a new communal education on watershed health and quality and the provocation of a call to action.

When this happens a new kind of reality might be possible. Where if we truly look for the river in all of the aspects of our lives. We begin to question why is it absent? And we see our spaces built in essence to do whatever they can to keep the river out. To blot it out from our landscape…

But when you create the potential for new vision we can inspire ourselves, our planners, and political leaders to reintegrate the river into our lives; into our built cities, and our story telling. Accepting the river back becomes our way of solving infrastructure problems. Like a new art and history based greenway connecting public spaces through the heart of an urban area, or an art and green infrastructure concept project which includes a two-story sculpture work that becomes a wayfinding landmark, urban beautification, and a five thousand gallon cistern to keep water run-off from reaching the storm water system in times of flooding.

When empowering communities to create art that allows them to connect with both their environmental and social justice history we can make space to dream about ways in which we can work with our built communities to remember the landscape of our past. And find new ways to interact with it.

The arts are in incredible communicative tool. But the first act of social justice is to listen. Our creations cannot come before we first strive to listen with the intention of learning. Artists and water experts need to engage in this process together. When the artist is involved in the process – not just brought in at the end to slap some paint on a wall, not just asked to develop the PR or marketing strategy, rather allowing the artist to be in response to this listening process.

In 2019 we began an oral history archive which is about capturing those stories. Balancing the narratives. We research and collect the stories perhaps lost, perhaps suppressed, perhaps forgotten, around one very simple idea: Water is everywhere, and water is important to everyone.  And then doing what we do… make are that is in response and helps us all frame a greener future.

On climate risks, hazards containment, and the Lower Raritan’s “Dark Waters”

In the opening scene of Mark Ruffalo’s devastating new true-story legal thriller Dark Waters, released this week in New Jersey theaters, we watch as a car travels rural roads to a swimming hole. In the dark of night three teenagers exit the car near a “no trespassing” sign, jump a fence, and dive in. The camera pans to signs marked “containment pond,” where chemical byproducts of Dupont’s manufacturing plants – specifically Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA – are ostensibly “contained”.

The year is 1975. PFOAs are unregulated. Things end badly. We soon learn that PFOA is related to an abundance of health risks. The film traces a decades-long corporate cover-up of these risks, as well as loss of life and tremendous suffering. The film also makes clear how exceedingly difficult it is to contain toxic pollutants.

The issue of historic pollutant containment is the focus of a report released last month by the US Government Accountability Office that identifies the nation’s Superfund sites deemed most “at risk” of climate crises including flooding, coastal inundation, and wildfire. Of the 945 sites on the GAO list, 24 are in our 352-square mile Lower Raritan Watershed. That’s an incredibly disproportionate 4% of the most at-risk toxic sites in the United States. Our almost 900,000 watershed residents don’t have to travel rural roads to encounter pollutant hazards, they are proximate to where we live and work. More info on the GAO report, and a list of these sites, is on the LRWP website.

GAO-identified Superfunds in the Lower Raritan that are at-risk of natural hazards impacts (2019)

Of course the GAO only looks at Nonfederal Superfund sites. Here’s a map of all Known Contaminated Sites (KCS) in the watershed, many more of which are likewise at risk.

Not surprisingly, the concentrated band of sites that runs through the middle of the watershed traces along the Raritan River and feeder waterways. Our challenge will be containment of hazards impacts, particularly tough when stilling ponds and uses are proximate to flooded waters.

One of many Raritan River-adjacent landfills/Superfund sites at-risk of flood impacts
Photo by Alison M. Jones, No Water No Life – taken during a LightHawk flight, April 2019

Our Toxic Soup

Last month the US Government Accountability Office released a report of those toxic waste sites deemed most “at risk” of disaster from climate crisis. The report identifies a total of 945 problem sites in the United States, 24 of which are in the 352-square mile Lower Raritan Watershed. That is, an incredibly disproportionate 4% of the nation’s total at-risk superfund sites are in our Lower Raritan (see list below).

At-risk Superfund sites in the Lower Raritan Watershed include:

Federal Creosote, Manville

CPS/Madison Industries, Old Bridge

American Cyanamid, Bridgewater

Fried Industries, East Brunswick

Kin-Buc Landfill, Edison

Global Sanitary Landfill, Old Bridge

Renora Inc., Edison

Brook Industrial Park, Bound Brook

JIS Landfill, South Brunswick

Chemical Insecticide Corporation, East Brunswick

Monroe Township Landfill, Monroe

Sayreville Landfill, Sayreville

Chemsol, Piscataway

South Brunswick Landfill, South Brunswick

Myers Property, Franklin Township

Evor Industries, Old Bridge

Horseshoe Road, Sayreville

Higgins Farm, Franklin Township

Cornell Dubilier, South Plainfield

Atlantic Resources, Sayreville

Franklin Burn, Franklin Township

Raritan Bay Slag, Old Bridge/Sayreville

Woodbridge Road Dump, South Plainfield

Burnt Fly Bog, Marlboro

Concerns of risks posed by legacy pollutants, particularly in light of sea level rise and climate change, have long been on the LRWP’s radar. These concerns motivate our grant-seeking to protect inland communities from potentially toxic sediment deposition through tidal marsh restoration, and watershed partners will receive support through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to develop an engineering plan with a permit-ready design to start to protect vulnerable South River residents from riverine flooding and storm flows, and what we already know are toxic flows of sediment into their neighborhoods.

In coming months the LRWP will analyze the GAO and other data, prioritizing focus areas, and wrestling with what the Superfund report means in terms of restoration and resiliency planning for our watershed going forward. We will also be working to develop a strategy to best position ourselves to hold state and federal entities accountable for clean-up, protecting our communities, and similar.