Interview by Emily Koai, LRWP Spring 2020 Raritan Scholar
Johnny Quispe, born and raised in New Jersey’s Hackensack Watershed (Hudson County), started his B.S. at Rutgers – New Brunswick in 2009, then returned in 2014 to pursue a masters in Ecology. Johnny is now working on his doctorate in the lab of Jean Marie Hartman, an associate professor of Landscape Architecture. Through Professor Hartman, Johnny met Heather Fenyk, Board President of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, and began collaborating with the LRWP on Raritan River-focused research. Johnny joined the LRWP Board in 2019 with the goal of expanding on his passion for advocacy for the river through community outreach. His current outreach involves work in South River and Sayreville on the South River Ecosystems Project, which has evolved through support from a diversity of stakeholders. Johnny recently secured a $249,000 National Fish and Wildlife Federation grant for project preliminary design and site assessment for the South River Ecosystem Restoration & Flood Resiliency Enhancement Project. Johnny seeks to guide this project through design to ultimately improve public access to the Raritan.
EK:Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
JQ: I first came to Rutgers in 2009 and wanted to pursue environmental policy. In addition to learning about local, municipal and federal policies, I started interning at a local non-profit, Edison Wetlands Association (EWA). That advocacy experience really helped me see policy play out on the ground. I attended a Coastal Estuarine Research Federation conference which opened my eyes to how sea level rise is going to impact wetlands. I decided early on to focus my studies on the Raritan and Raritan Bay, looking at the impacts that sea level and a changing climate has on, not only coastal ecosystems, but coastal communities.
I returned to Rutgers in 2014 to work under Jean Marie Hartman, starting a masters in ecology, the study of an organism and its interactions with its environment or with other organisms. I saw this as another way of looking at the world. Jean Marie really let my imagination fly. She gave me the opportunity to work on several projects with her, on all ranges of things. That’s when the connection between the importance of wetlands and what I had been advocating for in my internship really came together.
EK: Your research explores the relationship between sea level rise (SLR) and coastal wetlands and its impacts on the vulnerabilities of coastal areas. Is there anything specifically about the subject that you wanted to communicate to a wider audience?
JQ: There are many ways in which we can perceive risk. Sometimes we look at things one-dimensionally. When we look at coastal ecosystems we use different lenses: an environmental lens, a natural resource lens, and sometimes in terms of zoning. So how can we look at development and create positive opportunities for communities to build themselves up? How do we identify and prioritize these locations and bring more attention to these areas?
Sea level rise is not created equal. There are areas that are more at risk than others. This is subject to change as we continue to make decisions which can accelerate this change in sea level. As a society, we can start making significant changes. Some of these impacts may take a little longer to become realized, so we need communities, municipalities, the state, and federal government to all start thinking with a longer-term lens.
This means that planning boards and town councils should take a long range view of zoning: not just 10 or 20 years. 30 years is often seen as the lifetime of a structure, but you see even that expanding. How are we preparing for 2050 and beyond?
Everyone else’s risk is still kind of the same if municipalities put resources into their own municipal boundaries. Sometimes that is shortsighted. Taking a watershed or regional view to partner with other municipalities and the state, you can design projects that have more lasting impacts. There has to be cross pollination between our municipalities, and lead efforts by the state, to take a step up and organize at the larger, landscape scale.
EK:How have you directly encouraged policy-makers, municipalities, and individuals on the path of enhancing their own roles?
JQ: Experts at all levels need to listen to people. We need to listen to what the needs are. That is where you’ll find all the information you need about a location. I think, as well intentioned as researchers, government officials, and others may be, sometimes they make change without consulting the people that change is going to affect. Understandably, this leaves a sour feeling with the community.
Having buy in from stakeholders is important. I meet with community members, stakeholders, folks from different nonprofits in the area, and people from different settings. I think everyone has a stake in it, so they want to be part of the process. If you eliminate the possibility for groups to be part of planning, they ultimately feel that they’re being subjected to the change. Sharing these ideas in public meetings that are accessible and allowing participation is important.
As we continue to see these impacts in coastal communities across the US, these are the kind of processes that are going to have to happen. Otherwise we have unsolicited buybacks and changes being made without much buy-in from the community. You’re going to have a lot of pushback and a lot of people who are unhappy.
EK:Is there anything you think is key to trying to get the whole process to come together?
JQ: I think researchers or officials looking to make changes really need to embed themselves in the community—to be part of that community, otherwise you’re just going to be seen as the third party coming in and telling the community what’s best for them.
I’ve been working in the Lower Raritan since 2009, and have established relationships that have blossomed into my current projects. My time working in a local non-profit really allowed me to meet all the non-profit stakeholders and people who have been fighting to make the Raritan a better place for the last 20-30 years.
I think what everyone needs to do is find a champion—someone who they can align themselves with to help them push some of these ideas forward. If you’re not part of the community, who is part of the community, and how can you work with that person to really get the facts and get the message out there? That’s what’s really key. My hope is to identify champions along the east coast who can really get these kinds of projects started. I see myself more as a bridge-builder—someone who is bringing people together, really letting some ideas simmer and take them and try as much as I can, with the help of others, to bring those to fruition.
It is incumbent on the world of Environmental Non Governmental Organizations (ENGOs) to stand in solidarity with those protesting police brutality and systemic racial injustices. It is imperative that our ENGOs work to address these societal wrongs.
There are countless links between environmental injustice, environmental harms, racism, and inequality.
“I CAN’T BREATHE”. George Floyd’s last words, uttered under the knee of an officer of the peace, are as symbolic of our environmental injustices as they are of our history of racism in policing. “I can’t breathe” has been spoken by hundreds of thousands before George Floyd in the context of systemic racism that results in higher asthma rates in communities of color and, more recently, higher incidence of COVID-19 in communities of color.
What actions can our ENGOs take to be better allies in the fight against systemic racism?
Especially with respect to environmental and land use issues, our ENGOs hold data, advance research strategies, and have special insights into how to reform a racist system in which the status quo has always been unjust. Going forward:
1.We must prioritize analyses that focus on understanding the true extent of environmental injustices in our communities.
Environmental injustice is a term that describes how people of color and poor communities have borne disproportionate harm from pollution and environmental risks, and the discriminatory systems that have perpetuated those inequities. Most ENGOs collect and hold abundant environmental data (water and air quality, soil studies, hydrologic functions, climate trends, risks and hazards, etc.) that can be triangulated with life expectancy, land use, US Census, racial, demographic, and other social and health data variables to better understand the true extent of environmental injustice in our communities. We must prioritize these analyses in our work.
2.We must advance an understanding of how regional land management, especially in Home Rule states, can serve as an antidote to environmental racism and environmental injustices.
“Home Rule” biases in land use decision-making means that municipalities are not required to take into consideration the impact of these decisions on regional growth patterns, existing or planned land uses in adjacent municipalities, or watershed and larger ecological systems impacts. Examples of undesired impacts include flood control decisions that displace flood waters to neighboring municipalities, and fragmentation of habitat that compromises regional environmental health.
Local impacts are felt in low income communities that are not only not prioritized for flood protection or environmental clean-ups, but that also continue to be identified for siting of locally undesirable land uses (LULUs). Regional environmental planning, especially watershed management of large ecosystems, demands integrated thinking and coordination. Regional environmental planning promotes healthy communities and resilience through equity considerations at larger scales.
3.We must pressure our state Departments of Environmental Protection to rank our contaminated sites in order of risk and urgency with respect to climate change and environmental health, prioritizing the environmental health of communities of color and the most vulnerable.
Developing a community health-based prioritized ranking for clean-up of our contaminated sites can serve as a corrective to market-driven remediation that focuses on clean-up of the most economically desirable contaminated sites.
4.We must continue to gather water quality, air quality, and other data for lands and waters disproportionately accessed by people of color.
5.We must research the extent to which our local communities of color are more likely than white people to be at risk of hazards related to climate change.
6.We must advance “citizen science” practices and provide our environmental data and other resources to all our communities so that they can analyze and understand environmental justice issues in their own neighborhoods.
Out of respect for the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the many who came before them, the LRWP is pausing our typical monthly content to give space for all of us to reckon, to listen, to learn, and to act.
The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership stands in solidarity with those protesting police brutality and systemic racial injustices. Our work to address these societal wrongs is rooted in Social Equity and Environmental Justice.
Environmental injustice is term that describes how people of color and poor communities have borne disproportionate harm from pollution and environmental risks, and the discriminatory systems that have perpetuated those inequities.
George Floyd’s last words “I can’t breathe,” uttered under the knee of an officer of the peace, are as symbolic of our environmental injustices as they are of our history of racism in policing. “I can’t breathe” has been spoken by hundreds of thousands before George Floyd in the context of systemic racism that results in higher asthma rates in communities of color, and more recently, higher incidence of COVID-19 in communities of color.
The LRWP believes that community work to address these injustices requires that we relearn our shared history. We must ask ourselves: How has my choice of where and how I live contributed to these abiding injustices? What are my blind spots? What specific actions can I take to make this a more just world?
Going forward the LRWP will double down on efforts to understand how land use decision-making at the municipal level perpetuates environmental inequities at a broader scale. In the short term:
We will continue to pressure NJDEP to act on their (2009) legislated mandate to rank every contaminated site in order of risk and urgency with respect to environmental health, particularly environmental health of communities of color and the most vulnerable. The “Remedial Priority System” was to serve as a corrective to market-driven remediation that prioritizes clean-up of the most economically desirable contaminated sites. 11 years later however the agency still has not published this list
We will continue our water quality monitoring and reporting at non-bathing public beach access sites along the Raritan River that are not monitored by NJDEP or local or County Departments of Health. We focus on these sites in part because they are disproportionately accessed by people of color. We need volunteers. Please volunteer!
We will continue our research into the extent to which our local communities of color are more likely than white communities to be at risk of hazards related to climate change and new discriminatory lending practices called “bluelining.” (report coming June 2020).
In the spirit of the LRWP’s commitment to citizen science, we work to make resources available for Lower Raritan Watershed community members so that they can analyze and understand environmental justice issues in their own neighborhoods.
Below is a compilation of freely available on-line Environmental Jusice, climate change and health-related analytical tools.
EJScreen is a mapping tool hosted by the U.S. EPA that allows users to create maps and generate reports which examine multiple variables that may affect human and environmental health within a community or region. Users can search by address, area, or EPA facility. Key data: Institutions, EPA reporting sites, health service areas, health risk/demographic, natural boundaries/water features https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen
NEPAssist is a mapping tool that supports the environmental impact review (EIR) process and project planning in relation to environmental considerations. Users can search by address, area, geographic coordinates, watershed, or congressional district. Key data: Institutions, EPA reporting sites, health service areas, health risk/demographic, natural boundaries/water features, transportation, soil maps, FEMA flood warning areas, topography maps https://www.epa.gov/nepa/nepassist
National-Scale Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) dataset and mapping tool
NATA is a dataset compiled by the U.S. EPA that provides broad estimates of health risks arising from breathing air toxics emitted from a variety of sources. The EPA also provides interactive Google Earth maps so users can view the distribution of risks in specific geographic areas. Key data: Stationary, mobile, background, and secondary formation air toxics https://www.epa.gov/national-air-toxics-assessment
National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network
The National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network supports tools of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and provides information on environmental hazards, exposures, and chronic health conditions. Tools allows users to select by environmental risks/health conditions, demographics and geography, and displays data through mapping, charts, and tables. They also allows users to examine trends over time. Key data: Health, air quality, climate change, demographic https://ephtracking.cdc.gov/DataExplorer/#/
The LRWP commits to educating ourselves about historic and system racism, supporting those who are imagining a new path forward for our state and nation through structural change. Please consider joining us in following these important environmental justice advocates, environmentalists of color and other leaders we are listening to on twitter and Instagram.
Rhiana Gunn-Wright. @rgunns. Ms. Gunn-Wright is lead policy architect of the Green New Deal designed to tackle climate change in a way that delivers justice and jobs.
Tara Houska. @zhaabowekwe. Ms. Houska is an attorney who fights for Indigenous rights and justice and serves as the national campaigns director of Honor the Earth, a US-based non-profit that campaigns for Indigenous environmental justice.
WE ACT for EJ. @weact4ej. WE ACT for Environmental Justice has been combating environmental racism and building healthy communities for people of color since 1988.
Thank you to everyone who joined us for our “virtual” Summer 2020 Pathogens Monitoring Training on Monday April 20. We learned the “how-tos” of monitoring from Jessica Bonamusa with the Interstate Environmental Commission, and Michele Bakacs with Rutgers Extension / Middlesex County EARTH Center provided an overview of 2019 data findings.
We hope to open up sign-ups for Thursday monitoring starting mid-May.
Below are answers to commonly asked questions about responsibilities and time commitment of a volunteer pathogens monitor:
Q: Do I need boots, waders, or other equipment?
A: Boots, yes. And clothing appropriate for the weather, and clothing that will provide sun protection. Also: bug spray and a hat. We always ask volunteers to bring water and a snack. We have several sets of waders of different sizes that we can loan. And we have all other supplies.
Q: What time does the sample collecting begin and end?
A: We typically kick off between 8-9 AM. We meet at the Piscataway site, then caravan to the New Brunswick site, where some folks leave their cars. We then carpool to the remaining sites. Going from site to site takes about 4-5 hours depending on traffic. We then travel to Staten Island to take the samples to the lab. Depending on interest in the lab, we may stay as long as an hour to orient volunteers to what is going on there.
We generally return to the New Brunswick site by about 3pm.
Q: What about lunch?
A: Sometimes we grab a bite at a local restaurant either on Staten Island or in Perth Amboy. Please be sure to bring plenty of snacks to keep your energy up throughout the day. And don’t forget your water!
Q: Does everyone doing the collecting on a given day go to all the sites?
It is not always the
case that all volunteers join us for the whole day. Some people choose just to
help out with the sampling, and do not join us for the trip to Staten Island.
Q: What would I do as a volunteer monitor?
A: You will always have a team leader with the volunteers. The team leader is generally joined by three additional people. That seems about the right number of hands to do the work and help us keep to our schedule. In the field folks are absolutely given tasks! This includes recording site observation data, labeling sample bottles, taking samples (which can involve suiting up in waders), using the probe and documenting that data, keeping everything organized. This is quality controlled work and we do not send out volunteers on their own. The more hands the better and the faster things go. We ask folks to sign up for specific dates, and ask that they commit to going out with us for the full day.
The Watershed Illustration Curriculum was developed to raise awareness about the endangered species of New Jersey, especially the flora and fauna of the Lower Raritan Watershed. Every species in the curriculum, from the Bald Eagle to the Closed Bottled Gentian, is in immediate danger due to human activities. These human activities are responsible for loss of species habitat due to habitat fragmentation and deforestation, over-exploitation of resources, disturbances, disease, introduction of invasive species, pollution and climate change. The survival of every species of wildlife is critical to preserving our state’s rich biodiversity and unique natural history.Unlike other natural threats, man-made threats are threats that we can prevent by changing our behavior.
These curriculum guides combine art and science to help students develop their creativity and artistic skills, while advancing their knowledge of the endangered species and plants that are in close proximity to them. By focusing on art, we also try to make the connection to the environment a personal experience. To save wildlife requires positive action. It requires changes in lifestyle and way of thinking.
As humans, we have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions, both present and past. We are capable of learning more about the effects our actions have on the world around us and how changes in those actions could help to alter future events. By examining how human activities have adversely impacted life on earth, we can take steps to reverse past damages and prevent future damage.
Thank you for learning about the special wildlife in the Lower Raritan, and how you can help protect them!
In our efforts to diagnose stream, river and watershed health, we regularly assess conditions in only a small portion of our waters. Even in those, we typically measure only a few things once a summer, or once every few years. What’s more, we may realize later we measured the wrong things, or used the wrong tool, at the wrong time, perhaps in the wrong way. We know that the quantity and quality of the data we obtain today is not adequate to diagnose our watersheds’ health and to prescribe the right actions to protect or restore them. So why then do we continue to monitor?
Critics of monitoring programs correctly point out that getting obsessed with gathering more data can blind us to clear lessons already learned and divert our attention and resources from actions clearly needed. It may be the case that not every stream needs on-going monitoring. But good monitoring activities should be underway in most of our streams and sub-watersheds.
The LRWP sees five major categories of benefits of long-term watershed-based monitoring programs:
1. Enhancing environmental education. People learn best from hands-on experience. One good day in the field studying a river provides more longlasting environmental lessons than ten lectures endured, a hundred news stories read, or a thousand one-line environmental slogans overheard. Monitoring inevitably promotes greater understanding and awareness in a community. When understanding and awareness grow, greater protection and stewardship almost always follow.
2. Clearly defining problems. Monitoring may help confirm fears about watershed problems and trends. It may also help dispel them. By helping us get a firm grip on the nature and magnitude of watershed problems, monitoring helps us focus our efforts and resources on the most important problems to address. When monitoring confirms that a water body is clean and healthy, it helps us define the desirable conditions we need to maintain over time.
3. Pinpointing sources of problems. Understanding what a watershed’s biggest problems are is only half the battle. The other is determining the real sources of those problems. A single problem may be the result of multiple sources, and multiple problems may stem from a single source. Thoughtful, comprehensive, adaptive, long-term monitoring helps us be sure we are addressing all the major sources of problems, not just some of their collective symptoms.
4. Setting standards and goals. Voluntary and regulatory watershed programs both work best when they are based on solid standards and clear goals. The best standards and goals grow from a well grounded understanding of historic and current conditions and trends. Without this type of understanding, standards and goals may be set inappropriately. If they are too low, protection and restoration efforts will not be aggressive enough, and opportunities may be delayed or missed. If they are too high, expectations may be unrealistic and the enthusiasm of involved parties may wane over time. Monitoring helps us set the bar at the right level for each watershed.
5. Providing benchmarks for measuring progress. Restoration and protection efforts cost money and take time—usually, years. Involved parties need clear evidence that their efforts are making a difference if they are to continue to justify their time, effort and expense. Consequently, monitoring before, during and after intensive protection and restoration efforts helps us explain the importance of current efforts and make the case for new ones.
Of course the state and federal entities that have mandates to bring about fishable, swimmable waters can and should do more. However, government has not proven its capacity to do everything necessary for healthy waters. In addition to building and securing support for our monitoring programs we need to coordinate governmental and non-governmental monitoring efforts. We need to target those efforts toward better fundamental understanding of our watersheds and their problems. And we need to involve legions of interested and concerned citizens in the ongoing business of assessing watershed conditions and trends.
Article and photos by William Baumle, written as part of the Rutgers Spring Semester 2019 Environmental Communications course
Waterways possess an essential ecological value, providing a wide range of ecosystem services. Ecosystem services are benefits the natural world provides to humans. For waterways, these benefits are the result of a combination of a waterway’s hydrology, vegetation, fauna, and micro-organisms. Together, these natural structures and organisms provide beneficial outcomes for people, animals, and other ecosystems.
Unfortunately, human development has often resulted in waterways being diverted underground to make way for the construction of roads and buildings. Do you know a “River Road” or “Water Street” near you, but not near water? It may be that sometime in the past, there was a waterway there that was diverted underground to make way for people.
Hidden waters of Metuchen
Did you know? The name “Metuchen” first appeared in 1688/1689, and its name was derived from the name of a Native American chief, known as Matouchin or Matochshegan.
The Borough of Metuchen, located within Middlesex County and wholly surrounded by Edison Township, has quite an interesting history of hidden waterways. While burying and/or paving over historic streams and tributaries is not unique, the vast number of waterways which have been covered for the sole purpose of development within the Borough of Metuchen is notable.
Due to development, few waterways or bodies of water exist within the Borough today. By comparison, a map from 1876 indicates the presence of multiple waterways around modern-day Amboy Avenue and Main Street, with one exiting to a pond located on Lake Avenue. The map also shows that Metuchen had several notable ponds and lakes, nearly all of which have been filled in or covered. There were a number of ponds along what we now know as High Street but all those ponds have been buried and now lie beneath rows of houses. Only Tommy’s Pond remains.
Today, a number of unnamed streams run through the Borough of Metuchen, which, in addition to the recently manmade waterway which accompanies the Middlesex Greenway, drain into the Raritan Watershed. Interestingly, Metuchen is distinctive among New Jersey communities in that it is comprised of not even three-square miles and yet drains into three separate sub-watersheds. Three headwater tributaries which originate in the Borough, drain into Bound Brook. The southwestern areas of the town drain into the Mill Brook, located within Edison Township. The northeastern areas of the town drain into the South Branch of the Rahway Watershed.
Directly outside of Metuchen lies a 500-year flood zone, which simply means that in any given year, there is a 1/500 chance a significant flood will affect the area. While Metuchen does not have any significant sources of flooding, there are a few minor areas of the floodplain associated with the Dismal Swamp Preserve and a channelized portion of the Middlesex Greenway. Unsurprisingly, the areas indicated as being the greatest risk of flooding are located along historical streams and tributaries, which have been largely filled in. Notably, however, this area of the Borough has not historically regularly flooded – only in rare instances, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Irene (2011) and Hurricane Sandy (2012).
Spies, Stacey E. (2000) Images of America: Metuchen. Mount Pleasant, SC. Arcadia
Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan. Throughout 2020 the LRWP will share student work on our website.
Just before COVID-19 upended our lives, a new committee was created in the New Jersey State Assembly to focus on issues related to water – including beach erosion, water integrity and security, dams and reservoirs, algae blooms, lead contamination, wastewater infrastructure, stormwater challenges, and the effects of climate change. We’re thrilled to have the chair of this committee join us on a virtual town hall next week.
On Wednesday April 29 from 6:30-7:30 pm, the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership will join New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, and Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions in hosting a statewide virtual townhall with the chair of that committee; Assemblyman Karabinchak.
Join us Wednesday, April 29 from 6:30–7:30 p.m. to hear from Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak on what he hopes to accomplish in his new committee.