Category: LRWP Blog

Pathogens Monitoring with the LRWP, a Volunteer’s Perspective

Article by LRWP Volunteer Monitoring Irene Riegner

Water, water everywhere”—but can you drink it? For the last five years, citizen scientists under the guidance of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership have been monitoring the water quality of the lower Raritan River.  Last summer, I was one of those monitors.  Once a week from late spring through early fall, through spring rains and summer heat, we tested the waters from Perth Amboy north to Piscataway.  We tested quantitatively through water samples and instrument readings and qualitatively through observation.  The river was in better condition than I would have imagined:  Despite abandoned factories along its banks; despite surrounding industrial neighborhoods, junk yards, and heavy industry; despite the usual litter; despite sewage outflow; despite bird guano.

Near Highland Park, I watched a great blue heron gracefully stalking its prey.  Then, zap.  The fish entered its eternal afterlife.  In Piscataway, cormorants floated on the river and periodically dived for dinner.  Near the Edison Boat Basin, osprey, scrutinizing the river from their high perch, nested across from a landfill and next to a petro-chemical factory. The river must be alive; there must be a plentiful source of food in its depths. 

Water quality monitoring volunteer, and article author, Irene Riegner helps the LRWP and NJDEP scout locations installation of an ISCO water quality sampler for a Summer 2024 study

We took readings for dissolved oxygen, pH and salinity and measured the temperature.  The numbers varied but usually landed within favorable parameters, pointing to a reasonably healthy aquatic life.  On the other hand, elevated readings of enterococcus, an indicator of pathogenic disease, were troublesome. We took water samples for testing.  A red face on our charts indicated that enterococcus was above the permitted level.  Perhaps effluvia from a nearby outflow.  Perhaps runoff after a rainstorm.  Perhaps downstream waste flowing upstream with the current.

“Do you eat the fish you catch?” I asked the local fishermen casting their lines into the water.  “We throw ‘em back,” most of them answered.  Fishing and the river mean a morning with their buddies.  Sailing and the river mean recreation with family and friends. The sailboats are moored in the river near South Amboy, near the million dollar, Victorian style homes, snuggled between factories and dumps. I never observed anyone swimming from the sand beach in front of these homes. 

Last summer, I began learning about the river, learning to understand it as an organism with complex parts, both natural and human-constructed, whose reach radiates beyond its banks into the municipalities and parks that line its shores—and beyond.  Maybe with the communal effort of municipalities lining the Raritan and its tributaries, the river once again can become a focal point for recreation—and maybe, someday, we could even eat the fish and swim in it. 

The 2023 summer monitoring revealed the cleanest water yet.

Welcome LRWP Business Manager Jeffrey Key!

In March the LRWP brought on Jeff Key as a part time business manager. We are so pleased to have him on board! Jeff has an extensive background in law and leadership. A former Americorps Teaching Fellow, Assistant Professor at Seton Hall Law, and now Founder/Principal Consultant with NFinityEnterprises, Jeff’s focus is on supporting New Jersey based nonprofits in their aims to provide equitable access to services and programming. Jeff currently serves on the board of the Center for NonProfits and the National Board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network. Spring 2024 Intern Maxim Pavon sat down with Jeff to learn more about him and his work, we share the interview below.

Welcome Jeff! We are happy to have you on board with the LRWP, and would love for our community to get to know a little more about you and your work:

  1. What’s your favorite outdoor spot in the Lower Raritan?
  • I enjoy spending time at Boyd Park, which was built when I was growing up in the area and has been expanded over the years.  I’m always a big fan and advocate of maintaining and creating green spaces in cities as gathering spaces, a way to have sustainable development, and important spaces for residents to have accessible space for outdoor activities and recreation.  The Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park is a close second spot with amazing trails to explore and I’ve been excited to see the expansion of projects like the East Coast Greenway to connect different trail systems through multiple states.
  1. With an extensive background in law and leadership, what has interested you so much in the realm of virtual communications as to found Nfinity Enterprises, a web design and technology consulting firm devoted to the success of small businesses and nonprofits?
  • I started working with nonprofits immediately after graduating law school at a time when social media and website presence was a growing trend, and some of my responsibilities that developed over time involved working in these areas.  Meeting so many people working at amazing nonprofits let me know that they were making an amazing impact that was being overlooked in some cases, and with up to date websites and systems to show impact and tell their story they could connect with more donors and volunteers to get the support they deserve.  Technology is advancing so rapidly that I think it’s crucial that nonprofits working on some of the most important social challenges have access to these tools for positive impact and also have a voice in advocating how these advances affect the communities they work in.
  1. What is the most common struggle you see among small and mid-size nonprofit organizations?
  • With small and mid-size nonprofit organizations, there is a challenge around scaling programming for growth and effectively using staff capacity.  I definitely see technology playing a role in helping with that, since one of the most valuable resources for nonprofits is staff time and capacity and efficient systems, automation, and time-saving processes free up staff members to focus more on critical day-to-day work and strategic planning.

How do you see your work assisting the LRWP to address such hurdles?

  • I see my work with LRWP helping to build out systems and processes to make it easier for folks at every level to engage with the organization or complete their work: volunteers, staff, and donors/supporters.  A second area that I hope to assist LRWP is thinking about how to build systems that will work for current programming and operations, but also be ready to scale to meet needs as the organization grows and adds additional staff, programming, and events.
  1. How have your connections to grassroots coalitions such as Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, and NJ Center for Nonprofits played a role in your professional and personal journey?
  • I think my connections have put me in contact with an amazing network of professionals working at nonprofits that are very different from the organizations that I’ve had personal experience working at.  That opportunity to share with and learn from ideas and approaches that have been successful at other organizations has been amazing, and is one of the things that I appreciate about working in the nonprofit sector.  It did take me some time to recognize the importance of networking on a wider scale outside of the immediate area where you work, so I try to encourage students, interns, and younger nonprofit professionals to do that as soon as possible in their careers.
  1. Finally, what is one mantra that you live by?
  • One mantra that I live by is that all failure is an opportunity to learn, grow, and engage in self-reflection.  As someone who definitely tends to be a perfectionist, this is something that I’ve had to learn as I’ve progressed in my career and be intentional about remembering.  With many of the skills and abilities that I now consider myself to be good at, there was definitely an initial learning curve and instances where something I tried or was in charge of did not meet expectations.  Anyone who ends up being really good at anything or considered an amazing expert absolutely made mistakes along the way and didn’t let those setbacks stop them from continuing to work and improve their craft.

#lookfortheriver: finding historic streams of the Lower Raritan Watershed

The changing climate and development patterns of the Lower Raritan Watershed occur against a backdrop of substantial impervious surface coverage (approximately 34%), high population density, and significantly modified stream networks (e.g., stream straightening and burial, culverts, underground retention). Through hundreds of years of anthropogenic influence, the historic stream channels have been altered or “disappeared,” resulting in increased flooding, compromised water quality, and decreases in aquatic and other species. The added influence of climate change heightens these impacts. In addition, many Lower Raritan Watershed municipalities have no way to understand the lost natural and cultural heritage represented by the historic hydrology, the failing underground infrastructure and the collapse of buried streams.

Figure 1. An 1872 map of Perth Amboy overlaid with linework (in blue) showing potential streams from other map sources.

The research is intended to develop a systematic approach to define, identify, and describe the progression of the geographic pattern of “hidden” and “dynamic” streams in the Lower Raritan Watershed — that is, those areas that no longer exhibit all of their surface stream channels due to the effects of human development and population growth. It will allow for creation of an organized system for relevant stream and hydrology maps and map downloads to assist in “finding” the lost and hidden waterways in our watershed. This research is important as a way to understand our historic ecology and also to inform efforts that seek to use stream daylighting as a form of Green Infrastructure for stormwater management, water infrastructure management, and water quality improvements in our urban communities. Sharing the resulting data and materials will represent a first step towards the creation of a comprehensive data clearinghouse for the communities of this landscape.

Figure 2. This early 1930s black and white aerial photography of Piscataway shows the early development of Ross Hall Blvd and parts of what is now the Rutgers Ecopreserve. The fuscia linework shows the current NHD stream dataset that was used for comparison in the project.

Figure 3. A recent color photo of the same area in Piscataway overlain with the GIS-generated linework (in green) showing terrain-based analysis of potential drainage and stream patterns.

This project captures the Raritan River’s lost heritage by creating new data while making existing records more widely available and used. This ongoing research endeavors to define, identify, and describe the progression of the geographic pattern of “hidden” and “forgotten” streams in the Lower Raritan Watershed — that is, those areas that no longer exhibit all of their surface stream channels due to the effects of human development and population growth. This research helps us understand our historic ecology and also can inform future efforts that seek to use stream daylighting as a form of Green Infrastructure for stormwater management, water infrastructure management, and water quality improvements in our urban communities.

Initial outcomes included:

  • Created a research catalog linking to 40 sites with potential materials for ongoing evaluation and inclusion
  • Evaluated materials at 22 of those sites
  • Catalogued 230 maps to evaluate
  • Developed 41 sharable georectified version of historic maps
  • Identified over 2000 line segments on the historic maps that do not closely match those in the contemporary stream data
  • Created an online site at https://crssa.rutgers.edu/projects/RaritanHistory/

The GeoHealth Lab at the CRSSA and the LRWP intend to supplement the ongoing project with volunteers while seeking additional funding in order to continue,  (a) acquiring, compiling, and georectifying historic maps, (b) expanding and improving the project website, and (c) field check sites to determine the streams’ status.

For more information, contact David Tulloch, Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, tulloch@crssa.rutgers.edu.  This project received support from a 2019 Rutgers Raritan River Consortium (R3C) mini-grant.

LRWP Boat Building Inspires Connection to the Raritan River

Article and photos by Theo McDermott-Hughes

Aadharsh, 16, has always feared the water, making him a perhaps unlikely volunteer for the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership boat build. This LRWP program aims to increase engagement with and understanding of the Raritan River. Moving water is something Aadharsh had avoided for years, yet this was his second year participating in building a canoe as a member of the Sewa International Central Jersey youth program, which he participates in as a junior at JP Stevens high school.

Aadharsh was drawn to the boat building project and the LRWP because of his love for the environment and dream of being an engineer. After building these boats, starting from the paper designs and research all the way through the construction process of fixing the panels in place and weaving the cane seats, Aadharsh now leads his engineering class at school as they use the same processes and skills he’s already learned in the boat house.

Even more than practical skills and insight into the engineering process, he’s gained deep sense of fulfillment, one he struggled to express as he laid his hands on the lacquered hull of last year’s canoe. “Watching the boat come to life” under his hands gives him the energy to come back each week. He gazed at the panels striping the side of the boat with a sense of awe, bordering on reverence. “You see that?,” he said. “We did that.”

As Aadharsh’s father, Sakkaravarthy, watched his son work with other volunteers to attach the paneling, he expressed his great pride. He always tries to sign up to chaperone the teen volunteers when Aadharsh comes to the build. Not only does he get to watch his son explore his passion, when they return home and Aadharsh inevitably spends dinner enthusiastically talking about what he did at the boat build, Amid can smile along with understanding and pride.

Now, both father and son look forward to the boat launch, when the new canoe will hit the water for the first time this summer along with past years’ boats. Aadharsh can’t wait to paddle down the river that was once such a source of fear.

Join LRWP volunteers like Aadharsh and Sakkaravarthy at our boat-building session on Wednesdays from 6-8 and Saturdays 9-11. Pre-registration required. See you soon!

March Announces Spring’s Arrival and April Invites It In

Essay and photos by Joe Mish

There is magic in the first wildflowers which dare to dance in April’s cool breeze. Look closely at the pinstriped Spring Beauty to see the face of an impish sprite staring back.

March knocks on April’s door, and standing there on the dim lit stoop is a visage surrounded by swirling ice and snow, dripping mud and melting frost. Without hesitation, April invites the disheveled traveler in and notices a small parcel wrapped in green, wet with melted snowflakes. It is the gift of spring, and with it comes the remnants of the wintry month’s mercurial weather. As April encourages the sun to stay a while longer each day, the influence of March’s wintry heritage is diminished. A mere promise of favorable conditions is enough to encourage a veil of green to emerge from the cold ground in a resurrection of dormant life.

Within this transitional framework, the brilliant tints of green enliven the dull gray landscape to rouse curiosity and focus attention toward the earth. Energy is a key element in attraction and April is a time of palpable and boundless energy. The invisible movement of time appears betrayed as plants seem animated and grow before our eyes. Many spring plants have a narrow window of opportunity to emerge and mature, so their growth is accelerated.

Spring beauties are ephemerals which grow in isolated patches in open woods and among short pasture grass, their pink and white stripped flowers linger into May. Each short-stemmed flower is distinctly different in petal stripe and color. Some variants are almost all white with faint pink stripes, while a neighboring patch may be dominated by deeper pink petals and dark pink stripes. Color and pattern variations are the rule, which makes this flower so interesting. The variation in a way, compliments the vagaries of early spring weather and the individual character each April presents.

A calendar is not needed to know April has arrived. The appearance of native columbine on the red shale cliffs along the South Branch of the Raritan are as dependable a sign as any numeric score card. There is security in predictability and despite changing weather patterns, columbine remains faithful to April.

Native columbine is a delicate long stem, dark red, inverted, single bloom, composed of four or five individual vase shaped tubes, which collectively terminate in the appearance of a crown where the inverted flower meets the stem. Each tube within the red flower is lined with bright yellow. A distinctive broad, three lobed, pale green leaf adorns each stem and easily catches a breeze to help disperse seeds when the plant matures in early May. Columbine does not grow in profusion and is best described as being found in isolated villages, tucked in among the maroon cliffs. I wonder how many Aprils these cliff dwelling plants have seen, as their existence in such an austere shale environment is not conducive to random dispersal. I think of Brigadoon, a mythical village that appears once every one-hundred years, when native columbine appear during April, on the face of ancient cliffs, otherwise devoid of life.

April’s charm and promise find a spokesman in the form of Jack in the pulpit. As the name implies, this early spring plant appears to portray a minister standing in a raised pulpit, leading the congregation in prayer and praise for the gifts of nature. The personification of this unique plant, based on its shape and form, perfectly fit myth, magic, and folk lore promoting a human/ plant interface. The appearance of Jack standing in a pulpit, could be perceived as a reincarnation or memorial to a revered patriarch.

Any natural phenomenon begs for an explanation, and in this way, April delivers a lesson in the most critical of survival tools, creativity, and imagination. The earliest flowers to appear under April’s umbrella are a sign of hope as they stand in sharp contrast to the stark landscape about to awaken. Consider that flowers are living things that in some magical way, recruited man to further their propagation in exchange for a glimpse of eternal beauty, dreams and imagination. All combined to expand the universe of human potential with unbounded creativity and expression.

April has opened the gift of spring March delivered, and has swept its fresh green carpet clean of any wintry remnants tracked in when the gift was delivered. Conscious of its fleeting time allotted, April honors the delivery of the next month’s explosion of blooms by taming the weather and warming the soil. When may flowers arrive, April deserves a special thanks. 

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.

The LRWP to Monitor for Migratory Eels in the Green Brook

Article by LRWP Spring 2024 Intern Alyssa Phillips, Photos by Heather Fenyk

Running from March-May 2024 the LRWP will monitor for Migratory “Spring Glass Eels” in the Green Brook. This eel monitoring project will augment an on-going litter reduction project, including installation of a Litter “Trash Trap” device, along the waterway between Dunellen and Middlesex. This article is the first in a blog series about the migratory eel monitoring and litter reduction projects, and how you can get involved!

Pre-registration required for all events.

Each Spring, the endangered juvenile American eel, Anguilla rostrata (aka “glass eels”), travel more than 1,000 miles from the Sargasso Sea to coastal estuaries along the United States, including the New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary. Sometimes these marathon migrators make it even further upstream into freshwater tributaries of the tidally-influence Raritan River.

A single spring glass eel rests in the palm of a human’s hand. The eel is approximately 2 inches in length and is transparent.

American glass eels are catadromous, meaning they spawn in the ocean (saltwater) and then migrate to brackish estuaries to live out the rest of their lives (which can be up to 30 years). American Eels are called spring glass eels in their early stages of life due to their time of migration and appearance. When they are first born and enter North American estuaries the eels are nearly transparent, giving the appearance of glass. Ribbon-like in shape, they average 45-65 mm in length by the time they are 6 months when they begin the upstream swim to their freshwater homes. 

One of the biggest issues that American glass eels face are obstacles while migrating. These obstacles range from large litter and trash, to dams and turbines. Additional threats to the glass eels population is habitat degradation and pollution, including stormwater runoff.

In the foreground a community volunteer stands chest deep in the trash filled waters of the Green Brook, near the site where the Trash Trap device will be installed.

From March-May 2024, the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership is conducting a two-part habitat study to learn whether Spring Glass Eel make it as far as one Raritan River tributary called the Green Brook, and whether removal of trash blockages along the Green Brook waterway aids their passage. Through the LRWP’s Glass Eel Community Science Monitoring Project the organization will catch and count the number of juvenile Spring glass eels found in a portion of the Green Brook River prior to, and after, the installation of a mechanical pollution reduction device called a Bandalong Bandit “Trash Trap”. The project study site is located in Dunellen at approximately Jefferson Ave.

By catching and counting Spring glass eels in March, the organization seeks to  establish baseline data regarding the presence of these animals in Green Brook prior to the implementation of a pollution reduction device.  Monitoring for the presence of Spring glass eels in May, after the April installation of the Trash Trap, will give a sense of whether the trash trap positively or negatively impacted a critical species of aquatic wildlife.

A photo of a document, titled ‘Science Collection Permit’. The permit lists the location of the site (Green Brook, Tributary of Raritan River), sampling equipment (EEL Mop and Aquarium net), and the permit conditions.

Goals of this community science project include supporting community members in hands-on science studies, and connecting youth with the beauty and fascinating habitat of often overlooked urban streams. By linking glass eel studies to trash reduction efforts, we also seek to bring attention to the positive impact of community clean-ups, as well as to support public understanding of the Green Brook waterway as a vibrant aquatic habitat. We anticipate that the reduction of plastic debris will benefit aquatic and semi-aquatic wildlife, like that of the Spring Glass Eels, by reducing microplastic ingestion, reduce potential exposure to contaminants, and allow for easier migration upstream by removing trash blockages. Join us!

With many thanks to the NY/NJ Harbor & Estuary Program and the Hudson River Foundation for their generous support of this program:

Volunteer Spotlight: Mike Vacca

Article by LRWP Streamkeeper Coordinator, Jon Dugan

In this month’s volunteer spotlight, we are going to learn a little bit about the Ambrose Brook and one of its volunteer Streamkeepers, Mike Vacca.

Ambrose Brook Streamkeeper Mike Vacca on the left, with LRWP Streamkeeper Coordinator Jon Dugan

Ambrose Brook is a tributary of the Green Brook in Middlesex County, New Jersey in the United States. The Ambrose originates underneath what is now a Volkswagen dealership along Route 27 in Edison. It then flows into Lake Papaianni, which is within an Edison Twp. municipal park. The Ambrose then continues flowing northwest, parallel to County Route 529, eventually crossing Route 529 and Ethel Road West, it forms a border to some businesses in Piscataway.

Upon flowing into Lake Nelson, the brook takes a more westerly route into Ambrose Doty’s Park. The brook then takes a southwest turn and flows into the Green Brook near Lincoln Boulevard in Middlesex just before the Raritan River. During this entire course of flow, the LRWP monitors two key locations along the Ambrose Brook, selected for the location to their confluence.

Mike Vacca is one of the Streamkeepers for the two sites along the Ambrose Brook before it connects with the Green Brook. Mike started his volunteer days with the LRWP back in May 2019, where he started learning about the Visual Monitoring Program. He volunteers for the Spring and Fall session on monitoring, and often will attend workshops to sharpen his habitat-assessing skills. Mike takes measurements and graded-evaluations of the stream in order to give it an overall Habitat Assessment score. These scores are compared with prior years to “paint a picture” of the stream health of the course of several years.

When Mike is not out monitoring the Ambrose, his interests are gardening, hiking, movies, music, painting, video games, and spending time with his nieces. Mike also likes collecting glass and interesting looking rocks (especially ones that he finds when walking up and down the river or hiking). Keep an eye out for him the next time you find yourself in the Ambrose Brook watershed!

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