Interview by Emily Koai, LRWP Spring 2020 Raritan Scholar
Nandini Checko was born in India and moved to the United States at a young age. She earned her bachelors and masters degrees at Rutgers and Columbia Universities respectively. When her children started school, she began her journey in local volunteering in schools and townships within Somerset County. She has helped with a multitude of initiatives in an effort to improve local sustainability. Through her work with LRWP and ANJEC, she hopes for improved civic engagement in communities and a more profound understanding of our interconnectedness with nature.
EK: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
NC: Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t have an environmental science background. I have a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers School of Business, and a master’s degree from Columbia in Organizational Development. My degree in organizational development has helped frame the work that I do because it takes a holistic approach to managing change — the people, systems, process and technology. It’s a highly collaborative approach to help move a project along and to help folks really co-create their future.
EK: What led you to your focus in plastics then?
NC: It started with my organization that I work for right now, which is the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC)— a statewide, non-profit environmental group that helps New Jersey environmental commissions, individuals, local and state agencies preserve natural resources and promote sustainable communities. We just celebrated 50 years of environmental excellence. We are a small but mighty group! My boss came to me maybe about 4 years ago and said EPA Region 2 is doing a roll out of a program called Trash Free Waters – zero waste loading of trash into our waterways, and at that time, Region 2 (NJ, NY, PR, US Virgin Islands, & eight Indian Nations) was led by Judith Enck. She’s an absolute visionary, a total leader, similar to Heather—very inspiring and amazing woman.
ANJEC started dipping their toes in and asked “What would that really look like in New Jersey?” When we dug into that question, we found our way to the problem of people pollution. The nine million of us that live in New Jersey—we’re all polluting in our own little way. So much waste entering our natural eco-systems. And when you dig down into that waste (especially litter), then you’re looking at plastics, and when you go a little further into plastics, you realize the majority of it is single-use, once and done.
That really motivated us to take this and move this agenda item forward. It aligns very well with our mission of supporting the local environment and I had a lot of support to advance reducing single-use plastics from my boss, Jennifer Coffey (ANJEC Executive Director) – an inspirational leader that gives the staff a lot of leeway.
EK: Did you have any passion projects in your career that led you to where you are today?
NC: I lived in India during my formative years and was always really connected to the environment. I’m very sensitive about waste– whether it’s litter or food waste, just waste in general, it bothers me deeply because it’s such a pull on the Earth’s resources.
We recycle at home, and when my son started elementary school, I figured the school was doing the same. And then he came home a few weeks in and said that they don’t recycle in school. I looked into it and, sure enough, they weren’t recycling. That started me on the path of local volunteering. I started the Green Design Group and we created sustainable efforts within the community and put forth a lot of the initiatives in schools and the township. And through that effort, I also started the Green Classroom Committee. As a parent volunteer, I worked with the superintendent, the facilities manager, business administrator, students and teachers to help educate and implement a variety of programs from anti-idling, removing Styrofoam lunch trays, and energy efficiency programs.
When you think about what gets people activated, it’s about what they can see, touch and feel in their own lives. When you see the woods in your town on fire, you’re going to get involved and ask: Why is that on fire? How can I help? For me, it was my kids. I was recycling at home and they come back from school and say they’re not recycling there. That’s when I got curious. Children are key to helping adults get involved in civic engagement.
EK: On a wider scale, what roles do you think municipalities have in progressing the work we are doing as an organization?
NC: I think they play a massive role. Municipalities are key players in advancing LRWP’s mission of improving water quality and the health of the ecosystem of the Raritan River. Given NJ’s home rule structure, local governance is essential to making water stewardship and advocacy a priority.
EK: What kind of opportunities do you think there are for partnership between the LRWP and the ANJEC?
NC: “Water is life, and we have a moral obligation to protect it for all its inhabitants now and in the future.” This quote from Candy Ashmun, ANJEC Co-founder, highlights the synergy between our two groups. Environmental commissions play a pretty unique role in municipalities. Most local planning happens within the boundaries of the town and in site development, it’s just by block and lot numbers. You’re not looking to see how it’s all connected. Water, land, animals have no boundaries. And environmental commissioners, when they take that bigger regional look, they’re looking at the watershed. Through my role at ANJEC, I would like to introduce more municipal officials to LRWP and help advance our mutual goals.
EK: What would you like to communicate to today’s society about watersheds and the environment?
Watersheds play a really key role in all our lives. We have to support reducing the amount of pollution that enters the watersheds and people need to better understand where their water comes from and where it goes.
Emily Koai, LRWP Raritan Scholar Intern Spring 2020
New Jersey’s habitat faces significant barriers due to an expanding urban landscape. Ecosystems of interdependent flora and fauna are interrupted by the hustle and bustle of high-volume traffic and concrete, man-made passages of culverts. This juxtaposition gives us pause to reflect on what can be done to help wildlife connect to their habitats across our built environment. We are prompted consider our urban landscape and promote connectivity between our natural spaces and to improve and enhance the relationship between our natural environment and our urban communities.
Originally scheduled for March 16th, the LRWP’s much anticipated habitat connectivity workshop was held virtually on May 4. Many thanks to our partners – Middlesex County Office of Planning, NJDEP, and NY/NJ Harbor Estuary – for persevering and helping us bring these tools and knowledge to participants via a virtual platform! A video of Mr. Zarate’s presentation is now on youtube.
Working with tools shared during the workshop, our friend Herve Barrier created an inaturalist project for the Lawrence Brook subwatershed. Herve explains: “I copied the borders, street by street, using the CHANJ map, after selecting only the ‘watershed’ layer. I am working to make it more and more precise.” Feel free to add your own observations to the growing tally of almost 12,000 observations in the Lawrence Brook sub-watershed! Interested in starting an inaturalist page for another sub-watershed of our Lower Raritan? Let us know!
To kick things off, Isabelle Stinnette explained how she and her team from the NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Program set out to explore potential passages for our diadromous and potadromous fish friends through their Aquatic Connectivity Through Climate-Ready Infrastructure Project. What they found were tens of culverts and barriers in the Lower Raritan that obstruct the passability for aquatic wildlife. Blocked up by debris and soil, many of these sites have the potential to be opened up or mitigated into effective passages, a sentiment that excited volunteers. This project uses the North Atlantic Connectivity Collaborative protocols (www.naacc.org) in concert with a hydraulic model to make recommendations for connectivity restoration in New Jersey watersheds.
To help illustrate the potential for these obstructed passageways, Brian Zarate, along with Gretchen Fowles, the originator of CHANJ (Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey), helped bring habitat connectivity to our screens. Launched in 2019, CHANJ provides innovative tools that map out natural land cover in relation to our urban environments and further guidance “to help prioritize land protection, inform habitat restoration and management, and guide mitigation of road barrier effects on wildlife and their habitats”. Layer by layer, the mapping tool reveals the islands of greenery our wildlife seek refuge in and, connecting them, corridors or stepping stones, pit stops for our terrestrial friends. With ease of access to information about each core, recommendations, and even NAACC protocols utilized by Isabelle and her team, the tools of CHANJ bring us closer to our goal of habitat connectivity.
We are now presented with an opportunity to consider fish ladders, debris removal, and underpasses to help aid wildlife carry out their natural life cycles. The branch now extends to our municipal partners, counties, and DoTs to consider this opening to administer changes that will help build bridges across built environments for our wildlife
Indicative of urban sprawl, the visible islands for wildlife now have evolving needs for preservation. Whittled down to beige and green corridors and stepping stones on our screens, CHANJ and the work of the HEP gives us the means to see opportunities for connections between our natural and built environments. Wildlife have had to adapt to their altered environments as development slowly engulfed their living quarters. With green islands surrounded by the liveliness that is our urban environment, our role as stewards now extends to the advocation of habitat connectivity to help enhance our relationship between our natural environments and urban communities.
Whether on the statewide, local, or backyard scale, CHANJ can help us to visualize our place in New Jersey’s habitat connectivity puzzle and to take steps to preserve and restore important linkages for wildlife across the landscape.
Not sure where to begin? Don’t sweat, the CHANJ Mapping Tutorial will walk you through it! This step-by-step video shows you how to use our online interactive CHANJ Web Viewer (mapping tool), so you’ll be up to cruising speed in about 10 minutes.
Want to learn more about habitat connectivity in New Jersey? See PBS’s Eco Sense for Living’s “Wild Crossings” special feature highlighting local habitat connectivity work.
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.