In this Public Scholars Program session at the Old Dutch Parsonage and Wallace House in Somerville, to be held on Sunday June 14, at 3pm, LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk will discuss the changes made to our urban streams over time; how to read a topographic map, identify watersheds, and #lookfortheriver – to empower community members to explore their own local landscapes.
As we travel through our communities, few of us think about the hidden world of streams and rivers that once flowed across the landscape. In the face of climate change and increased precipitation, real life has shown us that stormwater runoff and flooding have intensified. Centuries of piping, culverting and development have hidden the vast majority of waterways in urban areas. The impact of these factors can be devastating: communities are alienated from their streams and historic ecologies, habitats are degraded, and water quality is compromised.
Please contact Paul Soltis to register and for more information: Paul.Soltis@dep.nj.gov
This program is funded by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
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).
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
On Tuesday May 12, 5:30-6:30 pm join Heather Fenyk with the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, Alison M. Jones with No Water No Life, and Joe Mish (aka Winter Bear Rising) author of the LRWP series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” for a virtual tour of the Raritan Basin.
During this hour long tour Heather, Alison and Joe will share and discuss images taken during a LightHawk flight on April 2019. With many thanks to LightHawk, Inc. for the experience – we look forward to sharing some the experience with you.
This was a very special flight. We expect it to be a very special conversation.
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.
The LRWP will join Perth Amboy Stormwater Management Infrastructure Team (SWIM) on Thursday March 5, 2 pm at the Raritan Bay Area YMCA to discuss water quality monitoring results from Summer 2019 and monitoring plans for 2020. Also on the agenda for this meeting is the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Long Term Control Plan for Perth Amboy, and a presentation by Rutgers graduate student Kelley Forsyth. Kelley has developed an intriguing proposal for stormwater management in Perth Amboy: increase tree canopy by 1% and launch a “tree farm” on municipal land!
We have learned a lot about ignorance in the last several years, enough in fact for ignorance to now be the focus of its own research field called “agnotology.” The basic idea of agnotology is that ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, but something that has been itself historically constituted.
Mark Ruffalo’s 2019 film Dark Waters – a study of how DuPont and the US Environmental Protection Agency perpetuated ignorance about the harms related to Perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOAs and the presence of PFOAs in the lands and waters of West Virginia – is a great example of agnotology research. Also on the shelf of agnotology studies is The Guardian’s examination of the case of Flint, Michigan where, for at least a year and a half after hundreds of public complaints about “foul smelling drinking water as dark as coffee,” local politicians suppressed environmental and public health information.
We know from both these cases – and a seemingly endless set
of additional examples including mounting climate crises around the world –
that ignorance has major destructive and devastating consequences.
The core questions that agnotology asks are: How has ignorance
been historically constituted? And how (and why) have we allowed ignorance to
Applying this line of thinking to environmental assaults, we
need to ask: how are ordinary people at times complicit in perpetuating the
ignorance that wreaks environmental harm and injustices?
One way to start to understand our construction of ignorance
is to examine the perspectives we bring to consider environmental harm and
injustice in the first place. Take the two different starting points of the
Precautionary Principle and Risk Assessment.
In 1992 I interned with the United Nations Association in
preparation for the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and helped develop a
compendium of documents on global approaches to addressing environmental
concerns. One such approach was the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary
Principle suggests that environmental policy involve anticipating harm and
taking appropriate precautions. That is, possible harms are considered
pre-emptively as part of development of any new policy. The precautionary
principle has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of
uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity;
exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and
increasing public participation in decision making. The Precautionary Principle
guides policy making in many countries, and is the foundation of the strongest
and most comprehensive US federal environmental protection programs including
the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Toxic Substances
Control Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
For the last several decades, the Precautionary Principle
has been superseded by an alternative approach to policy and decision making
called “risk assessment.” With respect to environmental hazards, risk
assessment seeks to balance pollution against profit and economic growth. Assessments
of risk are carried out by regulatory agencies responsible for protecting
environmental and human health, and these entities set pollutant limits and
site-specific assessments. Industry is then responsible for complying with
legislation and site-specific decisions. Risk assessment is the default
approach for oil companies and other climate deniers. Risk assessment was the
default approach for DuPont, the EPA and Flint. As our mounting climate
concerns, the Dark Waters film, and the Flint water crisis make clear, the
“risk assessment” approach has failed us.
Agnotology pushes us to see how our ignorance is socially
constructed. That is, do we consider potential environmental harm and injustice
as something we must actively plan to avoid based on specific societal goals of
environmental well-being and justice (Precautionary Principle)? Or do we
instead choose to consider environmental harm and injustice in the context of
unknown future scenarios and risk calculations (Risk Assessment)?
Of course the Precautionary Principle and Risk Assessment are not the only approaches to bring to these considerations. Communities and societies around the world are wrestling with hybrid or other distinct approaches to reduce harms. The point is however, that if we hope to prevent future disasters in places like West Virginia and Flint, if we are to take action to avoid contributing to climate impacts, we need to think harder about how we know what we know about the impacts of our decisions to cause environmental harm and injustice. Making decisions while reflecting on them from an agnotological perspective – that is thinking about what we don’t know and how and why we don’t know it – is a good place to start.
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:
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.
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.
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.