Tag: Heather Fenyk

#lookfortheriver at the Wallace House and Old Dutch Parsonage

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.

Aerial Tour of the Raritan Basin

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.

Registration required.

LRWP @ Perth Amboy SWIM

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!

Agnotology, or what don’t we know about what we don’t know?

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 be perpetuated?

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.

Precautionary Principle

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.

Risk Assessment

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.

LRWP’s Most popular posts of 2019

Many thanks to all our blog contributors in 2019!

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

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

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

#4 Elmwood Cemetery BioBlitz, by Howard Swerdloff

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

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

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

#LookForTheRiver, Jersey Water Works Opening Plenary Speech

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

Good Morning Everyone,

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

So, let’s start this over.

Good morning everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does the artist engage in this space?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our work has been both conceptual and literal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Superstorm Sandy prompts us to #lookfortheriver

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. #lookfortheriver is an outreach campaign to engage New Jersey residents in examining changes made to our urban streams and hydrology over time.

Seven years ago my family was without power and heat following Superstorm Sandy. We spent days off from school and work, charging phones in a local fire station, shopping at A&P in the dark, and mopping up our flooded basement apartment. We mourned with our next door neighbor who lost a brother to generator-related carbon monoxide poisoning, and with a colleague who lost a neighbor when the storm’s vicious winds downed a tree.

Today we stop to remember. As we do, we think about those for whom Hurricane-related devastation is fresh. The Bahamas is still assessing damage from Hurricane Dorian. Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria. And just last month Tropical Storm Imelda dumped 43 inches on the Houston, Texas region, causing wide scale flooding, a near repeat of the intense rainfall seen during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Imelda and Harvey in particular have brought attention to the likelihood that global climate change will increase the frequency of powerful hurricanes and other storms, and not just in Texas. The northeast has already experienced a 71% increase between 1958 and 2012 in rainfall from intense storms. If the amount of rain that saturated Houston during Harvey or Imelda hit Raritan Bay, our Lower Raritan Watershed riverine communities, including Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Sayreville and South River, would be completely inundated through a combination of storm surge and overland stormwater flow. Although rainfall amounts akin to Harvey are unlikely in our region, we know we must adapt to a wetter, stormier reality.

Intense rainfall is especially devastating in heavily urbanized areas that are characterized by impervious cover, and by streams that are completely culverted, buried, or otherwise covered up. The impact of “hiding” so many of streams causes serious problems. Communities are alienated from their waterways and historic ecologies, habitats are degraded, water quality is compromised, and stormwater runoff and flooding intensify. In the context of intensified precipitation, healthy, open streams play an important role in stormwater management. Open streams slow and control stormwater surge, and stormwater gets absorbed and gradually released by soil and plants.

On this seventh anniversary of Hurricane Sandy the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP) is rolling out #lookfortheriver, a new campaign designed to inspire care for neglected waterways – our lost or forgotten streams – in the context of climate change, intensified urban flooding and sea level rise. We see #lookfortheriver as a way to build social resilience, and to empower communities, particularly folks in harms way with respect to flooding, to value and restore freshwater ecosystems and the environment as community care and resilience.

#lookfortheriver is a way for ordinary citizens to learn how to adapt and prepare for a wetter, stormier future. It involves training in how to read a topographic map, identify watersheds, and understand basic hydrology. It is designed to support residents and communities as they explore their own local landscapes, and to open up discussion about historic patterns of land management and how we might do better. 

The LRWP will be gradually building a portfolio of #lookfortheriver offerings. To start, in 2020 eligible entities like libraries, historical societies, museums, civic associations, public agencies, senior centers, and other community groups throughout the state of New Jersey can host a #lookfortheriver outreach session through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities (NJCH) Public Scholars Project.

We are excited about this new initiative, and hope you will join us as we look to the future and #lookfortheriver.

Lower Raritan wins 2019 “Golden Toilet” award

Last week our River was “honored” for having the worst performing waters in terms of bacteria levels of any of the civic science monitoring projects in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary. Yes, the Raritan River received the 2019 “Golden Toilet” award from NYC’s The River Project.

Click here to see entire season’s results for all 70+ sites, displayed week by week. Click on the map icons here to see results for specific sites.

IEC Environmental Analyst Jessica Bonamusa models the 2019 “Golden Toilet” award

While facing ignominy is not our preferred approach to public engagement, we do hope this helps bring attention and resources to clean up our River. There is nowhere to go but up.

We and our EARTH Center of Middlesex County partners have a lot of work to do in terms of data analysis, but expect more detailed reporting out in the coming weeks.

It is because of the commitment and dedication of our volunteer monitors that we have the data to start pinpointing, and addressing, problems and sources of pollution. A huge THANKS to them for helping us build this program and clean up our Raritan. And a special thanks to the Interstate Environmental Pollution Control Commission for lab analysis.

The River Project’s annual awards night, LRWP’s Heather Fenyk receiving the “Golden Toilet” on behalf of the Raritan River

South River’s “Brick Beach”

Article and photo by Heather Fenyk

On March 16 the LRWP hosted a clean-up of South River’s Grekoski Park and the adjacent floodplain. Despite the biting wind we had a good turn out, and cleared several dozen bags of trash and plastic from the floodplain, stream, lake bottom, lake’s edge, and wooded areas. While we cleared out hundreds of plastic bottles and dozens of tires, we did not contend with the significant legacy industrial dumping issues at the site, perhaps the most visually striking of which is South River’s “Brick Beach.”

South River’s “Brick Beach”
photo taken during the LRWP’s March 16 clean-up of Grekoski Park

This brick-strewn tidal floodplain is an especially curious aspect of central New Jersey’s industrial legacy. The American Enameled Brick and Tile Company operated at this site from 1893-1934, and many of New York’s brownstones and subways were made from our Lower Raritan clay. My father-in-law’s first job in America was as a brick maker just across the river at the Sayre and Fisher Brick Company.

The American Enameled Brick and Tile Co. was established in 1893 in South River by Julius Steurberg, his son Herbert Steurberg, and Francis Booraem. With offices in New York City, they were major players in New York City’s construction. In June, 1934, the South River plant was destroyed by fire, never to be rebuilt.

The visual experience here is bizarre: hundreds of thousands of 100+ year old bricks “shoring up” the southern embankment of the South River. The walk across this space is likewise disconcerting. It may look like stable ground but, being tidal (photo was taken at low tide) and heavily silted from upstream erosion, the bricks shift significantly beneath your feet.

The South River floodplain is tidal and heavily silted. Photo taken at low tide.

We stumbled across another visually compelling remnant of the the brick industry at this site in the form of an abandoned rail spur. This bit of railway led from from brick manufacture to boats that would travel the short distance along the South River to the Raritan River and across Raritan Bay to New York City.

Neglected rail spur leading from the former American Enameled Brick and Tile Company to boats waiting to ferry bricks to Manhattan.

An MLK Day invitation to grow through service

Martin Luther King Day was established as a National Holiday in 1983. Eleven years later in 1994, Congress added a service component to the holiday. Monday January 21 marks the 25th anniversary of our federally designated National Day of Service, also called the “King Day of Service” or “A Day On, Not a Day Off.”

Through his leadership of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King provided tremendous service to our nation. Despite this, media coverage of the service aspect of Martin Luther King Day celebrations is sparse. Especially rare are stories that highlight impacts of volunteering that go beyond economic valuation and personal benefits.

How can we build on Dr. King’s legacy and celebrate volunteering in ways that strengthen our neighborhoods and nation? We can conceive of service as an expression of citizenship, service as an expression of generosity, and service as the opportunity to experience a felt sense of community.

Citizenship. The pressures of our day-to-day political and economic engagement tend to reduce us to “voters” or “consumers.” Through this process we lose sense of ourselves as citizens, and lose connection to our communities. Volunteering allows us to connect deeply with one another as citizens in the craft of working together for the common good.

Generosity. Non-profits, schools and nursing homes do not need “free labor” or “spare time” as much as they need the generosity of spirit that prompts us to engage as volunteers. In sharing our generosity, we are held to a higher standard: the intention to enhance the true well-being of those to whom our generosity is given.

Community. Volunteering is about a felt sense of community. It is about making connections and building resilience. Connections, resilience – these are especially critical assets in these more trying times.

As we recognize 25 years of celebrating service as a national value, let’s reflect on and commit to grow through the broad benefits of volunteerism. Evolving through service in this way can help strengthen our diverse communities and further protect civil rights and civil liberties.

Heather Fenyk, Ph.D. serves as Board President of the 100% volunteer-run Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership based in New Brunswick, NJ.

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