Tag: Heather Fenyk

What’s In Our Water? Raritan River Info Sharing 2022

Since Summer 2019 the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County have conducted pathogens monitoring for Fecal Coliform and Enterococcus at six non-swimming public beach access sites along the Lower Raritan during the warmer months.

In this video, filmed as part of a public outreach session on 3.24.2022, we present a summary of data and findings for 2019-2021 monitoring, including analysis results of genetic source. We also share information about our monitoring plans for Summer 2022, including our partnership with the EPA.

On Mentorship Virtual Event: LRWP in conversation with No Water No Life

On Friday March 25, noon to 1 PM EST the LRWP will join our No Water No Life partners for a special conversation on how “Mentorship Goes Both Ways.”

No Water No Life writes:

“DIVE IN” is a new No Water No Life round-table event with our partners, advisors and NextGen bloggers discussing their views on freshwater resources, watershed issues and the value of mentorship.

Our first event will feature Heather Fenyk, Founder and President of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and Rachel Rebello, environmental law student at Georgetown. Facilitated by the NWNL team, Heather and Rachel will be in conversation about the importance of mentorship and sharing their personal conservation journeys.

Please register via eventbrite

Project Update: South River, NJ Ecosystem Restoration

On February 24, 2022 the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, Princeton Hydro and Middlesex County Office of Planning hosted a Virtual Outreach Session to share concept plan development for the restoration of a 165-acre coastal eco-park along the South River in New Jersey.

During this webinar project partners discuss ecosystem restoration; contextualize the site and its historic and current conditions; provide drone images of the site; and discuss proposed public access opportunities, recreational priorities, ecological enhancement (including identifying optimal nest platform locations for Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons), and more.

This project is supported through a $249,639 in National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to:

“Conduct an ecosystem restoration site assessment and design for 165 acres of tidal marshes and transitional forest in New Jersey’s Raritan River Watershed. Project will result in an engineering plan with a permit-ready design to reduce coastal inundation and erosion along about 2.5 miles of shoreline for neighboring flood-prone communities and enhance breeding and foraging habitat for 10 state-listed threatened and endangered avian species.”

#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.

7 ways environmental NGOs can be allies in the fight against systemic racism

By LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk

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.

Consider lead contamination of water in predominantly black and brown communities, such as Newark, NJ and Flint, MI. These crises are rooted systemic racism.

Consider research findings that, in the U.S., the best predictor of whether you live near a hazardous waste site is the color of your skin.

Consider how legacies of redlining – the government-sanctioned denial of home loans and insurance to communities of color – means that people of color are more likely than white people to live alongside power plants, oil refineries, and landfills.

And consider how environmental racism is fueling the Coronavirus pandemic with resultant health disparities in our communities of color.

“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.

Our organizations must turn attention to communities of color to prioritize environmental education, support environmental stewardship, and develop regular outreach programs on how to use freely available on-line Environmental Justice, climate change, and health-related analytical tools.

7.We must educate ourselves about historic and system racism, supporting those who are imagining a new path forward for our state and nation through structural change.

This includes supporting and engaging with a diversity of environmental justice advocates, environmentalists of color, and those working toward social equity in our communities via social media and other platforms.

Why Should the Environmental World Stand Up Against Systemic Racism?

By LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk

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.

Especially with respect to environmental and land use issues, the LRWP works to reform a racist system in which the status quo has always been unjust. At the core of our work is a belief that watershed scale land management and environmental planning, especially in Home Rule states like New Jersey, is an urgently needed antidote to environmental racism and environmental injustices.

There are countless links between environmental injustice, environmental harms, racism, and inequality.

Consider lead contamination of water in predominantly black and brown communities, such as Newark, NJ and Flint, MI. These crises are rooted systemic racism.

Consider research findings that, in the U.S., the best predictor of whether you live near a hazardous waste site is the color of your skin.

Consider how legacies of redlining – the government-sanctioned denial of home loans and insurance to communities of color – means that people of color are more likely than white people to live alongside power plants, oil refineries, and landfills.

And consider how environmental racism is fueling the Coronavirus pandemic with resultant health disparities in our communities of color.

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.

Next steps

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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!
  3. 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).
  4. We will work to make resources available for our Lower Raritan Watershed community to analyze and understand environmental justice issues in their own neighborhoods. For starters please see our compilation of freely available on-line Environmental Justice, climate change, and health-related analytical tools.
  5. We will educate ourselves about historic and system racism, supporting those who are imagining a new path forward for our state and nation through structural change. Please consider joining us in following these important environmental justice advocates, environmentalists of color and other leaders on twitter and Instagram.

We invite you to join us on the path to an environmentally just Lower Raritan Watershed.

In Solidarity,

The Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership Board

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.

If water quality monitoring is inadequate, why do we monitor?

By LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk

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?

Sites of freshwater monitoring conducted by Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership “civic science” volunteers

Why 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.

Next steps

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.

Brackish water sites monitored for presence of pathogens/bacteria by the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership

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?

By LRWP Board President Heather Fenyk

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.

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