Article and Photos by Michele Bakacs
Ahoy There Matey! Rutgers Environmental Stewards Take Their First Boat Trip on the Raritan River
On May 3rd the Middlesex class of Rutgers Environmental Stewards took the water. This afforded them a rare opportunity to see the Raritan River up close by taking a 2 hour boat trip on the new R/V Rutgers. The R/V Rutgers is a new boat operated by the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences. This 36 ft. (11 meter) aluminum landing craft is a 20 passenger vessel and supports a wide range of educational and scientific needs such as trawling, grab sampling, diving, water profiling, coring, AUV operations, etc. Faculty can reserve the vessel so students can get a first-hand look at the Raritan River ecosystem and the human impacts to the watershed.
This is part of a larger effort by the Rutgers Collaborative for Research and Education to “Bring the River to your classroom” and works to support faculty efforts in engaging students and the community in Raritan River data and science through data activities.
The Rutgers Environmental Stewards program trains volunteers on important environmental issues affecting New Jersey and helps them make a difference in their own communities. The program consists of 60 hours of classes offered around the state on topics including habitat protection, climate change, geology, soil health, alternative energy, invasive plants, environmental policy, pollinators, and much more. Stewards complete a 60 hour internship of their choosing in order to become certified. Optional field trips are included. Anyone can become an Environmental Steward regardless of background.
The Stewards met the boat in Boyd Park in New Brunswick at the Class of 1914 Boathouse and were welcomed by the boat’s captain Chip Haldeman, and first mate Nicole Waite. Joining us on our trip was Dr. Heather Fenyk, Director of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, and Dr. JeanMarie Hartman, Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture. Heather and JeanMarie provided a rich history of the Raritan and identified points of interest including shale outcrop geologic formations, the Lenape Trail connection to the River, noted flora and fauna, as well as the industrial legacy of contaminated sites, old factories, and the Edgewater Landfill.
First mate Nicole taught the Stewards how researchers monitor water quality and trained them on collecting data using YSI water monitoring probes to test for dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, and salinity. We also saw 2 Bald Eagles, countless Ospreys, Cormorants, and vast marshland. The salt marshes are mostly dominated by Phragmites australis, an invasive grass known as Common Reed, but we also saw native Spartina alterniflora (Salt Marsh Cordgrass) holding its own at the fringes of the saltmarshes.
Overwhelmingly the Stewards walked away with a new appreciation of this fantastic natural resource that most of us take for granted. Most people see the Raritan River as a place to avoid, to view from afar from the Garden State Parkway or Route 1 Bridge. This experience helped the Stewards better understand the River that lies in the heart of their community, and the importance of making sure it is cleaned up and protected.
Keep an eye on the LRWP blog for information about how to register for the Rutgers Environmental Steward class of 2018!
Photos and article by Michele Bakacs, Environmental and Resource Management Agent, Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County, Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Through a relatively new program sponsored by Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, citizens throughout the Lower Raritan Watershed are working to help people discover the hidden natural world flowing through their communities. These citizens are part of the Rutgers Environmental Steward program and their projects range from conducting stream habitat assessments to developing middle school illustration lessons highlighting the flora and fauna of the watershed.
The goal of the Rutgers Environmental Steward program is to help citizens understand the science behind pressing environmental issues and help create positive environmental change in their communities. Susan Edmunds from Highland Park is one such Environmental Steward working on assessing the health of Mill Brook, a tributary of the Lower Raritan River.
“My goal is to bring an awareness of the Mill Brook to the community so we can work to protect it and use it as an asset. I have realized the most important thing to do is just talk to people about the brook. So many people just don’t know it is there. It would be nice to be able to take a stroll along the brook in some of the already existing parks.”
One morning in September, we scramble down a steep ravine and climb down over branches to the brook. The brook is hidden behind chain link fences, railroad overpasses, and overgrown vegetation. Once you are there you can’t believe how beautiful it is. We are transported to a natural world where the gurgling stream winds its way past towering locusts and silver maple canopy trees, and through sandstone and shale outcrops. Of course we see garbage and dumping typical of every urban waterway- the stereotypical abandoned tire and shopping cart, down trees across the stream collecting trash showing you just how damaging plastic water bottles can be to our environment when not disposed of properly. But except for the occasional train coming by as a reminder, you can barely tell how close we are to houses, roads, and train tracks. There’s the sounds of birds, leaves blowing, shadows and sunlight peaking through the trees on the water. The brook is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by anyone who makes the effort to find it.
“The Environmental Stewards program was exactly what I hoped it would be in that I gave me a way to start getting involved with environmental protection in my community.”
Environmental Steward Susan Edmunds Assesses Mill Brook
Mapping Mill Brook is the project Susan chose for her Rutgers Environmental Steward internship. After attending about 60 hours of classes that start in January and run through June, Stewards complete an internship project of their choosing in order to become a certified Rutgers Environmental Stewards. The program welcomes non-scientists and links them with members of the academic community, government, and non-profits. The curriculum includes classes, field trips, and an internship. Once Susan is done mapping her section of Mill Brook she will summarize her findings for the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership who will use her work to prioritize sections of the Lower Raritan for monitoring, restoration, and clean up.
“Already this project has connected me with so many people who are just like me in that they want to clean up this stream. From this assessment I plan to create a presentation about the brook and its history. I am excited about the potential for a Friends of the Mill Brook group working together towards stream access. This assessment is just the beginning of my journey.”
During the assessment, Susan takes pictures of deteriorating culverts, tree snags that collect garbage and stormdrain outfalls- concrete pipes that empty the rainwater runoff from local roads into the stream. We walk into a steep ravine probably 25 feet high with sandstone and shale outcrops leading to a large culvert where the stream flows under the NJTransit’s train tracks. This ends today’s journey and we turn around to make our way back to civilization.
If you are like Susan, and looking to start your own journey helping to protect the local environment, then sign up for the 2017 Rutgers Environmental Stewards class. Classes start in January in 5 counties throughout the state including Middlesex County at the EARTH Center in South Brunswick, and Somerset County at Duke Farms. For more information contact Michele Bakacs, at 732-398-5274, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our website http://envirostewards.rutgers.edu/
Rutgers Day is this Saturday April 30th! Stop by to spin the “Wheel of the Raritan” and to chat with the LRWP. This year we are sharing a table with Rutgers watershed management students and will be set-up in front of Blake Hall around Passion Puddle (Cook/Douglass Campus in New Brunswick).
Rutgers Day – held across all Rutgers campuses – starts at 10 am & runs until 4 pm. It is our favorite day of the year: friends, music, food, exhibits, tons of opportunities to learn new things – so much fun! Hope to see you Saturday!
The LRWP thanks Professor Lathrop, the newly-appointed Johnson Family Chair in Water Resources and Watershed Ecology at Rutgers University, for sharing his vision for how Rutgers can provide academic leadership to improve the health of the Raritan River. For more information about the Johnson Family Chair and Professor Lathrop’s new position please see the Rutgers Today Press Release.
By Richard G. Lathrop Jr.
Modern society is increasingly coming to recognize water as a critical resource, on a par with oil and gas. Water scarcity, whether due to prolonged drought, political instability, regional conflict or any combination of the above, is at a crisis stage on the US West Coast, across the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. Point sources of water contamination or more diffuse sources of pollution related to urban, suburban or agricultural land uses is also of increasing concern. Ensuring access to clean and abundant water to sustain both human society and healthy ecosystems over the 21st century will require a concerted effort on the part of government, academic, private and non-profit sectors. From an academic standpoint, addressing this challenge will require not only an interdisciplinary approach bridging the social, political and natural sciences but also a watershed perspective that links the land surface to downstream aquatic systems. The Johnson Family Chair in Water Resources and Watershed Ecology is intended to undergird such an effort here at Rutgers University.
In the heart of the most densely populated region in the nation, the Raritan River Watershed serves as a “natural laboratory” to study how human actions and policies both negatively and positively affect ecological health of a watershed system. One of my major focal areas as Johnson Family Chair will be co-leading the Sustainable Raritan River Initiative (SRRI). The objective of the SRRI is to work with various stakeholders in the watershed to balance social, economic and environmental objectives towards the common goal of restoring the Raritan River, its tributaries and its estuary for current and future generations. Since the founding of the SRRI in 2009, the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy has provided academic leadership in the policy realm and the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in the scientific realm. The SRRI in turn partners with the Sustainable Raritan River Collaborative (SRRC) representing a network of over 130 organizations, governmental entities and businesses in the Raritan River Basin. As Johnson Family Chair, I will provide strong scientific leadership to chart SRRI’s future direction and ensure that issues of critical significance to the Raritan watershed are addressed. In addition to my own research, I will coordinate with various individual scientists, departments and research centers to make sure that Rutgers University’s scientific and technical expertise is brought to bear. Working in concert, we should be able to achieve tangible results towards restoring the Raritan River and Bay to a vibrant and biologically diverse ecosystem for the benefit of present and future citizens of the state and region. Further, the lessons learned from the science and policy research conducted under SRRI’s rubric will transcend the local environs and have relevance elsewhere in the United States, as well as globally.
Within the University, as the Johnson Family Chair I will play a key role in developing and promoting an academic agenda centered on the Raritan River and its watershed. Such an academic agenda will seek to engage a variety of curricula, both on- and off-campus, to make greater use of the Raritan River and the Rutgers Ecological Preserve as part of their educational program. These places provide experiential learning sites where students can observe and collect data as well as get their “hands dirty” by undertaking experimental manipulations and be involved in hands-on restoration and enhancement, design or arts projects. Within the EcoPreserve or on the Raritan, students can put into practice classroom or online learning in a real world environment. These field experiences will be coupled with advanced information technology to integrate field data collection with real-time sensor networks and geospatial information systems to make the EcoPreserve and the River a natural classroom as well as a living laboratory. One great advantage of the EcoPreserve and the River is that they are right on campus and accessible to students via the campus bus system; thus making their use for instructional purposes both time and cost effective. While our alma mater celebrates the University’s location “on the banks of the old Raritan” the University does not have ready access to the river proper. To help rectify this situation, the Chair will spearhead a feasibility study for the development of a Raritan River Watershed teaching/research field facility to be able to bring classes to and out on the water.
The Rutgers New Brunswick-Piscataway campus is blessed to have 400 acres of open space right at its very core, the Rutgers Ecological Preserve and Natural Teaching Area. As Johnson Family Chair, I will serve as Faculty Director of the Ecological Preserve, building on past success to further integrate the EcoPreserve into the life of the University and the surrounding community. As outlined above, the University has the opportunity to build a world-class educational program around the EcoPreserve and lead the United States in the academic pursuit of natural areas/open space stewardship, ecological restoration and leadership training. As the “voice” for the EcoPreserve as the University moves towards implementing the recently announced Physical Master Plan, I will strive to ensure that the role of the EcoPreserve to enhance student instruction and community quality of life is more fully realized.
Personal Background: Richard G. Lathrop Jr.
I have 25+ years of experience working with a diverse array of federal, state, and local government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) including watershed associations, land trusts, environmental NGOs, federal and state environmental agencies, and regional land/ocean management agencies. My interaction with these various groups has been to integrate insights from ecology and geography with the application of geo-spatial information science and technology to provide a “big picture” view that spans from an individual wetland or forest to the watershed to multi-state regions. More specifically, I have focused on measuring and modeling the how human land use activities and natural habitat change in the watershed affect downstream aquatic and estuarine structure and function. For example, as part of the Barnegat Bay National Estuary Program, I have been investigating the spatial and temporal dynamics of salt marshes and seagrass beds, both key nursery habitats for a number of commercially important fish and shellfish species, as key indicators of estuarine health. Working with the above partners, I have attempted to translate that understanding into effective and appropriate approaches and policies to improve natural resource management and land use planning. For example, in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy and other local partners, we have created the Restoration Explorer, an online tool that provides communities with a simple way to visualize where beneficial coastal restoration and enhancement projects are most appropriate based on ecological and engineering data. In my work, I have on multiple occasions assembled and lead multi-disciplinary teams to address water resources and watershed ecological issues. While much of my work has been conducted using New Jersey and MidAtlantic case studies, the implications of this research are relevant much more broadly, to elsewhere in the United States, as well as globally.
In 2009, Dean Robert Goodman appointed me as Faculty Director of the Rutgers Ecological Preserve with the charge to actively promote its teaching, research, active/passive recreation, and resource protection mission. I sought this position as a means to further my understanding of ‘on-the-ground’ natural resource management by being engaged personally in managing and restoring this 400 acre property, as well as an opportunity to further student engagement in learning and appreciation of the natural environment.
During my tenure:1) use of the Preserve has increased for academic purposes though a range of formal and informal instructional activities engaging middle and high school (including underserved youth), undergraduate, graduate and ROTC students; 2) use has increased for student research projects investigating such topics as the dispersal and control of invasive plants; 3) service learning opportunities have been provided to Rutgers courses (Principles of Natural Resource Management) and clubs (RU Outdoors Club, Naturalist Club) and outside groups (4-H, middle-high school environmental clubs); 4) natural resource values have been promoted though proactive meadow management, deer population control, riparian zone restoration, and wildlife habitat enhancements; 5) a forest vegetation inventory undertaken to provide a baseline on the forest community composition and health; 6) access has been increased by developing an extensive (7.5 miles), well maintained trail system and the opening up a new trailhead on Livingston campus; and 7) outdoor recreational opportunities have been enhanced through organized events that accommodate hundreds of participants (RU Muddy, Run for the Woods, Orienteering meets).
In closing, I grew up in the Raritan River Watershed and have lived 40 of my 56 years here. I hike its woods, paddle its waters and observe its wildlife. Thus I am personally invested in making the Raritan River Watershed a better place to live for its human inhabitants as well as its flora and fauna.