How the Bronx River Alliance is Changing the Bronx River for the Better

By: Viktoria Pashtriku

Recently the Bronx River Alliance (BRA) reintroduced herring to NYC’s largest freshwater river. We spoke with Kathalene Lamboy on the work BRA is doing to restore the river and engage Bronx citizens with their waters.

Kathalene Lamboy, Education Coordinator at Bronx River Alliance

Viktoria Pashtriku: To start off, can you tell about about the Bronx River Alliance. How did it start and what is its mission?

Kathalene Lamboy: So just to start off, my name is Kathalene Lamboy and I am the Education Coordinator for the Bronx River Alliance (BRA), which is a nonprofit organization that aims to protect and improve the Bronx River.

Although BRA officially formed in 2001, the concept of restoring the river and getting it back to its previous state emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, there was a group of people who showed interest in restoring and preserving the river because it was being treated as an open sewer for everyone to dump in. That group was known as the Bronx River Reworking Group.

Once the group formed, they approached NYC Parks and Recreation as a catalyst group. Parks and Rec was able to secure them some money to begin their work. From there we grew into the organization we are today.

VP: What does BRA look like today?

KL: Today we’re still a pretty small staff with about 15-20 people working during the off-season and around 20-25 people working during the on-season. But despite our size, we get a lot of work done.

We manage to take out 1,700 volunteers every year to work on the river. We initiate around 2,000 students per year to use the river as an outdoor classroom. And this year we met our goal of getting 1,500 paddlers on the river!

VP: Can you tell us little about yourself and how you came to work at BRA?

KL: It was a complete coincidence! I have a degree in Marine Environmental Science, with a minor in Marine Biology from SUNY Maritime College here in the Bronx. For the degree, I had to do a six credit internship. My advisor provided me with a list of three organizations in the area willing to host me for my six month internship.

I contacted the Outreach Manager at BRA at the time and let her know that I was willing to intern unpaid for six months so I can create a research project to present to my advisory committee for a grade. My focus was on anthropogenic effects on marine life and working at BRA would be perfect for that research. I was given the position!

I started the internship in May and had a supervisor who taught me how to be an educator, even though I actually have no formal background in it. So I was doing what I am doing now, but on a smaller scale. I finished up the internship and was very happy with my experience here.

Eventually, my supervisor called me again and asked me to come to a specific locations at a specific time. I had no idea it was an interview! The job was with the Bronx Children’s Museum and they wanted me to work on an educational program there. I worked there for around three years as an educational guide. When my old supervisor left the BRA, I applied for the position and got it!

We want everyone to say: “That’s our river! We have to be able to do something about it!”

VP: I understand the BRA has three goals: to improve, plan and protect the river. Can you share with us how BRA accomplishes those goals?

KL: First, I’ll start with how we work to improve the river. We have a conservation crew that plants trees, work on low-tech green infrastructure, maintenance and implementation. All of these activities assist in restoring the river to its previous state.

For the most part, the areas along the river have become industrial, housing complex, concrete plants. This has made the river inaccessible to the public. Although NYC Parks and Rec has worked hard to put in a lot of parks along the river, they have limits to their ability to maintain those parks. There are thousands of acres of park land in the Bronx and our crew focuses on improving the areas along the river.

VP: What projects has BRA worked on to improve the areas along the river?

KL: In particular, the projects that come to mind is the work done at the Bronx River Forest (BRF). Located near the Botanical Gardens, it’s also called the Thain Family Forest. In fact, the BRF was once a part of the NY Botanical Gardens, but now it’s NYC park land. What makes BRF so special is that it is an old growth forest right in the middle of urban Bronx!

At BRF, there is an overgrowth of invasive plants, such as the Japanese Knotweed. Our conservation crew works from January to November to remove these plants so that native plants can grow. The reason we want native plants to grow is because it encourages other native wildlife to come back. In almost 200 years, we have finally gotten the American Beaver back home into the Bronx River.

The American Beaver is a native New York State animal, but the population declined due to pollution and overhunting for their pelts. But there is a lot of hard work going into bringing wildlife back into this area.

Students testing water samples gathered from the Bronx River

VP: What actions does BRA take in order to protect the river?

KL: One way we aim to protect the river is by involving the community. We bring in volunteers and tell them: “This is your park! Come help us remove this Japanese Knotweeds and make this place better!” We’ll have them come out and plant trees as we teach them about the neighborhoods. We also try to host free events to help people learn about the river.

VP: Why is it so important to get the community involved in protecting the river?

KL: A big contribution to the river’s demise was the lack of education. Today, if I were to go to almost any school in the Bronx and mention the Bronx River, about half of the students would say: “What is the Bronx River? Where is it? There’s no forest here.”

So it’s really important for us to protect this investment of millions of dollars that went into the river and its improvement by educating the public on how not to destroy it again. By getting people involved, they get invested in the river as well. This is so important when it’s been abandoned for so long.

VP: Is community involvement to only way BRA makes efforts into protecting the river?

KL: Another way we really connect is by making partnerships with agencies. BRA has really become the voice behind this river. And when I say “we,” I mean as a community, not an organization. To be able to say that we have a contact at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is important. If you see issues, you can call DEP and make certain people know what is happening. These agencies are so large, with so much area to cover, having grassroots organizations like us focusing on a specific area and keeping them informed helps a lot.

It’s also important because we’re able to have a voice in big decisions that are being made about the area. For example, when there was a long-term control plan put in place aimed at reducing sewage in our local waterways, we as a community can say we didn’t want chlorination in our rivers and waters. We restored sea life in March, but that would go to waste if there is chlorine in the water.

So in order to protect the river, we need to empower the youth and the community. We want everyone to say: “That’s our river! We have to be able to do something about it!”

Students planting their “pet” tree as part of the Tree Growth program

VP: What steps does BRA take to encourage people and empower the community?

KL: As the Education Coordinator, I specifically focus on youth. I am a big believer in tapping into adults through tapping into youth. We have a Tree Growth program, in which we give 10 classrooms trees as ‘pets.’ They are to water it, love it and really foster it. The kids go to the forest and plant their tree. This tree is their plant, their pet and they are encouraged to go to visit it with family and friends. We want the kids to be proud and say: “Hey, I did this! You want to see this?”

I’ve had this same response from parents who say that they’ve visited their child’s tree. To really be able to encourage kids in something positive does the same for the parents. In this society, the Bronx is a challenge. It’s great for parents to say that their kids have done something positive for the area. That’s the way I hope my program is seen.

I want to make people feel empowered and like they’re making a difference in their community. Sometimes, I’ll get kids who are “too cool for school” to partake in anything. When they see how excited their classmates get over the project, by the end they are leading the project with confidence. They will take charge because they see everyone else having fun.

VP: Wow, the Tree Growth program appears to have great results! What other ways do you get the community involved?

KL: We really try to energize the community by offering a lot of opportunities to get them involved. Like I mentioned earlier, the Bronx is a tough society. It’s very hard for members of the community to take time out of their weekend after they’ve been working 50 or 60 hours a week to then give more hours to the community.

We have an Outreach Manager who goes to different community organizations like The Point, Rock The Boat and others that are already energized about their communities. Using these partners, we’re able to reach out to many more people that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach. We also try to have a presence at our community meetings.

Sometimes, people actually come to us! One time, someone saw our truck with a bunch of canoes and came up to ask to ask how to get involved. We also host events and festivals to increase community interaction.

VP: What are some of the other challenges that your program faces?

KL: In my program, one challenge that we are currently facing is that we don’t have a home. I’ve been limited strictly to outdoor teaching. This has it’s own set of challenges, such as the weather.

Another challenge is that educators are looking for programs like mine to help teach a lot of students. Sometimes they’ll ask me to teach 150 students! As the only educator on staff, I simply don’t have the ability to teach that many students at a time. We hope to accommodate these requests in the future, but as of this moment I can only take in class sizes of around 30 students at a time. And even that is difficult when we are doing hands-on activities like water testing.

Sometimes, the community here in the Bronx can feel like it has no power. People can have a particular passion for something, but feel as if no one else will really care. But here at BRA, they’re actually making a difference! And that’s powerful.

VP: I want to talk a little about the Bioswale Watch Program. Can you tell us about it and the goal for the program?

KL: The goal of the Bioswale Watch Program (BWP) is to gather science research through a pilot site here in the Bronx [Bioswales reduce the amount of runoff water from entering and overwhelming the sewage treatment system, a major source of urban pollution]. What I love about BWP is that it has been sponsored by the National Science Foundation and Columbia University. Our role is to use BRA’s resources and connection with the local community to educate people on bioswales.

The program was developed to last four years. We used the first two years to better understand bioswales and their function in urban environments. We decided to try a variety of ways of educating the community. For example, we hosted events such as movie nights or took surveys in order to learn how much information about bioswales people already knew.

For the third year, we developed a lesson plan that encouraged students to use NYC’s 311 system to report any water quality issues they saw in their neighborhoods as a way to help improve the environment. But we discovered that when a student noticed something wrong with a bioswale and reported it, 311 did not know what these structures were and didn’t know how to respond – they didn’t know what the students were talking about!

Students gleefully show off a fish they are studying to better understand water animals

VP: What actions did RWA take in order to solve this problem?

KL: We called the DEP to let them know that we were having a problem reporting issues on bioswales to 311. From that conversation, DEP developed a script for 311 to correctly intercept the calls and transfer them over to the DEP.

They also changed the name of the structures from ‘bioswale’ to ‘rain garden’ because it was easier for people to remember and understand. Then something amazing happened. The kids created a sticker that said: “Rain Garden! Call 311 if there is a problem!” to be placed on the bioswales around the Bronx. The name really stuck.

VP: How amazing! Was this the first time students took an interest in the bioswales?

KL: No, these students were from a particular school where the kids had been making informative stickers for the bioswales for a while as an arts project. Some kids made stickers with Spongebob Squarepants on them that said: “I’m ready to soak up some rain!” Other stickers gave brief descriptions on what bioswales are.

It was a really fun, yet simple project for the kids to do and people really responded to it. Eventually, we started to notice that the bioswales were flourishing because people were being informed about them, and thus not doing things to damage them such as curbing their dog on them. This made the students very happy because the work they did really made an impact.

Sometimes, the community here in the Bronx can feel like it has no power. People can have a particular passion for something, but feel as if no one else will really care. But here at BRA, they’re actually making a difference! And that’s powerful.

VP: Is there any final thing you’d like to add?

KL: I want everyone to remember: This is your river! You live right next to it. I live right next to. It’s our river and everyone needs to understand that. We need to take care of it.The support we’ve gotten over the years has been phenomenal and it’s so important for the community to step up and say that they care.

It’s one thing for BRA to go to meetings and say that we care about improving the Bronx River. But it’s even more powerful for local people to come to the meetings and say they care about improving the river. Without their investment, the river wouldn’t be what it is today!

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