Michelle Luebke of the Bronx River Alliance

The BxRA’s Ecology Director educates us on the river’s history of extremes and how the Alliance is preparing for its future — from charismatic fauna and Citizen-Scientists to microplastic removal and stormwater reduction

Interview by: Sam Bartusek

Michelle Luebke is a river ecologist by training who has been the BxRA’s Ecology Director for two years. She talked with us recently to give us an extensive look into the Alliance’s programs and beliefs. For her and the Alliance, community involvement and a sense of ownership are as integral to the operation as the science itself.

SB: How did you get involved with the Bronx River Alliance, and can you tell me about your role as the Ecology Director?

ML: So far I’ve worked in the Alliance for two years. I was previously an Education Ranger with the National Park Service in New York City, but it was only a temporary seasonal position, and since I’m a river ecologist by training, a watershed-based organization in NYC was ideal. Ecology Director for BxRA turned out to be the perfect job opening.

As Ecology Director I focus on the science of the river to understand what is affecting the river and how we can best eliminate those stressors. For example, our habitat restoration efforts focus on removing invasive species and planting native species that would have been here previously. Our Ecology program includes the Conservation Crew, who are our on-water and field personnel. Often they are in charge of clearing downed trees that block the channel and prevent our Recreation program from leading paddling trips. They also restore riparian and forest areas affected by park users who create “desire paths,” or informal trails that end up causing soil compaction hazards.

And our newest programs incorporate Citizen Science. We have one on water quality, studying how fecal contamination in the river changes from dry to wet weather; we have one on trash, about what type and brand of garbage is coming in; and one on nutrient pollution. These address three main problems — fecal contamination, trash, and low dissolved oxygen — by understanding what type of pollution we’re finding and targeting the source.

SB: What field projects are the BxRA working on currently?

ML: We have Project WASTE (Water And Street Trash Elimination), which addresses neighborhood trash and looks at where we’re seeing different types of wastes. That program has found that the number one problem is Styrofoam and plastic water bottles.

We also have Project Water DROP (Detecting River Outfall and Pollutants), which incorporates green infrastructure, not only building it but also maintaining it, in order to soak up excess storm water. Sanitary and storm sewers all drain to waste water treatment plants, and CSO (combined sewer overflows) contribute 455 million gallons of raw sewage per year following rain events larger than 1/10th of an inch. So establishing rain gardens to take excess water off the streets prevents storm water from overflowing these water treatment plants. There are also heavy metals and detergents and other waste from sidewalks that go straight into the river. The goal is to find these outfalls that are flowing during dry weather, which they shouldn’t be, by going to specific municipalities and testing different pipes for different types of pollutants, and then working with the municipality to see what they can do to fix the problem.

SB: Do you have a strategy for combating microplastics pollution? Or is that something that’s not possible to remove?

ML: Microplastics tend to emanate from wastewater treatment plants but are also prevalent out in the harbor, where some larger pieces of plastic have been broken down into smaller and smaller particles. So it’s either coming from something like fibers from your laundry, that aren’t filtered out in the wastewater treatment plant; or from wind, wave, and sun action in the NY Harbor breaking down larger pieces which become microplastics. A study done by some colleagues at the NY/NJ Baykeeper found that at any point in time there are 165 million pieces of plastic in the Harbor, and a lot of that is microplastic. They also found that the majority of the small pieces that were identifiable came from single-use disposable items like Styrofoam coffee cups and takeout containers and those types of things.

And we’ve also found that Styrofoam is actually a lot more prevalent than plastics. In a sense I’d still put it in the category of plastics, because it’s a petroleum byproduct, but we separate it just to show how big of an issue it is. Instead of talking about plastic as a larger category, we break it down into Styrofoam and plastic, and those are our two biggest categories, by far.

So what we’re doing is capturing these pieces when they’re still mostly whole and identifiable, and therefore we’re removing the plastic before it gets into the system and broken down more. However, we have also recently added to our arsenal of tools in that project a few pool skimmers, which enable us to pull off the organics but also some of the really fragmented Styrofoam and small plastic pieces. Although we can’t necessarily record data when it’s that small, it is being removed, so we are contributing to the overall goal of getting microplastics out of the waterways.

SB: In a more general sense, how does the health of the river ecosystem impact the health of the human communities that surround it?

ML: Well, one of our primary concerns is that a lot of the communities who live alongside the river are using the river for bathing, swimming, and fish consumption, all of which we recommend that they don’t. Currently it is not clean enough for any of those things. But it’s because you have communities that are reliant on subsistence fishing for a major protein source of their diet, or they come from another place in the world where fish are not contaminated, or they’re not being communicated with in a language they understand that the fish is harmful and they should not be eating it.

In fact, as an anecdote, on the day that we were releasing four hundred new alewife into the river, we were out there for this big celebration and a mallard duck swam by with a bottle cap stuck on its beak. That is exactly why we developed Project WASTE — because we’re trying to, by cleaning up the river, make it more habitable for wildlife species, and we’re getting to that point where it’s getting clean enough, but we still haven’t quite tipped over to be better for wildlife than it is as a conduit for trash. That’s why our outreach campaign is incredibly critical, both from the consumer level as well as from the corporation level.

SB: You mentioned that you don’t recommend swimming in the river, but you do encourage other recreational uses such as canoeing. How can recreational activities like canoeing be healthy, even for the ecosystem?

ML: I think what happens is that when people start canoeing the river, or even just find out that there is a river, the sense of place grows and stewardship grows, because you’re fostering this relationship with this resource. Then as a community member you’ll start engaging in and prioritizing more sustainable behaviors, or at least protection of the resource that you care about.

And this is one of the issues we talk about all the time: how do you reconcile bringing people to the river to use it as a laboratory, or as a recreation source, knowing that it’s contaminated? One of the ways we thread that needle is that, after large rain events when we’re pretty sure that the fecal bacterial concentration is going to be high, we’ll postpone events until drier weather conditions, because in drier weather it’ll be fine or at least better. That’s one of our strategies, just being very cautious about who we’re bringing out when, and about what the preceding weather conditions were, to make sure that we’re not putting people in harm’s way. We need to make appropriate decisions such that the public can appreciate the river but not get ill from it.

SB: So how are you preparing for certain side effects of climate change such as more large rain events and more severe flooding?

ML: One of the major things that we’re working on is supporting all the different efforts around green infrastructure. We’re helping create more rain gardens, and we also have a rain garden reporting program that encourages residents to look out for the bioswales and the rain gardens in their neighborhoods. The city has installed a number of them on the street, and they can sometimes become litter collectors because there aren’t enough garbage cans around, especially in this area of the Bronx. The trash ends up getting into the gardens, which make them look terrible but also leads to people not really understanding that these plants are actually reducing the amount of sewage that goes into the river. We also try very hard to educate the public that a rain event as small as a tenth of an inch could trigger an overflow, and that by soaking up all this excess stormwater, we prevent it from going down the storm drain and overwhelming our sewage treatment plants.

At the same time, we’re also encouraging more sustainable behavior in terms of domestic usage: we have an expression, “Save it for a sunny day,” which means, rather than doing water-intensive activities like washing clothes and dishes or taking a bath during rain events, which would put extra water down the sanitary system while it’s already stressed, we’re encouraging waiting until it’s sunny and dry. It seems counter-intuitive to people until you explain why, because most people understand that when you’re in a drought condition, like California often is, the appropriate way to be a responsible water steward is by reducing your consumption, but here it doesn’t seem like we need to reduce consumption because there’s plenty of water around all the time. But the problem is that consumption is not really our issue. Our issue is where it goes; how we handle and get rid of the water we do have. So the solution becomes just waiting to put it down the sanitary system, in order to reduce the domestic and sanitary load to wastewater treatment plants. It’s a two-pronged approach, trying to reduce both stormwater and sanitary volume during rain events.

SB: As Ecology Director, do you have any insight as to what species it’s critical to ensure are healthy, either in the river or in green infrastructure projects?

ML: In the river, one of our biggest water quality champions has been the oyster. Oysters are incredible because they are such powerful filter feeders, meaning they actually improve water quality. We have an oyster restoration project with NYC Parks and NY/NJ Baykeeper — basically we have a living oyster reef at the mouth of the river, and EcoVolunteers can come out to help by examining how quickly the oysters are growing, as well as identifying the associate critters that are living in the reef with the oysters. We’re looking at different designs of how the reefs can be built to create artificial networks so that we can increase our oyster populations and through that naturally get water quality improvements.

A couple other major species that we have on the river are American eels and beavers, and I think those two are important mainly for their charisma. Herring are important as well, although people don’t really think herring are as charismatic — but maybe then again people don’t think eels are that charismatic. But we have José the Beaver, who actually has his own twitter handle, and it’s things like that that get people to develop more of a relationship with the river. The more charismatic species like that that people can see, and mostly they’re surprised that the river supports them, the more people are inclined to get involved and think of the resource more favorably — because when you ask people about the Bronx River, sometimes all they can say is “It’s polluted!” So we want to talk about what’s it polluted with, what these sources of pollution are, and how each of us can make a difference in our daily lives with the decisions that we make.

And in terms of terrestrial species, we’re big proponents of native pollinator species, and using native plants that are high in nectar for those pollinators so that not only are they taking up this extra stormwater, they’re also actually creating critical habitat for declining native pollinator populations. For example, we’re on the Atlantic Flyway, so monarch butterflies migrate through this area. Supporting pollinators also helps us ensure our food security, and especially with all of the people that are building rooftop gardens and putting all these extra gardens into highly urbanized spaces, it becomes even more critical that we’re also giving habitat and food sources to the pollinators that are so critical to make our food security viable.

SB: I wanted to ask a little about the volunteer aspect of the organization as well. What are some strategies that you use not only to attract volunteers but also to use them effectively?

ML: I’m really passionate about Citizen Science. I think it’s an incredibly powerful way to get people engaged in an activity, while also improving the scientific literacy of the population, and addressing environmental justice issues (which we have plenty of here). Why I think Citizen Science is so empowering is that it’s getting people involved in the actual process of the research. Right now we have two different programs, Project Water DROP (Detecting River Outfalls & Pollutants) and Project WASTE (Water And Street Trash Elimination). In Project Water DROP we have eight or nine different Citizen Scientists who go out once a month to collect water samples and take it to a lab for us to get fecal pathogen counts. We’re using that information to narrow down places where we could be finding the sources of the pollution: if we know that there was a spike between point A and point B, then we know there has to be some sort of input between those two points.

On one hand that’s allowed us to increase our ability to pinpoint sources of contamination without investing a lot of staff time. But it’s not just that it’s efficient or economical, it’s that people are adopting these water quality sites that are near their homes, and they’re just as interested to know what they’re finding in their site as they are in the rest of the river. It’s creating this sense of ownership, not only of that site and that area, but also the information that’s being gathered. And I try to be really on top of showing them the chart of how the water quality has changed at all the different sites as it moves downstream, and over time throughout the season, so that we can understand together, in real time, what we’re looking at and what’s happening on the river. I think it’s when you get those larger questions answered that you get your environmental and scientific literacy. We spend most of our lives learning outside of the classroom, and for the adults that are participating in this, environmental science and conservation were not subjects that were taught in school when they were in school. A lot of them don’t have some of this information just because it wasn’t a part of the curriculum back then.

And why I’m so passionate about using adults is that these are the ones who are voting, who are making decisions, who are CEOs or members of nonprofits, or are scientists. They are powerful agents of change in their lives: they’re connected to their faith-based communities and their neighbors and what their children are learning in school. So we feel strongly about giving them the information they need, and getting them involved in the information-gathering process so that they feel more ownership towards it, and being able to use that energy and enthusiasm to get them to speak out about what’s important to them — have them talk to their congresspeople, their city councils, and other representative bodies, so that they can make it known how important some of these concepts really are to them as community members. Then we’re hoping that the elected officials will actually sit up and take notice.

SB: What do you think is the most important quality of the organization?

ML: I think our involvement with the community is very strong. We see a lot of the same people coming out, and they’re so vocal and engaged and enthusiastic about the river. It’s great to listen to people’s stories who grew up in the Bronx and didn’t even know there was a river, and now they’re paddling on it and seeing egrets and herons and bunker fish and all sorts of wildlife. Seeing the joy on people’s faces, and their genuine love for the river, I think that’s where we’re really strong. Also bringing together partnerships: I think we work really well with other organizations, and I think that’s also a big strength.

SB: To finish up, how long ago do you think it would have been impossible or unthinkable to actually canoe down the river?

ML: I mean, they were pulling cars out of it in the 1970’s: that’s what restoration was then. We don’t have as many cars these days but we now we have a lot of Styrofoam and needles and other trash. The thing to understand about the Bronx River is that back at the turn of the 20th century it was being considered for a drinking water supply for New York City — that’s how clean it was — but by the teens and twenties it had already degraded into an open sewer, just as human communities have always abused the water resources they depend on so much.

I think we have made big strides and are continuing to make strides. There was a group called Bronx River Restoration in the nineties, which was a grassroots effort by community members to reclaim the river, and that groundswell got the attention of NYC Parks. When they said yes, we think this is important, that’s when the Bronx River Alliance was born: we were founded in 2001, and since then we have made very important strides and are continuing to make strides. The river got abused for a solid hundred years, and now we’re reversing that.

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