Tag Archive | "Bronx River Alliance"

Activists raise concerns over the future of the Bronx River

Bronx environmental activists will meet this month to generate community interest in preventing the Bronx River from lapsing into its former life as a massive sewer.

Although the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spent the last couple years constructing structures to help keep the river clean, local activists charge the agency is neglecting crucial maintenance. They claim the city’s narrow approach to keeping pollution at bay and its limited attempt to engage local residents handicaps its long-term goal.

Robin Kriesberg, the Ecology Director at the Bronx River Alliance, said via email that although DEP supports a maintenance crew, “that will not be enough” to support the immense number of implemented and planned structures.

Jaime Stein, a visiting assistant professor at the Graduate Center for Planning at Pratt Institute said the city’s outreach to the public is “too little and too late.”

It took activists more than a decade to pressure the city to install a system that would keep storm water from overwhelming local sewers and sending waste into the river. In 2012, the DEP installed the first of a dozen bioswales – highly absorbent patches of green space on sidewalks that soak up heavy rainfall. Typically about ten feet by four feet in size, they feature thirsty plants like summersweet clethra and swamp milkweed. They look more like mini-parks than like sewage devices and thus double the advantage they bring to urban areas.

Storms can force sewer waste into waterways (http://newyork.thecityatlas.org/lifestyle/deps-green-infrastructure-plan/)

Storms can force sewer waste into waterways (New York City Atlas)

Bioswales extend five feet beneath their surface. Layers of absorbent soils and stones underneath the bioswale store around 2,244 gallons of water during a storm, which is equivalent to about 45 bathtubs of water.

A bioswale on Lafayette Avenue across from Soundview Park (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

A bioswale on Lafayette Avenue across from Soundview Park (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

Although effective if properly maintained, bioswales quickly become useless when neglected, which is precisely what worries Bronx activists. As global climate change increases the likelihood of storms, controlling flooding, they say, is more urgent than ever in a city that has yet to comply with the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Storms often wash away a bioswale’s soil; left unattended, it will not be able to retain as much water. If its plants are not watered during dry spells, they will vanish and leave the bioswale feeble. Weeds and offending plants like mugworts, dandelions, and ground ivy can also decrease efficiency. If excess leaves and trash collect in a bioswale, they clog up it, rendering it useless.

Trash collected in a bioswale on Story Avenue by Colgate Avenue

Trash collected in a bioswale on Story Avenue by Colgate Avenue in Soundview (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

Caretakers must be able to identify plant species, remove weeds, clear out trash, ensure soil has not been washed away, check vegetative health, and add water during dry spells.

A barren bioswale on the corner of Metcalf Avenue and Gleason Avenue

A dry bioswale on the corner of Metcalf Avenue and Gleason Avenue in Soundview (ELIZABETH GOLDBAUM/THE BRONX INK)

The DEP claims it funds gardeners from the Department of Parks specifically to take care of the bioswales. But activists and academics working with nonprofit organizations like Stormwater Infrastructure Matters Coalition (SWIM) doubt that the city can meet needs in light of its aggressive construction schedule. Though the city does not provide a precise account of how many bioswales it has installed, the 2013 DEP NYC Green Infrastructure Annual Report states that in the Bronx River Watershed between 2010 and 2013, it built 18 green infrastructures (which includes bioswales as well as raingardens, permeable pavements, stormwater harvesting and reuse systems, among other devices.) DEP is planning to build 57 more in 2014.

The Bronx River Alliance’s Kriesberg said she is unsure how the city will handle maintenance at this rapid rate of installation – a 217 percent increase over the last three years.

SWIM member Stein said the lack of community involvement in the city’s initial discussions on stormwater management, which would have boosted bioswale upkeep, will hinder future maintenance.

One longtime resident of Soundview in the Bronx, Nancy Reyes, 50, said she thinks the city is “trying to do a good thing” with the three bioswales she passes on the corner of Morrison and Lafayette as she makes her way into Soundview Park. But, the former customer service representative said, she “got no information” during their construction.

Her neighbor, Raquelle James, 51, a former employee of the Board of Education, said that the city needs news coverage from local stations to promote green infrastructure. Reyes and James want to know more but Reyes bemoaned they “don’t know where to begin.”

Peter Antonio, 44, a retired Soundview resident, said he “doesn’t know what’s going on,” with the bioswales next to Soundview Park, even though he often walks by them.

The Bronx River Alliance’s Kriesberg said that she is “hoping that DEP will install signs to let people know what is going on” wherever bioswales are placed.

Antonio expressed a desire to attend bioswale information workshops and would be interested in helping to maintain them – if he finds out about them.

The DEP began its “BioswaleCare Program” along with “Million Trees New York City” in the spring of 2013, after many bioswales had already been built. Only 77 community members participated in BioswaleCare workshops in 2013. Announcements of workshops are posted on the DEP’s website, which draws an audience of people already aware of the program.

Kriesberg said that attendance at past public meetings was low. She expects DEP will do more to attract the public – it is now offering free water bottles at meetings in Flushing Bay.

Even with a reliable and sufficient maintenance crew, the bioswales alone might not be enough to stave off river contamination in a storm, however.  Kriesberg said, “The models and results so far indicate that the approach will have to be expanded beyond bioswales.”

Stein, an environmental activist with SWIM, said that implementing multiple bioswales within a short period of time is too narrow an approach. The bioswales are limited by available public sidewalk space. Once the sidewalks are filled, Stein asks, what will the city do?

Stein compared the bioswale plan to the city’s Million Trees initiative, which intended to plant oxygen-producing trees throughout the South Bronx to improve air quality.  Good in theory, Stein said, but “there was not enough space for a million trees.” In addition, many of the planted trees were neglected and are now dead.

“The city won’t pay for maintenance,” said Soundview resident Patrick Holms, a 43-year-old accountant who lives near two bioswales on Morrison Avenue. Without information, “the community won’t get involved” to maintain the bioswales, he warned. Holms recommended that Bronx Borough President Rubin Diaz, Jr. speak out on bioswale maintenance.  “If he made appearances, more people would care,” Holms said

DEP representatives did not respond by press time to repeated requests for comments.

Stein and members of SWIM are looking forward to the public meeting on October 27 to engage public officials, scientists, attorneys, representatives of nonprofits, and city agencies in the discussion on stormwater management in the face of rising temperatures and precipitation. They are hoping, too, that the meeting will be an occasion for involving the community in protecting its river.

Phil Pena, a letter carrier who has “been around a few years,” passes two bioswales on Gleason Avenue on his delivery route in Soundview. He said, “The city is trying to make the sidewalk look good.”

After finding out that they capture stormwater, he said that the city should have installed one on Metcalf Avenue, between Gleason and Watson Avenues. “The sidewalk gets flooded every time it rains,” he said. “Nobody talks about it,” and “I’ve got to walk in the street.”

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City Seeks Bronx Residents’ Views on Greenways

Cyclists get ready to survey the Bronx. (Sonia Paul/ The Bronx Ink)

Groups of cyclists aren’t a common sight in the South Bronx, especially on a blistering, late-summer day.

But on Aug. 26, community advocates from the Bronx River Alliance, Transportation Alternatives, Bronx Health Reach and other local organizations gathered on the corner of Whitlock Avenue and Westchester Avenue with helmets on their heads and their bicycles by their sides.

Their mission was to document the conditions on the roads linking Hunts Point Riverside Park, Concrete Plant Park and the soon-to-be-opened Starlight Park. For years, these groups have been asking the city’s Departments of Transportation and City Planning to improve the greenways within the parks. Now, city officials finally seem to be paying attention — and in an ongoing series of meetings, they’ve been asking the community firsthand what they want for the greenways.

Concrete Plant Park has been open to the public since 2009, and Hunts Point Riverside Park since 2007, but the community groups say both parks need upgrading.


View Current Conditions on the Bronx River Greenways in a larger map

“A part of the issue is that the on-street connections haven’t been properly connected,” said Devona Sharpe, greenway coordinator for the Bronx River Alliance. “And the condition of the street itself, it’s not inviting to users.”

The most direct path connecting the three different parks follows a north-south route along the Bronx River, with a U-turn around the busy Bruckner Expressway. From Hunts Point Riverside Park to Starlight Park, pedestrians and cyclists have to navigate through difficult terrain simply to get from one street to the next, as well as from one park to the next. Tree roots pushing through cracked sidewalks, shards of glass on the road and nonexistent bike lanes are just some of the physical barriers on the roads.

Though greenways exist inside the parks, they don’t fit into the grander scheme of urban planning in the area, said Linda R. Cox, executive director and Bronx River administrator of the Bronx River Alliance, at a community meeting on Sept. 6, after the cyclists documented the conditions on the roads.

“The greenway isn’t just about the parks,” she said at the meeting. “It really is about what we do on the streets.”

Staffers from the city’s Department of Transportation were also present to show their plans for the greenway and take comments and suggestions. According to Scott Gastell, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation, city planners have been working on a greenway proposal for the past three years. Their priority is to make the greenway more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, but they must consider the large number of vehicles that cross the area every day.

Figuring out how to negotiate access for pedestrians and cyclists is a growing issue in the Bronx, where vehicles dominate the roads. In 2010, 169,550 vehicles traveled daily in both directions on the Sheridan Expressway, according to traffic volume reports from the state Department of Transportation. The number of vehicles passing through Westchester Avenue the same year was 108,770. To get to Starlight Park, which is scheduled to open this fall, residents and visitors must navigate both roads.

At the Sept. 6 meeting, representatives from the Department of Transportation said they are planning to visit local community boards in the next couple of months to gather more opinions on their greenway proposal before they submit it for official city approval.

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Cleaning up after Irene

Lia Lynn Vega, 15, hauling sacks of litter from the Soundview shoreline.

“I’ve found another needle!” shouted 13-year-old Isaias Vega from a jetty along the Bronx Greenway.

His 15-year-old sister noted the needle on her data sheet and it was added to the pile collecting on the bank.

Around them, a handful of volunteers worked to free all manner of plastics from the shoreline as part of a coastal clean up led by environment agency the Bronx River Alliance.

Who cleans the Bronx Greenway, a new stretch of coastline pathways in Soundview? No one, according to the state department for parks. That job falls to volunteers who, after tropical storm Irene, are finding the task a little too much to handle.

The Greenway was opened in 2008 and has been in a state of disorder since Hurricane Irene, which kicked up storm surges between seven and 15 feet, submerging large chunks of the coastline. The surges dumped plastic packaging from Hunts Point Terminal Market in the backyards of Soundview residents and the paths surrounding Soundview Park.

According to the state Parks department, the Greenway is the responsibility of local park rangers who in reality have little time to dedicate to clean-ups. Without volunteers like the Vegas family, the contaminated coastline would be left to fester.

The local community often has other priorities, too. “Last year Friends of Soundview Park organized clean ups every Sunday, but this year that time has been given over to cultural activities,” said Carlos Martinez of the government’s Partnership for Parks.

When volunteers do come, they are shocked by what they see. On Saturday Sept. 24, the Bronx River Alliance gathered help from various charities including faith-based youth group YMPJ, education charity Build On and Friends Of Soundview Park.

“Normally we see litter, but this year there were a lot of things washed up,” said Alliance ecology director Robin Kriesberg. Volunteers worked for three hours to disentangle needles, six pack rings, tampons and styrofoam from the banks of the river.

Ocean Conservancy, the not-for-profit behind the annual event, provided volunteers with standardized data cards to record every single item of debris in categories ranging from bottle tops to shotgun shells. The cards are sent in and logged for an annual report on global marine debris.

“We’re also teaching kids about packaging and littering,” said Martinez. “So next time they have junk food they think twice about throwing the packaging on the floor.”

Nilka Martell, has been volunteering with Partnership for Parks since she lost her job as a paralegal secretary last December. She thinks the clean up is good for her children Isaias and Lia Lynn. “It keeps them off the streets, the TV and the internet,” Martell said.

Many volunteers were dismayed at the state of the coastline. “We have to do clean ups all the time, one weekend is not enough,” said Ashley Quiles, volunteer co-ordinator from the Bronx Alliance, as she gathered everyone for a debrief at noon. Along the jetties, a thick covering of colored plastics remained mashed into the mud.

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