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Citizen scientists provide important services to Bronx conservation efforts

These volunteers  — many of whom aren’t trained scientists — shoulder the work of gathering scientific data and identifying environmental problems in Van Cortlandt Park


John Butler pulled pairs of chest waders from a cluttered metal shipping container parked in the Van Cortlandt Golf Course parking lot and passed them around a small group. On this mid-September morning, three of the seven volunteers wriggled waders up their legs and clasped them over the shoulders. The others tucked their long pants into their socks and wore boots.

“Are we going on the long walk today?” one volunteer asked.

No one had objections, so Butler, who is the ecological project manager for Friends of Van Cortlandt Park, spent three hours leading the group along Putnam Trail a mile and a half to the Westchester County border.

These volunteers meet weekly in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park to test water connected to Tibbetts Brook — a body of water just north of the city that has been the source of pollutants in recent years. These pollutants, which include indicators of pathogens found in animal waste, can disturb the park’s natural ecosystem and make humans sick. The testing program is just one example of citizen science, a community movement in which public volunteers conduct scientific experiments, gather data and participate in the science and technology sector.

According to, a website that tracks federally reported citizen science projects, volunteers can participate in almost every step of the scientific process, from forming hypotheses to interpreting results — no STEM degree needed. There are more than 400 projects sponsored by federal partners that solicit volunteers to participate in the research process.

While volunteers shoulder the work not being done by government agencies, proponents of citizen science say it is a way to get more done.

Friends of Van Cortlandt Park tests five sites during their bi-weekly water testings. The first site is next to Saw Mill River Parkways, near Westchester County.

It rained the night before, so volunteers marched along the muddy trail and tried to avoid the deeper puddles. The temperature rose as the sun shone higher, and chatter lulled to near silence as the group trekked on for more than 40 minutes, slowing frequently for water. Their first and farthest destination was next to Saw Mill River Parkway, at the park’s northern border. After veering off the trail to the bank of a small stream, it was time to get started.

Volunteers have participated in citizen science at Van Cortlandt Park since 2015, when Butler received funding from Manhattan College to begin weekly water testings and cleanup in the park. Butler was worried that an upstream body of water, Tibbetts Brook in Yonkers, was polluted and contaminating city waters, he said.

In the group’s first year of testing, Butler’s suspicions were confirmed. They determined in August 2016 that a Yonkers pipe was leaking fecal matter into the Brook, and the pollutants were trickling downstream into Van Cortlandt Park.

When the group went to Yonkers to test water near the pipe, one volunteer touched the water to his mouth and became ill, Butler said.

After the volunteers’ efforts, government agencies started paying attention. They identified the offending business and required the Yonkers company to improve their waste management. Since then, Butler said the park’s waters have been free from this specific pollutant.

Nicholas Taussig’s background isn’t in science, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park’s most frequent volunteers. Taussig became involved in 2012, after Hurricane Sandy, because he wanted to help cleanup efforts. When the water testing program began three years later, he focused his efforts there.

Taussig lives near Van Cortlandt Park. Finding the source of pollutants in 2016 and seeing a solution has been a highlight of his community service, he said.

And this is why citizen science is so important, according to Butler: groups like Friends of Van Cortlandt Park must rely on grants and volunteers to do work like water testing and park cleanup. While scientists exist on college campuses and in labs, many don’t have the multiple hours a week it takes to collect samples out in the field. That’s where citizen scientists come in.

At the first of five testing sites, volunteers used scientific instruments to measure the water’s pH, conductivity, oxygen level and velocity. Another volunteer scooped water into a small plastic container. The samples, along with the day’s measurements, were sent to the lab for testing and database entry.

Over time, these numbers paint a picture of the park’s water, said Butler. After more than two and a half years of testing, he said volunteers can quickly determine if something isn’t right. And they’re the only ones keeping track.

Friends of Van Cortlandt Park partners with Manhattan College and other research entities for funding and support, but they fight for the attention of various city agencies, such as Department of Park and Recreation and the Department of Transportation, to accomplish even the smallest conservation tasks.

This is because no single agency is specifically in charge of water conservation and has the resources to see projects through, said Butler. A current pollution issue facing the park is a pipe leaking highway debris into Van Cortlandt Lake. The departments of Transportation, Parks and Recreation and Sanitation share responsibility, he said. But one agency told him they don’t have the necessary equipment to fix the problem, and another said that even though they do have the resources, it isn’t their problem or priority.


Nick Taussig and Debra Catz sit above a pipe at the edge of Van Cortlandt Lake. Nearby road construction is causing pollutants to leak into the lake through the pipe, but the Department of Transportation hasn’t yet addressed the issue.


Groups like Friends of Van Cortlandt Park can also face gridlock at the local level and hit red tape at community board and city department meetings. Large, systemic change sometimes feels impossible, said Butler, so the group tries where it can to accomplish smaller, more manageable tasks.

“We’re hit with a bureaucracy wall,” he said

As the morning wore on, some volunteers broke off from the group to clean up debris and litter. The volunteers test the water every other week, and on the opposite Wednesdays, they spend the morning cleaning.  But during a hard rainfall the previous night, branches fell onto the trail and litter was swept into the waterway, trapped against long inflatable booms meant to catch debris from traveling further downstream. The cleanup couldn’t wait another week.

One of the volunteers, Diana Catz, is a retired scientist and clinical researcher who has been water testing with Friends of Van Cortlandt for about two years. She said citizen science is important because volunteers can do some of the legwork for researchers, who can’t do it all.

And since she lives nearby, she said it is important to give back to the place she spends as much of her free time as possible.

“For me, this park is my playground,” she said.

The group visited testing sites between the Van Cortlandt Park and Mosholu Golf Courses and near the Parade Ground. When they reached the final sites, two spots in Van Cortlandt Lake, it was almost noon. As some gathered samples and measured the water, others sat in the shade to escape the warming temperatures.

Finally, after the last number was recorded and the last sample was collected, the group walked back to the parking lot and began peeling off their waders. One set had a hole at the knee, flooding the wearer’s socks and jeans with creek water. Butler said he is counting on a grant from outdoor retailer Patagonia to fund a few new sets this fall but hasn’t heard if his application has been accepted.

That day, the data gathered wasn’t too out of the ordinary, despite the prior day’s rainfall. Bad weather can stir up sediment and disrupt the water, Butler said, so an abnormal reading wouldn’t have been unusual.

Over the next few days, scientists at Manhattan College will add the numbers into a database, but the information won’t be immediately available to the public — not even to the volunteers that collected the data. For now, the Friends of Van Cortlandt Website, which is the home base for volunteers and community members to learn about the park, isn’t set up to handle data visualization.

Butler said this will change soon. He wants to redesign the website to include all of the water data collected by the group in interactive databases and maps. The group is focused on recruiting new water testing volunteers, and he said public data is important to attract and retain citizen scientists who are passionate about keeping the park’s waters safe and clean.

“We allow citizen science to happen,” he said. “We allow people to build connections with the park.”

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