On Saturday morning, April 8th, I took a Metro North ride to Yonkers, NY. Since it was pretty early the train wasn’t packed and I was able to get a window seat. In general I enjoy riding Metro North east of the Hudson line – you get a nice view of the river and the Palisades.
I was on my way to a water quality meeting which was being held at the Center for the Urban River at Beczak. That morning a number of organizations, including the Bronx River Alliance and River Keeper provided training for those interested in becoming a volunteer for their water quality monitoring program. In addition to training, there was a special seminar about the current health of our local urban waters given by Columbia University researchers. Their goal was to inform and inspire the community to play a larger role in monitoring the health of our rivers. The speakers emphasized how knowing and understanding the fluctuation in water quality sheds light on habitat preservation as well as understanding the immediate and long-term implications on human health.
In addition to studying the various organisms that flow throughout the watershed one of the most important parts of their research is monitoring the levels of Enterococcus. So what is Enterococcus? Along with viruses and protozoans, Enterococcus is naturally found mammals but is most evident in human feces. It thrives in dark, cool environments and is able to survive in a mix of fresh and salt water also known as brackish waters. Enterococcus is a Gram positive – commensal bacterium that is used as an indicator species to determine how much of our poop is being dumped into our local rivers (yuck!). As all bacteria, it reacts to temperature changes. In general the water around New York City and Westchester County typically ranges from 33.1-35.6 ºF in January to average annual highs of 71.6-84.2 ºF in July and August. And although Enterococcus growth does fluctuation with temperature changes, other bacteria such as E. Coli, usually do not persist with high variations in temperature. This is why Enterococcus is an ideal indicator of human feces because it can survive in brackish waters and survive temperature changes.
Since Entero. is not harmful to humans why measure its existence? Well as an indicator species, it’s used as a barometer for other harmful pathogens. If there is a high level of Entero in an area the likely hood of harmful pathogens will also be high and if the levels are low, the likely hood of harmful pathogens will be low. It’s a good thing to know especially if you’re a swimmer.
In general it is NOT recommended to take a swim in the Hudson River or wade through the Saw Mill or Bronx River but people do it. What is encouraged is boating (as long as you don’t fall out… YIKES!). So why would boating be the best thing in questionable waters? Well it’s a safe way to get the public of all ages to invest in our local waters. When a person has a great outdoor experience it makes them care more about their surroundings, they become invested, and in turn care more about the quality of their environment. Those are the people who become water quality monitors and volunteer their time for river cleanup activities.
I have been on a boat and kayak in the Hudson River. I will admit I was scared about tipping over and thankfully I didn’t. It turned out to be a fun experience. Despite Enterococcus and friends, I think people should get out and see how nice it is to be on our local waterways. Hopefully if enough people begin to appreciate our local waters we can eventually get to experience our water on a greater level – a healthier one.
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