State of the Planet

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Aquanauts Take on New York Water Issues

Columbia University Aquanauts, Mudd Engineering Terrace, green roofs blue roofs
Columbia University Aquanauts’ vision for the currently unused Mudd Engineering Terrace includes green roof and blue roof systems.

By Melissa von Mayrhauser, Sammy Roth, Nelson Dove and Colin Block

Imagine reading a book while relaxing under a canopy of leaves and listening to the soothing sounds of water flowing from a fountain. Birds chatter while bathing themselves, and bees search for flowers to pollinate. Across the canopy, a group of students perform a Shakespearean dialogue for a small audience.

This is not an image of paradise from a Core Curriculum text—it’s the Columbia University Aquanauts’ vision for the currently unused Mudd Engineering Terrace on campus. Working with engineering PhD candidate Rob Elliott, who is writing his thesis on green roofs and created the initial design, we imagined a green roof and blue roof system that would serve as a space for environmental education and student wellness, the culmination of a semester spent examining and taking action on stormwater management issues in New York City.

This semester, the Aquanauts, a new student water group, focused on researching local water concerns, particularly what it means to manage stormwater in New York City. The proposed green space, which we created for the EPA RainWorks Challenge, was only one of the many projects we worked on this semester.

We hope that you will be inspired to get involved with local water organizations as well through reading about water challenges we face in New York and about possible strategies to make changes.

Stormwater Overflow: Combined Sewer Overflows and Green Roof Mitigation
When New York City’s sewer system was in its early stages, contractors built a network of pipes that would handle both wastewater—discharged from residential, commercial and industrial buildings—and rainfall runoff coming from the sidewalks, streets and roofs. But if an intense storm produces even an inch or two of rain, wastewater treatment plants overflow, and excess wastewater and rainfall are diverted to outfall pipes that empty into local waterways. That’s untreated sewage flowing right into the Hudson River, the East River and the harbor.

With that in mind, the Aquanauts explored stormwater management at the New York City Parks Department’s green roof on Randall’s Island. We walked past hanging strawberries, examined beehives and learned about a green wall with vertical plants. It was a rolling green landscape on top of a government building.

We learned that green roofs can clean water, reduce runoff into our sewage systems and provide water for vegetation. They work because of their multitude of layers on top of a roof—a membrane, roof protection, insulation, a drainage area and the plantings, for example—which help to insulate the building and keep it cool during the summertime.

Over the last few years, the parks department has been installing them across the city, which is fantastic news, because they can be a cost-effective way of preventing stormwater runoff from polluting water supplies. Columbia has a few green roofs already, but they are mostly inaccessible to students, even though they are a tremendous educational tool.

River Contamination: The Bronx River Alliance and Riverkeeper
Green roofs limit water that contributes to combined sewer overflows around New York City that damage our waterways, including the Bronx River and Hudson River. A group of us met with Damian Griffin, the educational director of the Bronx River Alliance. The alliance is working to restore the river, which had previously been an industrial dumping site for raw sewage and other debris.

After teaching us about the Bronx River’s pollution by pouring some of its brownish, opaque water into a clear tube, Damian took us on a canoe tour. While out on the water, we grimaced when we accidentally splashed water into the canoe, for fear that it would touch our skin. This was not a relaxing Saturday afternoon boat ride, but a trip down a river of pathogens.

The alliance is exploring solutions to this problem, however. It recently created a wetlands restoration site, for instance, which has the potential to clean water and remove sediments. It is also utilizing oysters to biofiltrate nitrogen compounds in the water flowing from the Bronx River into the East River.

We also spoke to Dana Gulley, Riverkeeper’s outreach and development coordinator. Riverkeeper is the Hudson River’s watchdog and clean water advocate. She talked about the organization’s efforts to protect the river’s biodiversity, and the river’s ability to provide ecosystem services to humans, such as clean drinking water. The group works with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to test for chemicals and raw sewage entering the river and calls out environmental offenders.

Riverkeeper says that policymakers can combat the sewage problem by notifying the public more frequently about water contamination and by updating our wastewater infrastructure. The organization is also encouraging locals to work on solving problems, which is what we have tried to begin to accomplish this semester. If we begin to make changes to benefit our waterways at a local scale, we can make a positive impact downstream as well.

Attitudes about Water: International Coastal Cleanup and the Water Tank Project
After meeting with Gulley, we participated in a coastal clean-up and met with a local non-governmental organization that unites artistry with water conservation concerns. During the clean-up, hosted by the Ocean Conservancy and United States Coast Guard, we walked alongside the Hudson River shoreline to pick up trash.

The amount of plastic bottles sitting on rocks and bobbing in the water was much greater than we expected. We also found articles of clothing, plastic bags and caps, shoelaces and more. In addition to all of the chemicals and sewage that enter our waterways, trash contributes to our rivers’ pollution and harms local ecosystems. We enjoyed working next to the waterway and playing a small role in its recovery.

The Aquanauts concluded the semester with a talk with Mary Jordan, the creative director of the Water Tank Project. The organization is getting ready to post art on water tanks across New York City to raise awareness about our water use and the need for conservation. New Yorkers will look up to see art on water towers from artists hailing from many countries and neighborhoods in New York.

We discussed with Mary how water use is a concern not only in countries facing water scarcity, but also around the globe. Even here in New York, where we have clean drinking water (but dirty rivers), it is important to understand that our water use is connected to the well-being of people throughout the world. We hope to continue to explore water challenges next semester through connecting what we have learned on a local level to more international challenges.

Our Solutions
With all of these local water challenges in mind, we submitted a design for the Environmental Protection Agency’s RainWorks challenge a few weeks ago with the intention of changing an empty space into a location that would reduce stormwater run-off, increase educational efforts and provide a new spot on campus for socializing and relaxation.

We would build a system of canopies over a grassy area to increase evapo-transpiration and to create an environment for biodiversity to prosper and students to gather. We would also feature a greenhouse to raise plants and a fountain to celebrate water. A stage at the front would also be a key location for student groups to perform with a green leafy canopy instead of a curtain.

Based on rainfall data, a light would also illuminate with a message advising students to reduce their water use and thus prevent combined sewer overflows when a storm is coming.

Elliott, the engineering PhD candidate, has received permission to build on the location, and we hope to move forward with the project on campus while also partnering with student groups at other universities to discuss how we could implement similar vegetation and educational systems at other locations. As citizens of New York, we can all play a small role in protecting our waterways, while having some fun at the same time.

How can you help to combat combined sewer overflows?

  1. Wait to take a shower, wash your clothes, or clean your dishes until after a storm has passed
  2. Shorten your shower time by a few minutes
  3. Wait to wash your clothes until you have a full load
  4. Turn the faucet off while you’re brushing your teeth
  5. Contact a government official about improving wastewater infrastructure
  6. Volunteer with a local water organization
  7. Get involved with the Aquanauts student group.

Melissa von Mayrhauser, Sammy Roth, Nelson Dove and Colin Block are members of the Aquanauts, formed by the Columbia Water Center and a collection of students and faculty. The group provides a platform for students to research and respond to water security issues.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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