Sarah Lawrence College and Partners Awarded $60,000 from EPA's Urban Waters Program

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Grant will support a collaborative community monitoring and engagement effort in the Saw Mill River, Bronx River, Pocantico River, and Sparkill Creek watersheds.

Citizen-scientists in Westchester and Rockland County, and the Bronx, got a boost today from the Environmental Protection Agency by way of a $60,000 Urban Waters Small Grant. The nationally-competitive grant, led by Sarah Lawrence College’s Center for the Urban River at Beczak (CURB), was just one of two awarded in EPA Region 2, which covers New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico.

The overall goal of the project, The Lower Hudson Urban Rivers Collaborative: Promoting Stewardship through Community Science and Engagement, is to improve water quality and increase community engagement and stewardship in four urban watersheds in the Lower Hudson Valley region: the Saw Mill River, Bronx River, Pocantico River, and Sparkill Creek.

The Center for the Urban River will join with partners Riverkeeper, Bronx River Alliance, Hudson River Watershed Alliance, Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance, and Pocantico River Watershed Alliance in a collaborative effort to address the Lower Hudson region’s urban watershed issues.

“When we launched CURB three years ago, our vision was to create a regional hub for research, education, and community engagement focused on urban watershed issues that would spark new collaborative partnerships,” said Ryan Palmer, CURB’s Director. “We are deeply grateful to EPA for awarding us the opportunity to put that vision into action and honored that our partners have welcomed our leadership in this area.”

The team will integrate water quality monitoring in four urban watersheds, engaging citizen stewards in hands-on science and empowering local communities to become proactive advocates for pollution reduction.

Using EPA-approved methods designed to assess water for safe swimming, the team will sample for Enterococci, bacteria that indicate the presence of fecal contamination, such as untreated sewage. The EPA guidelines are meant to protect people who may ingest water not only while swimming, but also during a variety of recreational activities, including the splashing of children playing at the water’s edge or recreational boating. The concentration of Enterococci in water samples will be measured using the IDEXX Enterolert® system at CURB, where local students and community members will be welcome to learn and participate in project activities.

“Water quality in the Hudson has improved dramatically over the years, but our water quality monitoring projects have documented concerning levels of contamination in many of the rivers and creeks that feed it. The first step in cleaning up our water is understanding where it needs to be cleaned up. This project will help accomplish that in four of the lower Hudson’s most important tributaries,” said Dan Shapley, Water Quality Program Director for Riverkeeper.

While the four watersheds represent a continuum of historical uses, land use and land cover conditions, socioeconomics, and community engagement levels, one common characteristic holds true: fecal indicator bacteria have consistently been measured at levels exceeding state and federal water quality standards.

“Although our four target watershed communities differ in some ways, when examined through the lens of water quality and environmental justice, one striking similarity emerges: the downstream communities that bear the brunt of the worst pollution also have the highest concentration of low-income and minority residents,” explained Michelle Luebke, Ecology Director for the Bronx River Alliance. “This work is critical to engage citizens in becoming active champions for the health and improvement of their local rivers and green spaces,” she added.

The team is hopeful that the investigation will lead to a better understanding of the severity and sources of pollution, which will provide an informed basis for future remediation. “We will engage municipal, county, and state leaders, not only reporting problems to them, but suggesting solutions for improvements,” says Palmer. “This will set the stage for real positive change over the long term.”

“Our ultimate goal is to cultivate an educated grassroots network equipped to face the challenges ahead,” said Maureen Cunningham, Director of the Hudson River Watershed Alliance, “By directly engaging communities in hands-on science, local workshops, and regional training opportunities, we hope to inspire positive action by key decision-makers in these often-neglected watersheds.”

“No one person can accomplish all that is needed for our watersheds, but together we can make great changes. This grant from EPA will do so much for building the teamwork and capacity of our growing regional partnership, that now span the two sides of the lower Hudson River,” added Laurie Seeman, Coordinator of the Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance.”

"Citizen, science, and government partnership means we all do what we are good at. This is exactly the best way government can offer support. The citizens offer the longstanding vision and working commitment. This is making a real difference in our watersheds and to our future."

The project will run January 2017 to April 2018 and builds on a Westchester Community Foundation grants to CURB and the Bronx River Alliance in 2016 to engage Westchester County residents in their local watersheds and to unite these organizations in common research, further solidifying CURB as a hub for watershed work in the Lower Hudson.

All data gathered as part of these monitoring studies will be publicly available at

Project History

In the Sparkill Creek and Pocantico River watersheds, Riverkeeper helped to catalyze citizen stewardship. A monitoring project gave the Sparkill Creek Watershed Alliance a focused task that has formed the basis for additional inquiries into water quality, including an EPA-funded project in 2014, and helped them contribute to the formation and early work of the Rockland County Task Force on Water Resources. The Pocantico River Watershed Alliance, newly formed in 2015, coalesced after a meeting convened by Hudson River Watershed Alliance, after Riverkeeper’s monitoring partnership helped raise public awareness and built a constituency for a citizen-led watershed-scale effort.

For the past three summers, the Bronx River Alliance has partnered with EPA Citizen Science water quality monitoring efforts, prioritizing sites in the Bronx that align with the focus of the June 2015 Combined Sewer Overflow Long Term Control Plan. Through the course of these investigations, they discovered illicit discharges containing high levels of fecal contamination emptying out directly into the Bronx River from Westchester County.

In 2014, CURB launched a pilot water testing program with the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club (YPRC) to test the Hudson Riverfront and one location in the Saw Mill. YPRC is primarily a kayaking club with over 100 members who regularly take to the Hudson River for their own recreation as well as to offer a free kayaking program to over 1,000 Yonkers residents annually. In 2015, CURB and YPRC partnered with Riverkeeper to expand the program to 15 sites in the Saw Mill watershed, from Yonkers at the southern end to the headwaters in Chappaqua. For this program, they enlisted the help of a dozen community scientists, including YPRC members, the Pleasantville Conservation Advisory Committee, and other residents, ranging from high school students to retirees.

The New York City Water Trail Association and The River Project also partner with Riverkeeper and dozens of other partners to sample waterfront locations in and around New York City.

Additional Watershed Information

  • The Bronx River is the only freshwater river in New York City, flowing 23 miles from its impounded headwaters at the Kensico Reservoir in southern Westchester County through the Bronx to its mouth at the East River. In 2011, the Bronx River was designated an early pilot project of the Federal Urban Waters Partnership to reconnect urban communities with their waterways, particularly communities that are overburdened or economically distressed. The upper Bronx River is included on the NYDEC’s List of Impaired Waters (“303(d) list”) for pathogens (particularly fecal contamination) and has chronic issues with low dissolved oxygen (DO) levels, while the middle and lower reaches are considered impaired for both pathogens and floatables.

  • The Saw Mill River drains a long, narrow basin in Westchester County. The river’s course passes through residential, commercial, urban, and forested areas. The river has suffered the impacts of flood control projects including straightening, relocating, and lining of the river channel; filling lowlands; constructing flood walls; and replacing the river channel with a concrete flume. The Saw Mill River is included in New York’s 303(d) list. DEC’s waterbody assessments state that the Saw Mill River is known and/or suspected to be affected by sanitary discharges, combined sewer overflows, and urban runoff.

  • At just over nine miles long, the Pocantico River is one of the smallest tributaries monitored in Riverkeeper’s community science program. Although located in a predominantly suburban area, the Pocantico watershed includes a substantial portion of forested land, as well as denser urban areas downstream. New York State’s official waterbody inventory (“305(b) list”) lists much of the Pocantico River, as well as Echo Lake and Pocantico Lake, as “unassessed,” and in fact NYSDEC’s assessment of the non-tidal Pocantico River is based on data collected at one sampling point in Sleepy Hollow.

  • The Sparkill Creek watershed spans parts of Rockland County, NY, and Bergen County, NJ. The watershed is mostly urbanized, although there are pockets of forest. In 2010, NYSDEC added Sparkill Creek to its “303(d) list” due to high concentrations of fecal indicator bacteria.

About the Project Partners

Launched June 2013, the Sarah Lawrence Center for the Urban River at Beczak (CURB) is an alliance of Sarah Lawrence College and the Beczak Environmental Education Center, located on the banks of the Hudson River in downtown Yonkers. The collaboration established a research field station, facilitating faculty and student research, while continuing environmental education programming about the river for school and community groups. The mission of CURB is to advance environmental knowledge and stewardship by providing high quality K-12 environmental education for the local community, establishing a regional hub for research and monitoring focused on Hudson River estuary and urban watershed issues, and serving as a welcoming open community space for a variety of civic and cultural activities.

Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization dedicated to protecting the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries, and to safeguard the drinking water of nine million New York City and Hudson Valley residents.

The Bronx River Alliance serves as a coordinated voice for the river and works in harmonious partnership to protect, improve and restore the Bronx River corridor so that it can be a healthy ecological, recreational, educational and economic resource for the communities through which the river flows. Concerned citizens and community leaders came together with government to advance a vision of a restored river that could serve as a catalyst for change in their neighborhoods, ultimately creating the Alliance in 2001. Since then, the Alliance has created seven boat launches on the river where none previously existed; developed 22 new acres of waterfront parkland; planted 100,000 native trees, shrubs, and other plants along its banks; and removed 90 cars and over 640 tons of garbage from the river corridor. The Alliance has accomplished these goals by engaging Bronx communities in the effort to reclaim the river, harnessing the power of over 100,000 volunteer hours for the river and engaging over 10,000 students in learning on and about the river.

The Hudson River Watershed Alliance is a coalition of groups, individuals, and municipalities working to ensure clean and plentiful water resources throughout this region. Their mission is to protect, restore, and conserve water resources by supporting a collaborative network of information, innovation, and effective stewardship in the Hudson River Watershed.

About the EPA Grant Program (from EPA)

The mission of EPA’s Urban Waters Program is to help local residents and their organizations, particularly those in underserved communities, restore their urban waters in ways that also benefit community and economic revitalization. The Urban Waters Small Grants is one element through which EPA is accomplishing this mission, as well as through the Urban Waters Learning Network and the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. The Urban Waters Federal Partnership (UWFP) is a partnership of fourteen federal agencies working to reconnect urban communities with their waterways by improving coordination among federal agencies and collaborating with community‐led revitalization efforts to improve the nation’s water systems and promote their economic, environmental, and social benefits.

The Urban Waters Small Grants are competed and awarded every two years. Since its inception in 2012, the program has awarded approximately $6.6 million in Urban Waters Small Grants to 114 organizations across the country and Puerto Rico, with individual award amounts of up to $60,000.

About Sarah Lawrence College

Founded in 1926, Sarah Lawrence is a prestigious, coeducational liberal arts college that consistently ranks among the leading liberal arts colleges in the country. Sarah Lawrence is known for its pioneering approach to education, rich history of impassioned intellectual and civic engagement, and vibrant, successful alumni. In close proximity to the unparalleled offerings of New York City, the historic campus is home to an intellectually curious and diverse community.