OLC Blog

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Water Quality Assessment of the Swamp River - Part I

This is the first in a three-part series that records the proceedings of an important gathering at The Inn at Dover Furnace in Dover on June 4, 2011 that addressed local water quality issues. Over 40 members of the public were in attendance and included a few municipal officials

The Housatonic Valley Association (HVA) sponsored this strategic meeting of Harlem Valley Communities to share in this forum, which included the results of important water studies and related information applicable to our public and private water supplies in the Harlem Valley. The Baseline Water Studies and the costs of the Forum, were funded by Iroquois Gas, Constellation Energy, Berkshire Taconic Foundation, Pawling Corporation, Benjamin Companies, and Cary Institute.

Presentations were made by Dr. Jim Utter of FrOGS, Drs. William Schlesinger, David Strayer and Stuart Findlay of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Barbara Kendall of the Hudson Rover Watershed Alliance and Matt Alexander, Mayor of Wappinger’s Falls.

Tonia Shoumatoff, Director of the New York Office of HVA, made the introductions of the panel of distinguished experts. HVA, she explained, is the oldest watershed resource non-profit organization protecting water resources in this area. HVA operates in the several states into which the Housatonic River watershed extends. The New York State office opened in 2004 and HVA’s mission is to achieve a balance between development and resource protection.

Dr. Jim Utter, the chairman of Friends of the Great Swamp (FrOGS) was first on the agenda, with his talk on “The Interdependence of Man and Nature”.

Dr. Utter went on to explain the great size of the Great Swamp, which protects it to some extent, but it sprawls across 3 towns and one village, extending for about 20 miles in length. Because of this length, it has extensive edges, and it is these edges that are so vulnerable to degradation. The southernmost areas tend to be more acidic due to the bed rock conditions, but in the center of the Harlem Valley, conditions are very alkaline and rare plants abound in this environment. The south flow moves in a southerly direction, from Dutcher Avenue, located in the Village of Pawling. At Dutcher, on the western side of the road, the flow moves northerly. This is the divide area. In both directions, the gradient is very slight, which restricts the movement of the waters. It is the sluggishness of the flow that tends to retain the sediments and the pollutants, and transfer these to the groundwaters. Low gradient rivers like the Swamp River (which flows north) create great challenges to flush out the pollutants that they collect.

Dr. Utter spoke at length about the functions and values of the Great Swamp. He stressed the enormous flood stage capacity of the Swamp, and how it traps sediments.
The Great Swamp is the largest red maple swamp in New York. The Burton Brook Watershed, in Dover, is the largest drainage area in the North Flow. Any pollutant that enters a stream can find its way into the Swamp and pollute. Preventing pollutants from entering streams is the easiest way to protect the Swamp and the Groundwater.

FrOGS started a Biologic Stream Monitoring (Analysis of Macro Benthic Invertebrates) Project this past year, at 6 selected sites on the Swamp River and its tributaries. An analysis of certain stream insect larvae, like mayflies and caddis flies can tell us a great deal about the health of the water and its suitability for sustaining living organisms. In Pawling, results at Murrow Park and downstream at the base of Corbin Hill, the two the testing sites in Pawling, received passing grades, but showed some degradation.

Dr. William Schlesinger, President, Cary Institute:

Baseline water samples were taken at representative streams in the Great Swamp, from Spring to Fall during 2010. Five (5) sampling sites were chosen by an advisory committee, consisting of persons from the affected communities who were familiar with the science. The samples were tested for their water chemistry by the lab at Cary Institute and by a contract lab for controls: the results were very similar. This is a hard water system, with a high ph, in the North Flow. Allowing for the expected, due to this chemistry, there were a few surprises, related mostly to the salinity, which will be addressed by the reporter who follows, Dr. Findlay. Overall, the worst pollution, not surprisingly, was found in the Village of Pawling discharges, due to the urban run off, and the large amount of salting, and the reduced flows.

Dr. Schlesinger stated that tracking down the sources of pollution that were discovered should be undertaken to see how they can be addressed.

The reports of the presentations of the other speakers at the forum will follow in further issues of this newspaper.

The detailed results of the baseline water tests, can be obtained from HVA, toniashoumatoff@HVA.org

Contributed by Sibyll Gilbert, a member of the Baseline Studies Advisory Committee, Vice President of The Oblong Land Conservancy, and a member of the Pawling Conservation Advisory Board

Thursday, June 23, 2011

For The Birds

The news from Beebe in Arkansas, Point Coupee in Louisiana and, indeed, Sweden is troublesome if you are a bird lover. By the time you read this we will probably know more but it sounds as though in the case of the Beebe event it was trauma associated with fireworks that caused all these red-winged blackbirds to literally drop out of the sky. In an effort to avoid the explosions the birds are believed to have flown at low altitudes and collided with things not normally in their flight paths. It seems that these events involving mass die-offs are not so rare. This leads to another disturbing aspect concerning our feathered friends – there seems to be far fewer of them around the bird feeders this year. At least it seems that way when viewed from your Editor’s perch.

This could be put down to a variety of causes including different food. However, we have used the same supplier for years. It could be the weather since that has been more than usually capricious. But neither of these seems to provide a satisfactory answer since the demands placed upon our bird feeders over the last few years have been declining. We have no scientific data to back this up but there are definitely fewer birds and nothing like the same variety. Perhaps something else is at work.

Recently we were lent a rather interesting book entitled Bringing Nature Homeby Douglas W. Tallamy. He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, DE. Tallamy has authored dozens of articles on the relationship between plants and insects and his book provides some real insight into sustainable biodiversity. The point in issue is the unbreakable link between native plant species and native wildlife.

The relationship between the impact of development, habitat destruction and the impact of invasive or non-native plant species does not seem to have attracted a lot of attention thus far. Tallamy does sterling work in drawing together a lot of the disparate research and how it all plays into, for example, how many birds there are squabbling to get to the sunflower seeds or the suet cake suspended outside our windows.

The principal point that is made concerns the importance of plant life. One does not often think about this but it is vegetation in its multiplicity of varieties that sustains most of the higher forms of life on the planet. Without plants and the miracle of photosynthesis there would be no oxygen and precious little to eat. The sun’s energy gets converted to plant life, which in turn gets consumed by all sorts of things, including us.

The essential message seems to be that there are fewer birds around because there is less food for their young. This makes sense when one considers that the principal source of food for young birds is insects which operate as a kind of vehicle for transforming leaves into something much more appetizing and nutritious. How many adult birds does one see feeding its young dandelion leaves as opposed to caterpillars or spiders?

It turns out that insects are at least as picky eaters as most of us. If the right kind of vegetation does not exist the insect moves on or dies out and the source of nourishment that it provides to others up the food chain vanishes. This means that those that rely on insects for their sustenance either have to skip town or adapt.

This is a key point. As invasive or non-native species of plants establish a beachhead in an area so they drive out the natives with all sorts of unintended consequences.

By way of example Tallamy notes that many suburban gardens sporting well manicured lawns and generously appointed flower beds are as damaging to the delicate balance of native flora and fauna as filling in a wetland. Many of the non-native plants, shrubs and trees that we plant are not readily digestible by many of the participants in the complex web of life that makes up our ecosystem. They may look nice but they do not provide an appropriate source of food. Just think of those acres of lawns in the countless sub-divisions across the nation that are now inhospitable to countless forms of insect life.

One of the questions that may arise is what is an invasive? Fair question but there is no easy answer. The mere fact that something has been established here for 100 years does not make it a native in the eyes of a hungry caterpillar. It turns out that most insects adapt their diets at a glacial pace, if at all.

One of the telling tables in the book reveals that Clematis vitalbahosts some 40 species of herbivore in its host country. Yet, despite having been in North America for 100 years it supports only a single herbivore. Phragmites australis, that bane of pond owners has been here over 300 years. At home in Europe it supports some 170 species but only 5 species of herbivore here. So, if you are an insect partial to whatever Phrag has displaced you are out of luck and so is everything else that forms part of the food web of which that insect was itself a part.

So where does this leave us? The title of Tallamy’s book gives us a clue; bring Nature home. At its most simplistic it means simply planting natives rather than nonnative plant species. That will support the food web that is necessary to feed the bugs that will feed the birds. The point is that just as that famous spiritual poem tells us . . . the leg bone is connected to the knee bone . . . we are all connected to everything else.

Chris Wood

Monday, June 13, 2011

Land Jenga

This simple game will be known to many. The idea is that you construct a small tower out of 54 small wooden blocks, three per layer, with each successive layer at right angles to the one below it to afford stability. Any number of players may participate and the game is to remove, using one hand only, a block at a time. Each player gets to remove one block per turn and the player that brings down the tower loses. Blocks can be removed from any level of the tower and a really steady hand is an advantage.

The game comes in a rather attractive multi-colored box with some simple instructions in a number of languages. On the bottom of the box there is some sort of recommendation or caution. For one reason or another it does not appear in English so perhaps it only applies to German, Dutch and Spanish speakers. There are also some statements in some languages that confirm that the toy meets certain safety standards. The multi-lingual approach confirms the universality of the game.

For those who have played Jenga they know that the first few blocks can be removed fairly readily. A deft hand is required but they slide out easily. Obviously, as the game proceeds it gets progressively more difficult to identify the blocks that can safely be removed. It is also clear that after a certain point, a player cannot be certain that having begun to remove a block the edifice will continue to stand after its removal. Experienced players will know the feeling as the tower starts to sway but somehow manages to stay upright although clearly far from stable. It may be that a few more blocks can get removed, with care, before the whole thing comes tumbling down. However, there always comes a point where the tower collapses.

According to a 2002 inventory of major land uses some 26% of the U.S is given over to grassland and pasture, 20% to cropland and about 13% to some form of urban and suburban development. This means that about 60% of the land area is subject to some sort of active human management. To a lesser extent this may also apply to the 29% given over to forest uses. This means that a very large proportion of the land in the U.S. is subject to some sort of periodic human intervention with only a relatively small area that could be considered as wild and undisturbed habitat. Why is this of interest?

Well, in an urban or suburban context virtually all the natural undisturbed habitat has been compromised. Of course there are parks and lawns and other open spaces but they are hardly wild. This means that the original inhabitants, be they plant, insect, bird or animal, have decamped to another location; or more likely become functionally extinct. How many of us have homes that sport a verdant sward of lawn kept in a bug-free condition by the copious application of pesticides, herbicides and who knows what else. Result – a largely sterile parcel of land from which only the hardiest species of flora and fauna can eke out an existence. Where are the butterflies, the insects, the amphibians?

The land under the plough is not much different. The influence of the industrialization of agriculture demands the use of chemicals to control pests and weeds. Indeed, the creation of large areas given over to a single crop reduces the variety of life that can subsist in its midst.

This is no small matter and it is all about biodiversity. However one looks at it, species are being eradicated at an alarming rate. Nature is a truly remarkable thing; there is something occupying every conceivable crevice on the planet. Take plants, for example. Most require a particular type of habitat and as that habitat changes as a result of the development pressure exerted by us (and of course, climate change – also down to us in some measure) so particular types of plant, bush or tree are no longer viable in a particular location. Invasive species move in that may, for example, leaf out earlier thus precluding the natives from getting established at the start of the growing season. This means not only the loss of the native plant life but also the food source that was relied upon by insects, birds and other animals up the food chain. In fact, it is not so much a matter of a chain but rather that of a web. Everything is interconnected. As Professor James Lovelock, Edward O. Wilson and others have pointed out the planet is a finely balanced self-regulating organism and we interfere with her natural processes at our peril.

As plant variety changes so does the rest of the web upon which it was reliant. In few cases can native wildlife adapt in the short term to a new diet provided by non-native plants. So, being unable to eat the leaves of the new plant species the insect population becomes less diversified, the birds that rely upon the insects to feed themselves and rear their young also diminish in number and variety. And so it goes.

The diversified natural world, upon which we are totally and utterly reliant, is having its building blocks removed. How long before we figure this out and, as Jenga players know, we pass the point at which the tower loses its innate stability.

Chris Wood

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

H.S. students in joint conservation project

The bright sunny weather of Saturday May 7th was perfect for working outdoors, which is exactly how a group of volunteers spent the morning. A line of cars could be seen parked along the unpaved portion of Cushman Road in Pawling just beside the Oblong Land Conservancy’s (OLC) Cushman Road conservation easement.

Pawling High School student volunteers, as well as some parents, came out to help members of OLC, the Pawling Conservation Advisory Board (CAB), the Watershed Agricultural Council (WAC) and the Environmental Leaders Learning Alliance (ELLA) clear away garbage, dig out invasive plant species like Russian olive, Eurasian honeysuckle, and multiflora rose, which were replaced by native plant species such as pussy willows, northern red oaks, eastern white pine and elderberry.

The portion of the 200 acre easement that volunteers worked on is known as a fen, or a low land area which is covered, wholly or partially, with water. The project attempts to protect the land from rapidly growing invasive plant species that overtake native species, which negatively impact plants, animals and amphibians. Replacing these invasive species with native plants will preserve the ecosystem.

Student volunteers Taylor Dolce, Jandy Torres and Jimmy Boo, as part of their environmental studies class, have been working on a class project focused on solving local environmental issues that relate to watershed and municipal water supplies. The students were encouraged by their teacher, Lucille Prendergast, to team up with community organizations, such as OLC and the CAB.

A large amount of trash was cleared and a huge pile of invasives was also removed to make way for the planting of approximately 40 new trees and shrubs generously donated by WAC and ELLA through the good offices of Mike Purcell of the CAB.

The volunteers from PHS were Kayla Barnard, Jimmy Boo, Michelle Bissett, Gabrielle McGrath, Will Webber and Jandy Torres. They were joined by Jandy’s mother and brother, Kevin Torres, Gabrielle’s father Pat, Lucy Prendergast, Mike Purcell of the CAB, Brendan Murphy of the WAC and Sibyll Gilbert & Chris Wood of the OLC.

by Callye Rose for The Pawling Press