HACKENSACK, N.J. -- In July, three staff members from Hackensack Riverkeeper, the Hackensack-based clean water advocacy and environmental education organization, visited three public access sites on the Hackensack River and two on the Newark Bay where they took onsite water quality readings and collected water samples for laboratory analysis. The endeavor is the organization's new initiative in the group's ongoing mission.

Program Director Hugh Carola, Project Manager Jodi Jamieson and Outreach Coordinator Samantha Kreisler revisited each location on July 21 and again on July 28. The trio will return every Tuesday through October 20, when the program ends.

The sites include Waterside Park in Ridgefield Park; River Barge Park in Carlstadt; Laurel Hill County Park in Secaucus; Richard A. Rutkowski Park in Bayonne; and City Park, also in Bayonne. Using a YSI sonde device, members of the Riverkeeper recorded water temperature, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, salinity and pH at each stop. They also collected two samples at each to be tested for the presence of fecal coliform and Enterococcus bacteria. Both are found in sewage; the latter being the best indicator of whether water is safe for primary human contact like swimming.

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“I’d known about the program for several years and also knew that no sites on the Hackensack or the bay were being sampled,” said Carola. “With more people recreating on those waters each year, plus our decades-long fight to end the scourge of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into them, I knew we had to ‘get with the program’ — literally. And then Jessica reached out to us.”

Dr. Jessica Bonamusa at the CUNY Staten Island-based Interstate Environmental Commission (IEC) trained and supports the Riverkeeper staffers, as well as those from Fresh Kills Park on Staten Island and the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership in New Brunswick. Through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Bonamusa and IEC are able to provide a YSI and calibrating materials, plus sealed sampling jars to each team for the duration of the program. Together with the Manhattan-based Citizens Water Quality Testing program (CWQT), IEC equips teams to test and sample water bodies throughout the New York/New Jersey Harbor Estuary.

While 2019 was a banner year -- with testing sites reporting from Yonkers to Coney Island and from Piscataway to the head of Long Island Sound -- the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has slowed down what had been a growing and increasingly effective data-collection effort. With the closure of all CUNY campuses, including the IEC lab, Bonamusa and her colleagues had to contract with an outside lab to do the bacteriological analysis.

“Although most of our programs have been severely curtailed by COVID, the change has allowed Hugh, Sam, and I to take on this important citizen science effort,” said Jamieson who oversees two of the group’s intensive EE programs. “In so doing, we’ve joined forces with well over one hundred other Waterkeeper organizations who do this kind of work worldwide.”

The collected data — both IEC’s and CWQT’s — are fully certified through a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) and made available to government agencies, academia and nonprofit organizations to help guide planning and further conservation goals. Riverkeeper’s testing results have so far been within expected parameters, including pH levels coming in at or near neutral 7 and salinity levels increasing as testing moves from north to south. While the lab is still establishing a baseline for coliform results, Enterococcus levels have been surprisingly very low.

For surface water to meet the standard for swimming in New Jersey, the number of Colony-forming Units (CFUs) in any given sample must be less that 104. Riverkeeper’s two-week average showed all five sites at well below that threshold. The highest average was 53 CFUs from samples taken at Waterside Park in Ridgefield Park. Next best were River Barge Park in Carlstadt with 31, and Bayonne’s Rutkowski Park with 15. Both Laurel Hill and City parks showed less than 10 CFUs each. While results will vary over the project timeline due to rainfall amounts, CSOs and heat waves; the preliminary Enterococcus numbers are encouraging.

“Getting involved in this program checks two important boxes for me,” said Kreisler, the newest Riverkeeper staffer and holder of a Master’s degree in Marine Conservation from the University of Miami (Florida). “I love being out doing field research again; and I’ll soon be able to engage some of our more experienced volunteers to join us in this important work.”

Hackensack Riverkeeper expects to include data from all five locations on its website once six testing/sampling dates have concluded. Carola, Jamieson and Kreisler are also doing what they can to help ensure that funding will be available to continue their organization’s participation in the program.