Giving Back To The River: Volunteers Test Water Quality

February 19, 2018
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Fair Haven resident Chuck Abel extends a test tube into the Navesink River beside Riverview Medical Center on Feb. 14. Abel is one of dozens of local residents who volunteer their time to collect the water samples for state testing through Clean Ocean Action. Samples are hand-delivered same day to DEP labs in Leeds Point. Photo by Jay Cook.

By Jay Cook |

RED BANK – The weather isn’t nice enough yet for a cruise on the Navesink, but some Two River residents have been spending quality time alongside the riverbanks this winter – with science kits in hand.

Such is the case for Michael Humphreys, a 77-year-old Red Bank resident, and Chuck Abel, 61-years-old from Fair Haven, who convened at Count Basie Park just after the crack of dawn on Wednesday morning.

Both men have vested interests in the health of the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers and are two of the dozens of citizen-scientists participating in the Navesink Ambient Citizen Water Quality Monitoring and Source Tracking Program, an effort coordinated by Clean Ocean Action and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

“Beyond all the headlines about how the river is polluted,” Humphreys said, “there’s actually stuff being done about it.”

The first-of-its-kind program began in June after reports from the spring of 2016 when Clean Ocean Action, DEP and Rutgers University found the Navesink River was being polluted by human waste, among other contaminants.

In response, the citizens’ group was created to help assist the state’s water quality testing arm. Now into its 36th week, the all-volunteer organization is thriving and helping track the health of the two rivers.

“We had a downgrade of water quality because of ‘poo-llution’ – and in the 21st century, that’s not where we should be,” said Cindy Zipf, Clean Ocean Action’s executive director. “We need to restore those areas and maintain that water quality going forward so people can continue to swim and enjoy the river.”

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Test Time

Count Basie Park has served as a staging ground for the past eight months. Alison McCarthy, Clean Ocean Action’s coastal watershed protection coordinator, arrives at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday mornings to unload sterilized bottles provided by the DEP, extendable poles, coolers, sterile gloves and large buckets for each of the groups.

One by one, different locals pour into the parking lot to fill out initial paperwork and grab their gear. The citizen-scientists take samples from 20 different locations in Fair Haven, Middletown, Red Bank and Tinton Falls. Up to five new spots in Rumson could be added later this year.

Humphreys and Abel rolled in around 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Their task for that day: sample water flowing from surface water outfalls at Marine Park and a private residence on Hubbard Park, a residential roadway just past Riverview Medical Center.

“I like to think that I might be contributing somewhat, my infinitesimal contribution,” said Abel, a self-proclaimed “rodeo member” for the different local environmental groups. “I’d rather see (the river) clean than dirty.”

The same goes for Humphreys, a board secretary for the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association. He was disappointed when his organization had to cancel the popular River Rangers program in 2016 due to the river’s poor health. It was reinstated last year and has since been greeted favorably.

“We had a good take-up last year and people were pleased it was back,” Humphreys said, on the drive to Hubbard Park.

In reality, it took longer for Humphreys and Abel to fill out their paperwork than it did to test the river. Samples are required to be taken up-current, right into the flow of an outfall. Water and air temperatures are recorded in centigrade and then the samples are wrapped up and placed into the coolers.

Volunteers return the water tests back to McCarthy at Count Basie Park and then she drives them south to the DEP’s laboratory in Leeds Point for immediate testing. Those samples go hand-in-hand with additional testing the DEP and Clean Ocean Action do along the two rivers.

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“For us to have volunteers doing this kind of work is just incredible,” McCarthy said.

Chuck Abel ties a test tube onto an extendable pole for Red Bank’s Mike Humphreys before both volunteers test the water quality at Marine Park in Red Bank. Photo by Jay Cook.

Test Scores

Rally for the Navesink, a collection of stakeholders interested in local water quality, held their first meeting of 2018 last month and was able to provide sample results from previous months.

The threshold between safe and unsafe water is 104 colony forming units (CFU) per 100 milliliters of sample, per the DEP. Any number below that level is safe, but a reading above it means there is an unhealthy amount of pollution in that specific location.

Clean Ocean Action’s staff scientist, Swarna Muthukrishnan, said, “we do see some improvements,” but erred on the side of caution when asked about the big picture.

“These are individual measurements,” she continued. “That’s the advantage and limitation of bacteria testing. We pick one sample once a week and that’s what is being analyzed.”

Higher polluted readings came days after significant rainfall, according to Clean Ocean Action’s data. The river usually cleans itself out through multiple tidal movements.

Contaminated areas have also been fixed thanks to the program. The Two Rivers Water Reclamation Authority was on scene earlier this month in Fair Haven to repair an area around Fourth Creek – the body of water connecting McCarter Pond to the Navesink – which the River Rats sailing program calls home.

The water testing program is set to conclude in June, ending a 52-week run. But those at Clean Ocean Action are hopeful the DEP’s new administration will allow it to continue, keeping residents on the water-testing beat. After all, the locals are set to benefit most from a healthy, thriving river ecosystem.

“Empowering citizens to get that sampling done and help track down sources of pollution is an incredible value,” Zipf said.

This article first appeared in the Feb. 15-22, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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