Cooling off in urban blue spaces: Philadelphia & the Schuylkill River

Imagine a bike’s wheels whistling past maple trees, under historic bridges, and alongside antiquated train tracks on a promising summer afternoon. This simple image, now etched in my memory from a recent trip to Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail, tells the story of many restored urban waterways around the world.

It’s becoming trendy to turn abandoned, post-industrial lots into blossoming green spaces, especially around rivers. Rather than tearing down the past, urban planners are incorporating its remains into the present; industrial revolution train tracks now serve as flowerpots. Image

Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River Trail reconnects residents with the waterway.

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Buy me some peanuts and (water-efficient) Cracker Jack

As a lifelong baseball fan, I’m proud that in 2008, Major League Baseball became the first professional sports league to partner with the National Resources Defense Council, teaming up with the respected environmental organization to launch a wide-ranging sustainability initiative. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig declared at the time that “caring for the environment is inextricably linked to all aspects of the game,” and that baseball “is in a unique position to exert positive influence in the area of environmental stewardship.”

That might sound like pure publicity, but over the last five years MLB has consistently turned its words into action, particularly in the area of water conservation. It’s all too easy to take water for granted, and baseball—America’s national pastime—could play a key role in instilling the idea of water stewardship in the national consciousness.

For  three teams—the Miami Marlins, the Minnesota Twins, and the Washington Nationals, all of which have opened LEED-certified ballparks—the minimization of water use has been particularly impressive.* Continue reading

A Day at the Aquarium: Part 2

When we visited the National Aquarium, I felt sure of two things: 1) I was sympathetic to the plight of the endangered animals and ecosystems on display. 2) I was glad that the animals were behind glass (at that moment, but in general I wish they were free).

As someone who has enjoyed studying water and aquatic ecosystems, it might seem natural to become a marine biologist, but it is difficult for me to move past my fear of being gobbled up by a crazy critter the moment my body enters the water.

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We often worry about our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, but that’s what coral do best! Coral polyps attach themselves to the sea floor and then build limestone skeletons, which leads to coral reefs!

For the sake of threatened organisms and ecosystems, however, we all must “take the plunge” and realize that they are more than just predators—they are essential parts of our natural world. We need not only to end overfishing and poor fishing practices, such as dredging and trawling, but to encourage attitude changes about aquatic life

Let’s take sharks, for example. One display in the aquarium asked visitors to reconsider these notorious fish, pointing out that you’re more likely to get hit by a car on the way to the beach than to be eaten by a shark. Sharks do not seek out human victims, but instead may mistake them for their natural prey, such as seals. Rather than seeing sharks as bloodthirsty, mindlessly belligerent predators, we should think of them as a natural part of a healthy ecosystem and the victim of poor decisions by humans.

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A day at the aquarium: part 1

The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., is a hidden treasure, tucked into the basement of the Department of Commerce building just a stone’s throw from the White House. When we visited the aquarium on Sunday, we found it to be charming, intimate, and highly educational, full of young children buzzing with excitement to see and learn about an array of dazzling undersea creatures.

The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., is going to close at the end of this summer. For the first time since 1878, there will be no aquarium in our nation’s capitol.

More on that in a moment. First, some highlights from the aquarium:

AnemoneThis beautiful pink-and-purple sea anemone was one of the aquarium’s most eye-catching sights. It has a commensal relationship with that lone clownfish you see in the center, which is protected from potential predators by the anemone’s stinging cnidae. The evolutionary biology behind this relationship is pretty fascinating.

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Dipping your toes in the water

While water is certainly an emblem of serenity, I often find myself out of breath as I race to spend time with it. In the past few days, I have hustled and bustled to experience New York City’s water, from Central Park’s fabled Bethesda Fountain—which celebrates the purity of the city’s water supply—to the trendy Dumbo beach, one of the sites where the New York City Water Trail Association takes water quality samples.

Through all of this rushing around, I have found that there is often a gap between the mythology of New York’s pristine waters and the reality of its infrastructural failings.

But let me back up for a moment. A few days ago, I raced over to Central Park to view the Bethesda Fountain, which serves as a symbol of New York’s water purity. It was 12 minutes before sunset. An angel with regal wings rises above the fountain, which isdraped with tiers of flowing water. It is a relic of the city’s water history; it was constructed in 1868, and it hails the arrival of clean water to NYC in 1842 and the end of cholera epidemics.

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As I gazed up atthe Angel of Water, a violinist in the park played restless notes, and the combination of his music, the sunset, and the soothing sounds of the flowing water set the stage for a romance. I swooned for sure. Water danced gingerly over the fountain’s tiers, seeming to show off for the nearby stagnant pond.

Flash forward to Thursday morning, when I jumped on several express trains to take my first water sample at the Dumbo beach for the New York City Water Trail Association. This was part of an ongoing project to document levels of of enterococci (an indicator of human sewage) in New York’s waterways. Combined sewage overflows (CSOs) continue to plague the city’s rivers, and this project is an effort to provide health and safety information for summer swimmers and boaters (and policymakers). Continue reading

Water on the Mall

I’ve been living in Washington, D.C., this summer, and if there’s one thing that’s amazed me about the National Mall, it’s this: There are fountains everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong—pretty much everything about the National Mall is amazing, which is kind of the point. If you haven’t been there before, the Mall is a seemingly endless collection of museums and monuments, stretching from Congress at one end to the Lincoln Memorial at the other. Highlights include the Jefferson Memorial, the National Museum of Natural History, and the gorgeous United States Botanic Garden (which, incidentally, has a pretty neat sustainability initiative.)

I’ve spent several weekends walking up and down the Mall, and even with all of the great museums and historic sights, the thing that’s really caught my attention is all the water. There’s hardly a memorial that doesn’t use water as a means of paying homage, and I’ve started to joke that no government building could possibly be important if it doesn’t have at least three fountains. (I know, I’m hilarious.)

At this point you probably want examples. Some of the best fountains I’ve seen:

ImageYes, that’s the White House! Specifically, it’s the North Lawn. And there’s a second fountain on the other side. Continue reading

Welcome to 44 Water St.

Engulfed by the intoxicating aroma of coffee beans, we stand in line in cafés, hoping to jump-start our mornings with a caffeine jolt and a sugar rush. At this base of this strange concoction—coffee—is water.

WaterFootprint.org estimates that growing, transporting, and processing the coffee plant requires 140 liters of water. (That’s almost 37 gallons!) When we drink coffee, we are responsible for the water that makes it possible for this hot, energizing beverage to reach our cups each morning.

Every part of our world begins with water, but so often we take it for granted.

We depend on water to survive—as has every single person who has ever lived, and as does every other species on the planet. This truth is both humbling and unifying. We drink water, we’re made of water, and we bathe in water. We use water to dispose of our waste, to irrigate our crops, and to create electricity.

The world’s most prosperous cities have formed along the banks of great rivers, and civilizations throughout history have risen and fallen on the tides of their water fortunes. Water makes possible every fountain, every swimming pool, and every ocean, river, and lake. It is the subject of scientific study, and anthropogenic inquiry, and seemingly meandering blog posts.

All of which is to say, we’re here to write about water. Continue reading