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Water

Setauket Harbor file photo by Rachel Shapiro

Setauket is harboring a working relationship with North Shore officials as advocates flood their offices with environmental projects.

The newly formed Setauket Harbor Task Force has been in talks with various elected officials, including Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Parks Commissioner Ed Morris, as the group continues its push to sustain the beauty of the North Shore spot. The group gathered for a walking tour of the town-owned Setauket Harbor properties on May 12 to highlight areas around the harbor that need attention.

Laurie Vetere, a North Shore-based attorney and president of the volunteer task force, said the meeting was a step in the right direction.

“The task force is encouraged by the town’s swift response in meeting with us and their receptivity to our concerns,” she said.

Some of those concerns included making sure the town pays attention to the road runoff retention basin and pond that forms near the inlet at Setauket Harbor, and maintaining park property just to the west of the area’s footbridge, Vetere said.

The group also urged town officials to keep their eyes on the beach and dock along Shore Road, where a combination of winter ice and 8-foot tides had severely damaged the dock, upending the pilings and twisting the aluminum gangplank, the group said. The town had already replaced both the pilings and the dock as the winter came to a close, and Morris confirmed the gangplank leading down to the dock would be repaired by the beginning of summer.

Charlie Lefkowitz, a board member and Setauket-based businessman, said the town was more than receptive to the task force’s concerns, and results were already tangible.

“We want to be partners with the town in improving the harbor and working with them to put in place corrective actions that will help water quality and enhance the general enjoyment of the harbor view-shed,” he said.

The Setauket Harbor Task Force was formed last year over concerns about the harbor and the deteriorating water quality, and it recently held a meeting about the health of the harbor that drew more than 60 local residents.

Workers clean up the section of Old Mill Creek behind Village Hall. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Old Mill Creek has been an unusual sight lately for those who are used to seeing the narrow Port Jefferson waterway choked with vegetation.

A contractor recently began working on the troubled creek, uprooting invasive trees and plants a few weeks ago and clearing the view to passersby. This week, workers were standing in the stretch of the stream behind Village Hall with an excavator at its bank. They are restoring the eastern half of the creek, which discharges into Port Jefferson Harbor.

Old Mill Creek has been polluted and dirty for a long time. Photo from Steve Velazquez
Old Mill Creek has been polluted and dirty for a long time. Photo from Steve Velazquez

Port Jefferson Village has a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to install rock supports at the creek, replace invasive plants with freshwater species, remove built-up sediment that blocks water flow, install filters to improve water quality and repair a pipe known as a culvert that channels the creek under Barnum Avenue.

That culvert repair will alleviate some flooding issues downtown, because the pipe is largely blocked up and causes problems during high tide and storms when the creek swells.

A goal of the project is to improve water quality in the creek and, indirectly, in the harbor.

Last month the village hired Holbrook-based contractor G & M Earth Moving Inc. to perform the restoration work and will use a DEC grant to cover three-quarters of the cost.

Old Mill Creek starts near Longfellow Lane and Brook Road, passes the Caroline Avenue ball field and goes under Barnum. From there it goes past Village Hall and wraps around Schafer’s restaurant before running under West Broadway and into the harbor.

Over the years, invasive species, flooding and pollution have beaten up the creek. Hazardous chemicals that had been illegally dumped over many years at the former Lawrence Aviation Industries property, an aircraft-parts manufacturer in Port Jefferson Station, traveled down-gradient into the creek.

Beyond the current restoration project, the village has further plans for improving and protecting the waterway, including doing similar work on the half of it west of Barnum Avenue and reducing stormwater runoff in its entire 517-acre watershed area.

George Hoffman and Laurie Vetere overlook Setauket Harbor, which their new task force hopes to protect. Photo by Susan Risoli

By Susan Risoli

Setauket Harbor has a new best friend.

To speak up for this system of bays and ponds, residents have created the Setauket Harbor Task Force. Before the group met at the Neighborhood House Tuesday night, cofounders Laurie Vetere and George Hoffman said the task force can improve water quality and increase accessibility for all who love Setauket’s wetlands.

Stuck between Stony Brook Harbor and Port Jefferson Harbor, Setauket Harbor is an “orphan” that could use some of the attention given to its neighbors, Hoffman said. Stony Brook’s strong harbor advisory committee and vocal boating community, and Port Jeff’s commerce and ferry navigation, ensure that those harbors stay in good shape, Hoffman said.

“And in Connecticut, every harbor has an advisory group,” he said. “We want to be out there to help our harbor.”

Setauket Pond is the first order of business, said Vetere, chairwoman of the task force, and Hoffman, a trustee on its board. This area next to the Se-Port Deli on Route 25A has seen better days.

A walk across the footbridge spanning the pond revealed a silt-choked catch basin below.

The basin is supposed to protect the harbor by filtering oil and trash from storm water road runoff, they said, but it’s no longer doing its job.

Vetere gestured to debris and fallen trees littering the water. If the task force can clean up the pond, Vetere said, “I want to see increased boating, kayaking, paddle boarding. Maybe creating a blueway trail that could be historic,” in recognition of George Washington’s colonial spies, who snuck in and out of the harbor with secrets.The task force has formed a not-for-profit corporation so it can apply for federal and state grants, Vetere and Hoffman said.

The group also wants to train volunteers to become “water guardians,” monitors who would test Setauket waters regularly for bacteria and nitrogen levels. They said they want volunteers for a “visioning committee” on the harbor’s future.

Hoffman and Vetere said the task force could use volunteers to help with a planned “Setauket Harbor Day.” Getting a state-issued permit to cut back the phragmites — a non-native species of tall reeds that has all but taken over the shoreline — is another priority, Hoffman said.

About 45 people gathered Tuesday night at the Setauket Neighborhood House to learn about the task force’s plans and to hear what speaker Eric Swenson, executive director of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee, shared about successful efforts to restore water quality and shellfish harvesting there.

Hempstead Harbor is a success story, Swenson said, because its protection committee is a collaborative effort between citizens, villages, towns, county government, and scientists.

Advising Three Villagers to network in similar fashion, Swenson said, “You’re not a harbor unto yourself.”
Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) were at the meeting.

“Know that I am an ally and I will continue to work towards us improving the harbor,” Cartright said.
Hoffman said the Setauket Harbor group hopes to meet several times a year. Their harbor has its challenges, he said, but “it’s not too late to fix this.”

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Martian water, in a lab. Maria-Paz Zorzano, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, recreates the conditions in which perchlorate salts would melt water during the Martian summer night. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly an oasis filled with unexplored life in the middle of a barren dessert. Rather, it is likely a small amount of liquid water that forms during the night and evaporates during the day. What makes this water so remarkable and enticing, however, is that, while it’s in our solar system, it is far, far away: about 225 million miles.

The rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in the summer of 2012 after a 253-day journey from Earth, has gathered weather data from the Gale Crater on the Red Planet for the last year. That data has suggested the likely presence of liquid water.

“The cool part of this is the present-day nature of it,” said Tim Glotch, an associate professor at the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, who studies the role of water in shaping the surface of Mars. “It’s there right now.”

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station  on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

The liquid water is in the form of brine, which is a mix of water and salts. The perchlorate salts on or near the surface of Mars melt the ice that forms during the cold parts of the Martian night. It’s similar, Glotch said, to the way salts melt black ice during a frigid Long Island evening.

Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, can’t detect this liquid water because its electronics don’t operate during temperatures that plunge at night to around 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The findings, which were reported last week in the journal Nature Geosciences, have competing implications. For starters, said lead author Javier Martin-Torres, who works at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden and is a part of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and a member of Curiosity’s science team, the water is in one of the least likely places on Mars.

“We see evidence of conditions for brine in the worst-case scenario on Mars,” Martin-Torres said in a Skype interview last week from Sweden. “We are in the hottest and driest place on the planet. Because we know that perchlorates are all over the planet — which we have seen from satellite images — we think there must be brine everywhere.”

Given the radiation, temperature fluctuations and other atmospheric challenges, however, the conditions for life, even microorganisms, to survive in these small droplets of water are “terrible,” Martin-Torres said.

Still, the fact that “we see a water cycle, in the present atmosphere, is very exciting,” Martin-Torres said. “This has implications in meteorology.”

Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook, said the likelihood of water bound to perchlorate salts directly affects her own research.

“Something I work on is sulfate minerals on Mars,” she said. “They can take on water and get rid of them easily by exchanging water vapor with the atmosphere.” She may incorporate perchlorates into future grant proposals.

Briny water, Rogers said, may also explain the dark streaks that appear on Mars at mid and low latitudes. These streaks look like running water going down a slope.

“People try to explain what these are,” she said. “It can’t be pure liquid water. It might be perchlorates taking on water vapor and producing dark streaks.”

By landing on the planet and sending readings back to researchers, Curiosity and other land-based vehicles can offer firsthand evidence of environmental conditions.

“Direct measurements are way more precise than what we can do from orbit,” Rogers said.

In the first week after the paper came out, Martin-Torres said he spent about 85 percent of his work time talking to the media, scientists or people asking questions about his studies. He has also received more than 10 times the typical number of requests from prospective Ph.D. students who would like to work in his lab while scientists from around the world have reached out to form collaborations.

Rogers explained that students might react to this kind of discovery the same way she did to other data and images from Mars in the early stages of her career.

“When Pathfinder landed in 1997, I saw the beautiful, colorful panoramas in the newspaper,” she said. “That’s when I knew what I was going to do. I hope that kids feel the same way.”

Martin-Torres, who said he has already submitted additional research proposals based on this discovery, described the current era of Mars research as the “golden age of Mars exploration.”

You know you’re from Long Island when …

1. You drive your car everywhere, including just up the road to the drug store or 7-Eleven. There is a car in your driveway or garage for every person in your house.
2. You water your lawn and plants even when it has recently rained because it’s on a timer and you just left it.
3. You pass at least one dead animal lying on the side of the road every day.
4. You have access to delicious foods imported from all over the country and the world.
5. You live in a terribly wasteful society.

Earth Day gives us time to reflect on what we do every day that affects the environment, both here on Long Island and the nation as a whole.

We burn up gas for every small trip we make, when we could walk or bike if we weren’t so rushed or lazy. We waste water by taking long showers or leaving the faucet on as we brush our teeth. We flush pills down the toilet or use a paper cup for coffee every morning or unnecessarily go through a ton of plastic shopping bags.
Almost all of us are guilty of at least one of these things, which all put strain on Mother Earth. But this is the only home we have — for now — so we should get our heads in the game.

Please join us in thinking about the impact of our everyday actions on the environment and make a commitment to cut out or reduce just one of those negative actions year-round — not just on a day like Earth Day.

A small change blazes the trail for larger ones, so it’s a good place to start.

Harbormaster Peter Koutrakos observes the water from his patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The Port Jefferson Harbor Complex is just that — a complex cluster of waterways that needs diligent eyes watching over it.

Those eyes belong to Brookhaven Town Harbormaster Peter Koutrakos and the others in his department, who are all working to keep the water safe this boating season.

The harbor complex includes Port Jefferson Harbor at its center, where Koutrakos is based, as well as Setauket Harbor and the adjacent Little Bay; Pirate’s Cove; Conscience Bay and the Narrows that lead into it; and a small section of water immediately outside Port Jefferson Harbor on the Long Island Sound that is bookended by Old Field Point to the west and Belle Terre’s Mount Misery to the east. Between these sections, the complex has more than 2,000 acres of surface water, and that area sees thousands of boats every season.

Peter O’Leary, the town’s commissioner of public safety, said between moorings and slips in the area, there are more than 1,200 spaces for boats, and that doesn’t include the ones just passing through.

On any given summer weekend, “the place is bedlam,” O’Leary said. “It creates quite a bit of traffic.”

With heavy traffic comes risk.

For Koutrakos, who has been harbormaster for 14 years and has jurisdiction in all town waters, it was the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 — an al-Qaida suicide attack in Yemen in which a small vessel next to the U.S. Navy ship was blown up, killing 17 Americans — that made him realize boats could be used as weapons.

Things also changed after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Officials became aware of the harbor’s vulnerability, as possible targets for terrorists include power plants, oil terminals and ferries — and Port Jefferson Harbor has all of them. Long Island has also been a concern in national security discussions because it is close to New York City and at the same time is remote: Ferries would be the only way off the island if an emergency event were to shut down transportation into the city.

The view of Port Jefferson Harbor from the harbormaster's patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz
The view of Port Jefferson Harbor from the harbormaster’s patrol boat. File photo by Elana Glowatz

To keep the complex safe, the harbormaster works on a number of security exercises. One program, Operation Shield, involves coordinating with other agencies to randomly check foreign vessels for travel documents.

Though Operation Shield only runs on certain days, Koutrakos said he regularly does checks on his own. If the vessels do not have the proper documentation, he calls in customs officers to board and search them.

Another exercise he occasionally works on is search and rescue training with the U.S. Coast Guard, which helps prepare for an emergency situation, for instance if the ferry were to sink due to a mechanical problem or a bomb.

Koutrakos explained that the exercise group determines how to respond to an incident and who would take command of the scene. In the case of the ferry, officers also talk to the captain to learn how he would respond under certain circumstances and discuss a strategy for saving as many lives as possible, “before something really happens.”

The harbormaster also meets every few months with a Long Island security committee whose members range from the local to the federal level.

To boost security all over, O’Leary said, the town is working to install security cameras on its properties, and Port Jefferson is slated to receive some of that surveillance.

However, one of O’Leary’s concerns in protecting town waters is linked to the economy. He said budget cuts have meant cutbacks on seasonal employees, so there are fewer bay constables on both shores and they are working a shorter season. There are also fewer workers to pump out waste from the boats so it is not discharged into the water.

On Koutrakos’ end, he has an assistant harbormaster year-round and two seasonal harbormasters during the summer.

Most summer days, Koutrakos spends his time patrolling the waters and helping people who call him for assistance.

‘The place is bedlam. … It creates quite a bit of traffic.’
— Peter O’Leary

Born and raised in Port Jefferson, Koutrakos has a name people might recognize — his family owned the Elk Hotel and Restaurant on Main Street before it went out of business. He wife, Carol, works for the Port Jefferson ferry.

He has been around long enough to see security at the harbor change over the years. Before 9/11, if someone were to leave a bag at the ferry terminal, an employee would grab it and ask if anyone had left it behind. Now there are security protocols in place to handle such a situation. Before, there weren’t any restrictions on taking photos or video of the harbor. Now officials keep an eye out for people capturing the ferry terminal or other sensitive areas.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Koutrakos’ “only gripe with the job” — he isn’t permitted to carry a sidearm while he is on duty, though he is licensed to carry.

Other marine law enforcement agents carry a sidearm, including those from the Coast Guard, the Suffolk County Police Department’s Marine Bureau and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The harbormaster said he never knows what situation he will find himself in and “should we get put into a lethal force situation, the fact of the matter is we have no way of defending ourselves or the public.”

Despite this sticking point, another thing that hasn’t changed is Koutrakos’ playful personality and his passion for all things marine.

He has said he enjoys his job because he gets to be on the water and he gets to help people: “At the end of the day, tired or not, it makes you feel better.”

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