Testing the Waters: Brooklyn Bridge Beach Opens for Environmental Ed

Left: Waterfront Alliance educator Margaret Flanagan scoops up water from the East River to test for salinity with Peck Slip School 2nd grader Ryan Lau. Right: Emily Dall-Orso shows Aria McLeod, 5, the results of a salinity test. Photos: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Sep. 30, 2019

It was a rare Brooklyn Bridge Beach day at the South Street Seaport last Saturday when kids and parents could step off the East River Esplanade and onto the usually off-limits sandy patch beneath the bridge, all in the name of climate caring.

Hosted by the Waterfront Alliance, the afternoon program gave kids a chance to test the waters for temperature, salinity and pH, and get a primer on the impact of rising temperatures on life underwater and above.

“The water is getting warmer and warmer. Have you heard about that?” the Alliance’s director of education, Margaret Flanagan, asked 10-year-old Amanda Fonseca, before scooping up a bit of the East River for testing. “And it’s so hard on the fish. Their home is getting hotter and hotter and they have no air conditioning.”

Just a little bit warmer, she added, “can make it really hard for the baby fish.”

Ryan Lau, soon to turn 7, was fascinated by a plastic wrapper lying on the sand, and then a piece of glass, as Flanagan skillfully redirected his attention.

“This water is an estuary,” she told him. “It’s where the river meets the ocean.”

“Can you say the word estuary?” she asked.

“Yeah! Estuary!” he replied enthusiastically.

“There you go! That’s the new word for the day.”

At low tide, Flanagan and fellow Waterfront Alliance educators Emily Dall-Orso and Gabriel Peterson, with the help of kids, set up a “flooding yardstick,” stretching two lines from the water’s edge out onto the beach. One 18 inches high, the other 39 inches high, they showed the least and most predicted sea rise by 2080. Even at low tide, the demonstration graphically made its point.

“You can say to kids, when you’re the age of your grandparents, within your lifetime, this is the change you’re going to see,” Flanagan said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, with Waterfront Alliance president Roland Lewis, was on hand at the beginning of the event, recalling how she had harangued officials of the city Economic Development Corp., the agency in charge of the beach, to make the sandy patch accessible as part of the development of the East River Esplanade.

“EDC wanted to do the esplanade and I was like, you have to be able to touch the water. I love sand. So we are going to have a beach here. It will be accessible.” (For now, the Waterfront Alliance has an agreement with the city that it can provide educational events at the beach for schools through October as part of its five-borough Estuaries Explorers program.)

Across the river at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Lewis added, “you have a beach where you can sit on a rock anytime you want. I’d like to see the beach open 24/7.”

“I’d love to see people swimming,” Brewer said.

Would she be among them?

“In a minute,” the borough bresident replied.