WRI Interns 2020

Phytoremediation of Phosphorous

Caroline Smith (Major: Biological Engineering), Karsten Zuidema (Virginia Tech University; Major: Civil & Environmental Engineering)

The over-saturation of phosphorus (P) within agricultural watersheds has led to an increased frequency of harmful algal blooms, which can pose a threat to human health and drinking water supplies. One way of addressing this problem has been through the use of best management practices (BMPs), which have been shown to reduce P loads into surface waters. However, current modeling efforts to design BMPs are limited, as current documentation often fails to take into account the potential for P accumulation within BMP soil, which can lead to them becoming a part of the problem as opposed to the solution. This project focused on establishing a database of different plants and their ability to remove P from highly enriched soils; this data was then used in the SWAT modeling platform to determine whether plant species choice could improve watershed-scale efforts to mitigate eutrophication. The methodology consisted of documenting papers related to plant P uptake, and deciding upon their need to be put into the database. Relevant data was inserted into a paper summary, which consisted of the paper year, name, journal name, site of the study, the species studied, the P uptake of the plant, and any other relevant data about the study site, like soil texture. Over 30 papers were documented, and of these, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) had the highest number of data points, followed by common wheat, annual ryegrass, and sorghum. These four plants – switchgrass especially – are well researched and have ample data available for modeling efforts. This data was then used to adjust SWAT parameters in a small agricultural watershed in Upstate NY, where it was determined that species used in BMPs could potentially have demonstrable implications for P accumulation.

Climate Smart Communities

Jude Leape (Major: Environment and Sustainability), Harman Singh Dhodi (Program: Masters in Regional Planning) and Rewa Phansalkar (Program: Masters in Regional Planning)

The New York State Climate Smart Communities (CSC) Certification program supports NY municipalities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing climate resiliency. This project began an analysis of equity in the program by first addressing access to the program's opportunities. This project used statistical analysis to examine demographic disparities in participation in the CSC certification and grants. It also outlined next steps for addressing equity in the program, including examining CSC and municipal leadership and remediating inequitable impacts of the CSC actions within communities. The results and recommendations from this project are outlined in a report and will be shared in conversations with CSC leadership. In addition, interns compiled databases of state grants, creative financing examples, and case studies for each of the CSC climate resiliency actions to assist interested municipalities in funding and completing these actions.

Lead Prevalence in Drinking Water in New York State Public Schools

Caroline Smith (Major: Biological Engineering) and Jude Leape (Major: Environment and Sustainability)

Exposure to lead (Pb) has significant health consequences and is especially concerning for infants and children, given its negative developmental and neurological impacts. One of the main ways lead exposure can happen is through drinking water that runs through Pb-containing plumbing fixtures installed before 1986, the year in which Pb was banned from being used in new plumbing systems. However, existing plumbing infrastructure is still in place, and many schools in New York State (NYS) retained these legacy systems. The goal of this project was to highlight the widespread problem of the presence of Pb in NYS public schools and to explore whether there are prominent factors that are closely associated with the severity of this issue. By analyzing publicly-available Pb data from the NYS Department of Health and demographics data from the U.S. Census, we found that the percent of the population covered by health insurance and the percent of the population that is Black were significantly correlated with an increased chance of having at least one outlet with a Pb concentration higher than 15 parts per billion (or one “unsafe” outlet) within a school, whereas the percent of the population that is Asian or Hispanic or Latinx is significantly correlated with a decreased chance of having at least one unsafe outlet within a school. Overall, this study has shown there still exists inequity in access to safe, clean drinking water in NYS. Future testing and the allocation of resources for remediation of unsafe outlets should take into account these existing inequities.

Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Long Island's Groundwater

Harman Singh Dhodi (Program: Masters in Regional Planning) and Caroline Smith (Major: Biological Engineering)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of thousands of man-made chemicals with many carbon and fluorine bonds. Epidemiological studies have shown a potential link between PFAS exposure and thyroid disease, high cholesterol, various forms of cancer, and lower birth weight in unborn infants. PFAS have been found in drinking water systems all across the United States, and New York State is no exception. PFAS have been detected in drinking water samples in the Village of Hoosick Falls, Town of Petersburgh, the Newburgh area, and in Nassau, Dutchess, and Suffolk counties, among others. The focus of our project is on the presence of PFAS in Long Island, NY, which includes Nassau and Suffolk counties. This project aims to document the concentrations of different PFAS compounds that have been measured throughout Long Island’s groundwater over the last several years. By creating a GIS StoryMap of how PFAS concentrations in drinking water vary across Long Island, this project highlights why PFAS is a serious problem for Long Island while listing down the legal progress made so far to regulate them. Addressing PFAS is an important equity issue given that wealthier people could potentially afford to protect themselves from exposure to PFAS by buying appropriate technologies, like activated carbon water filters, that are rarely available to more vulnerable populations.

Resilience Indicators in the Hudson River Watershed

Harman Singh Dhodi (Program: Masters in Regional Planning)

Gentrification is the displacement of people and culture form a neighborhood driven by socio-economic forces such as increasing property rents, social alienation, forceful eviction, or even arson. Gentrification often takes place by displacing the vulnerable sections of society while imposing adverse impacts on those who get displaced. Along with gentrification, heat stress is another silent burden that adds to social vulnerability. People lacking resources or technology to cope with heat stress may face heat strokes, cardiac arrest, or even death. Unfortunately, commonly used indices to capture social vulnerability do not account for gentrification or heat stress in their metrics. This project aims to quantify neighborhood-level susceptibility to gentrification and heat stress in New York state by creating composite Gentrification and Heat indices. These indices are then used to compare the susceptibility to gentrification and heat stress between neighborhoods with different racial composition, population experiencing poverty, gender makeup, and the elderly population. This comparison will then allow Hudson River Estuary Program (HREP) under the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to channel funds and devise programs for neighborhoods that are most susceptible to gentrification and heat stress.

Lake Ontario Infrastructure Mapping

Rewa Phansalkar (Program: Masters in Regional Planning) and Harman Singh Dhodi (Program: Masters in Regional Planning)

This project aims to support ongoing efforts to improve the water level management plan of Lake Ontario, specifically with respect to the impacts of flooding along the lakeshore by setting up and testing a method to characterize shoreline protection infrastructure from available GIS data and flyover imagery (by the US Army Corps of Engineers). This could then be used to update shoreline flood damage models used by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee, providing a major advance in their modeling capabilities. In this project, ten representative parcels were identified using existing shoreline data from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) and AECOM, which were used to delineate and create shapefiles of shore protection infrastructure. Lidar data were superimposed on these shapefiles, to gauge the average elevation of shoreline protection structures, which was then compared to their actual on-ground measurements - documented in a survey by AECOM. The project found that a linear relationship is seen in the calculated elevations and measurements from the survey and that it is worthwhile to expand this dataset to include more parcels, which can then be coupled with machine learning models to identify shore protection structures (and their elevations) from thousands of high-resolution images of the Lake Ontario shoreline.

Coastal Adaptation Governance on Lake Ontario

Rewa Phansalkar (Program: Masters in Regional Planning)

Climate-induced flooding along the shoreline of Lake Ontario caused significant damage to infrastructure and property. As climate change continues to impact lake levels in unforeseen and uncertain ways, the region faces a threat from increased erosion, flooding and low water levels. It is critical to establish dynamic adaptation strategies for lake level management on Lake Ontario and reduce barriers to local adaptation under climate and lake level management uncertainty. This ten-week study supplements this effort; and aims to outline possible gaps and barriers in coastal adaptation at the community level by understanding various stakeholders, players, and processes that comprise the system of Climate Adaptation Governance on the Lake Ontario Shoreline. It explores the ‘adaptation deficit’ that currently exists for coastal communities, with current initiatives and adaptation programs falling short in terms of addressing the specific vulnerability that communities face due to lake level variability and wave overtopping exacerbated by climate change. It documents common barriers that impede local adaptation and resilience efforts and concludes with a discussion of the way forward; by suggesting alternative approaches to traditional adaptation governance mechanisms.