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Restoring the Bronx River

Video transcript
The video is 7 minutes long.
Produced by the American Museum of Natural History, March 2005.

Video begins here.

Visual: Satellite image of Bronx, New York, 2006. Crossfades and zooms to historical map of same region, crossfades and zooms to 3-D computer simulation of same region.

Speaker: Eric Sanderson, Ecologist, Wildlife Conservation Society

If you had sailed up the Bronx River in 1609, you would have seen huge thick forests, ancient forests with huge American chestnut trees and tulip trees. All kinds of fish in the river.

Huge shellfish at the mouth of the river, big oysters and clams.

Visual: Bronx River, New York City. Imagery from the Bronx, including signs, cars, trains, highways, bridges, trash, pollution in the water.

The Bronx River is a river that has a long history of degradation and pollution and physical changes and changes to the natural environment, to the animals and the plants that live around the river. And there’s efforts now underfoot that will probably take hundreds of years to fully implement to try to reconstruct and rebuild the river, from sort of the bottom up.

Visual: Bronx River Conservation Crew working in the river, installing bank stabilizers.

Speakers: Elaine Feliciano and Lonnell Richardson, Bronx River Conservation Crew

One of the things that we do out here on the Bronx River is bank stabilization and erosion control.

Visual: Clearing of weeds, adding new "stabilizing" plants.

We do some invasive removal. We help bring back and restore habitat.

Speaker: Macceau Medozile, Conservation Manager, New York City Parks/Bronx River Alliance

Visual: Mr. Medozile on camera, standing in the river

When we are talking about restoration, what we have in mind is a picture from the past and we are trying to bring the river back to that look or that stage.

Speaker: Eric Sanderson

Visual: Mr. Sanderson at a table with historical maps. He points out details in a series of maps.

One of the ways we do that is by looking at historical maps like some of the ones I have here.

So this map, for example, is from the American Revolution.

There’s a little note here that the infantry could cross here at low tide. Here’s the Bronx River coming down here. These are all extensive salt marshes, nurseries for fishes and things that protect us from floods and so forth.

This is a map from 1851. This is more about real estate. Here’s where O. Paisley lived and W. Watson. And then it shows what we’re interested in, which is the Bronx River.

Visual: Shots of a computer monitor showing scanned maps and satellite imagery.

Once we find the historical maps in a map archive or library, we scan them and we take it into the computer and we do a process called georeferencing. So we try and fit the map to a set of coordinates like latitude/longitude or something like that.

One place that restoration is occurring on the Bronx River is the Concrete Plant Park. It’s a former concrete factory. So here we have the
Bronx, and I have these aerial photos turned on.

Visual: Comparison of current day satellite imagery with historical reconstruction overlay.

That is the Concrete Plant Park, this white bit alongside the Bronx River. And if we zoom in, here’s the subway coming across on the top of Westchester Avenue.And this green fringe here, that’s actually a salt marsh restoration and bank development project. And if I turn on the 
historical reconstruction, you can see this all once upon a time was salt marsh, way back here, way up past the subway station. And this is forest up here, and across the way was another big stand of forest and a salt marsh as nearly far as you can see.

Visual: Comparison of present day footage and historical computer 3-D simulation of the Concrete Plant Park

So we use all of this kind of information to reconstruct the past environment. We take into account the physical landscape, the topography, and water courses, and then fill in the biological parts, what the ecosystems were and what the species living in the ecosystems were.

By looking at these maps and looking at these reconstructions we’ve done on the computer, it gives people an idea of what actually might be possible.

Visual: Mesh bags of clam shells being unloaded off the back of a pickup truck and passed in a line down the bank and out into the Bronx River estuary.

Speaker: Janine Harris, Project Associate, Natural Resources Group

We’re working on a shellfish restoration project. There are live oysters that live within this estuary environment, and we’re trying to offer them more habitat to grow on.

Visual: The bags are placed intact along the estuary bed, in rows, to act as habitat structures.

So we’re just placing out some habitat structures today—clam shells wrapped in plastic mesh bags—and we’re hoping that we see the oysters that are actually in this water land on our mesh bags and start to grow.

Oysters were historically an important part of the New York City’s environment. They help to filter out pollutants from our water. And they also form a reef environment, which creates spaces that fish species can use, crabs will use for protection, snails.

Visual: Pollution along the shore. The team is working in the estuary.

So not just the oysters are offered protection by a reef, but many other creatures. So it’s a very important habitat that we’re looking to see if we can kind of increase again in New York City’s waters.

Visual: Further up the river, a group is preparing to release Alewife into the river, from a tank on the back of a parked truck, down a long tube into the river. A small crowd is gathered around the event.

Alright, is everybody ready, because when this happens it’s going to happen fast.

It’s going to be pretty much over in about 20 seconds.

Alright, here we go. Go, Dave.

Caviar. Here they come!

Visual: A flood of fish come down the tube and shoot into the river. Underwater footage of the alewife.

Speaker: Stephen Gephard, Supervising Fisheries Biologist, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection

Visual: Mr. Gephard speaking in the river

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to restore the numbers of alewives to the Bronx River that historically occurred.

But probably, what’s more important than restoring the numbers of alewife is just having the species here to fill that role they had in the ecosystem. They are the real foundation of the food web.

Visual: A heron is catching fish along the shore of the river.

They’re feeding birds and raccoons and river otter. So we’re not just restoring the alewives for the sake of the alewives. We’re restoring the alewives for the sake of the entire ecosystem.

Visual: The river in its urban context. Flowing water, fish, people in canoes, teams working to plant new plants, install the habitat structures.

Speaker: Eric Sanderson

When we try and restore an ecosystem, or a river in this case, we’re trying to restore it so that it works for as much of nature as possible. So it works for the wildlife, the things in the river, plants and animals, and for people.

And it’s not like you snap your fingers, and poof, you know, salt marsh come back to the river. You know, it’s a lot of hard work, planting one plant at a time, little tiny restoration efforts. Small victories, you know, that eventually will build up, will connect with each other, and rebuild a river that we can all enjoy and appreciate.

Speaker: Macceau Medozile

Visual: The bank stabilization crew working.

The health of the river is getting better. We’ve been monitoring the river and the results are getting better and better.

Speakers: Elaine Feliciano

I’ve been here for 3 years, but we have people from the community that have been here for over 20 years. And it counts more when the people from the community, they come up to you and they tell you the change. Wow! This never has looked like this before. I mean, there used to be cars in here, and motorcycles, and now they’re seeing fish, they’re seeing muskrats, they’re seeing birds, they’re seeing families of ducks.

Visual: River footage, flowing water, ducks.

I want everyone to utilize this river. This is wonderful.

Video ends here.