Jennifer Fuehrer, an eighth grade student from P.S. 28, led her small troop over dirt with exposed tree roots, through a field of waving phragmites, and over a metal bridge she and other students had installed along the path to allow their schoolmate, Anna, to access the area.
“Anna’s in a wheelchair,” Jennifer explained. “We wanted to make it easier for her to come here.”
By here, Jennifer meant the landscape inside Reservoir No. 3 in Jersey City Heights that has become a living laboratory for students studying nature.
On April 29, Jennifer and other students along with adult teachers from School 28 came to the reservoir for an Earth Day clean up during which Jennifer decided to lead a tour. Some of the students temporarily abandoned their plastic bags full of trash to take the trek.
The cleanup was sponsored by the Embankment Preservation Coalition, which supplied tools to help clear the trails. John Presto, a city employee, said city workers and the Jersey City Reservoir Preservation Alliance oversee events in the reservoir.
A piece of Jersey City history
The reservoir, now a nature preserve, was constructed just after the Civil War in 1870 to accommodate the city’s growing need for fresh water. It could not use water from the Hudson and Hackensack rivers because of their salt content, so it used water sent in via a complex array of steam pumps from the Passaic River.
This practice ceased around 1910 when the city purchased a cleaner source of water in Boonton, which remains the primary source of drinking water for the city. The reservoir largely went unused until early 2000s when the Reservoir Alliance began to see it as a viable urban environmental resource.
The reservoir occupies an area the size of several city blocks between Summit and Central avenues and is contained by a large stone wall. Inside, however, the landscape is completely different, a lost world filled with wildlife and fauna. Large white egrets launch from the water side, while geese, ducks and many other birds cruise the shore line.
The site has many uses
While Jennifer led the tour on one side of the 13.5 acre urban wilderness, Presto handed out fishing gear to those who wanted to fish. Two adults wearing hip boots waded out into the water, casting and recasting in their effort to catch something they could brag about later.
Several others climbed the hill near the Jefferson Avenue gate and settled on the stone steps near one of the former pump houses where they hoped the fishing would be better.
Jennifer led the tour up from the Summit Avenue gate towards a pump house building on the other side of the water, a place that she and other would be scientists have set up as a refuge for bats.
Like other student projects here, the bat preserve is part of an effort to find ways to control the mosquito population. Some methods are more technical than others, such as one that incorporates decaying vegetables to attract and trap mosquitoes. One of these machines still churned away on one of the islands the tour passed.
Christa McAuliffe of PS. 28 was one of the people who helped develop the technology that has been employed here since last year. Experimental work stations on the north side taught the students how technology can be used to help deal with mosquito issues. A large collector using computer technology, solar power, and compost trapped mosquitoes, something that is very relevant in the era of Zika virus.
Science projects here have drawn national attention, including one project stretched across the water that won a trip to Orlando for students at P.S. 28 where they were the grand prize winners in Disney’s Planet Challenge in 2012.
A gathering place
Pushing through the reeds and around twisted paths, the tour paused at a place where Jennifer said students frequently meet, a STEM camp gathering place that might have been a gathering place for Native Americans in times past. There was no furniture, just a clearing with a few stones and some logs. Here, students often paused to reflect, or, as with the upcoming project, discussed how events would transpire.
It was a peaceful place even though two of the busiest roads in the city run on either side of the reservoir.
Lidieth Artica, a 6th grade student from P.S. 28, said a naturalistic yoga program is planned for the reservoir later in May which will incorporate Japanese techniques for meditation.
“It’s something they do in Japan,” she said.
We want to get people in here to experience this place.” – Debby McWilliams
The person playing the rabbit goes and hides somewhere, puts on a blindfold, then waits for the person playing the fox to find him or her, relying on hearing and other senses.
Standing in STEM camp, the students also talked about the variety of other events they hold here such as movie night, and Team Drone events.
Many of the events take place over summer recess and are designed to provide hands on lessons in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.) These include things like navigating the Phragmite Maze, Solar Aerator Information, and Hydroponic Planting, studying life in mud, documenting wildlife such as birds, plants and trees, a study of drinking water, creating wind chimes from plastic bottles, hydroponic garden designs and, of course, a study of bugs.
Experiencing the place
As the tour moved on, Jennifer continued to narrate, talking about each aspect of this world hidden away from the everyday world.
The city would like to make Reservoir No. 3 the center of a new water park, but the renovation would cost in excess of $13 million.
“We want to get people in here to experience this place,” said Debby McWilliams, of the JCRPA. “Last week, we brought Mayor (Steven) Fulop here. He said he gets it. And now we want to get the rest of the city council to come here.”
Jennifer, however, leads the small troop of students and teachers over a rough path that ends up at a slanted stone wall, something that might well have been part of military training.
“We have to climb that?” asked an older participant on the tour.
“We do, unless we want to go all the way around the take the long way,” Jennifer said.
A rope hung down from where it was tied at the base of a tree. Some of the younger students used it. Most don’t. Nearly all the adults have to, and once on top, pause to catch their breath before moving on.
Another path leads to a building that is not accessible by land. Frail rusted metal supports exist but they no longer hold up the wooden planks that once served as a bridge.
Jennifer says the students installed insulation when constructing the habitat for bats.
“It keeps the bats warm in winter and cool in summer,” she said, confessing that no one actually knows what is transpiring inside at the moment. But the students hope to use drones or spy cameras to peer inside later to collect information.
“We know they’re in there,” she said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.