Our Heroes: Matt Malina of NYC H2O

photo from Matt Malina

Water educator and math tutor Matt Malina, who grew up in New York City’s East Village, loves his city’s water system so much that he created NYC H2O, a series of educational tours and lectures about the city’s incredible drinking water system, so he could share the love.

Through NYC H2O, Malina has organized walking tours of the Old Croton Aqueduct, the Ashokan Reservoir and the Yonker’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, and a bike tour of the old Brooklyn Waterworks. Past talks have been given by a sandhog who worked on construction of Water Tunnel #3, a manager from South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources who submerges retired New York City subway cars in the ocean to become reefs, and the woman responsible for guiding the reorganization of the city’s water system archives.

Malina, who bikes just about everywhere he goes and frequently participates in outdoor swims in New York City’s waterways, took some time to talk about his background and the city’s water system. You can listen to the episode by clicking on the audio player (to the right) or download a podcast of the full conversation. Here’s a snippet of the interview:

So tell me about NYC H2O, how did it get started and what do you do?

NYC H2O, as you said, is a series of educational programs about New York City’s incredible water system. It started back in 2008 when I met Damian Griffin, who is the education director at the Bronx River Alliance, a terrific organization that helps to clean up the Bronx River as well as education and ecology awareness about that river.

When I met Damian, I had told him that I had been trying to set up a tour of one of New York City’s sewage treatment plants, because I was interested in it and I wanted to bring a group of teachers to see it. And I explained to him that the agency in the city - the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] - that runs our drinking water as well as our sewage system, was no longer giving tours because it was considered a safety threat after 9/11.

Damian said that he had a contact up at the Yonkers sewage treatment plant, and he put me in touch, and I gave my first tour of a sewage plant back in 2008. And it was on that tour that I met a woman, Lisa Breslof that worked at the American Museum of Natural History, and she had her friend that had written a book about the water system. So the next event was a lecture about the history of New York’s water system and it was given by Diane Galusha who wrote the book called Liquid Assets. And then at that lecture I met some other people, namely Gina Pollara, who, back in December, gave a talk about a book that she had been an editor on called Water-Works, also about building the water system.

How did you learn about the city’s water system? You just rattle it off like it’s kind of second nature for you.

Well, I've been curious about it for a while, so I've read a fair amount about it. One good book is Liquid Assets by Diane Galusha. She was a woman who I mentioned who gave a talk a couple of years back for the NYC H2O events. And another book is Water-Works. That was, as I mentioned, edited by Gena Pollara and Kevin Bone from Cooper Union, and just reading on the Internet Wiki and just random websites.

I grew up here in New York City. At the time the neighborhood was called Alphabet City. I grew up on First Street and Avenue A. Now it’s called the East Village. The neighborhood was a little different back then, but still an interesting neighborhood. There were a lot more artists. Back then it was a little bit raw. Now it’s still a terrific neighborhood, a lot of terrific restaurants and a lot of activity.

So having grown up in the city, and not really knowing too much about the water system other than when my teachers would say, “Oh, we have good water and that’s why we have good bagels and pizza,” and my parents would say the same thing. I never really learned more than that and so I was curious about the water system, having grown up here and I'm glad I've had the opportunity to find out more about it.

How do you get kids interested in the environment? And how do you get them interested in things like water conservation, and environmental protection and making the connection that the health of the environment impacts their own health?

Yeah, it’s a good question. The best way to get kids interested in the environment is to take them outside and actually let them experience it, and eventually I hope to offer all these programs to grade school students and high school students and even middle school students, because they drink water and kids, especially are naturally curious. And to foster that curiosity is the best way to teach.

An “Aha” moment that I had, I was San Diego visiting my sister, I have two sisters, one lives out there. And there is a field trip to La Jolla, and I just happened to be swimming or walking in La Jolla, I can’t remember, but by the beach, and there was a school group that the life guards were taking out into the water with fins to swim with the seals. There’s an underwater nature preserve in La Jolla, and so this was kind of like a field trip, but in the water, and all the kids could swim, obviously, but they were with a few lifeguards. And I thought, “Wow, what a great way to have the kids get an appreciation for the water, and want to make sure that that water stays clean and make sure that garbage doesn’t wash into it, and sewage doesn’t wash into it, because they are getting a chance to really appreciate it by being in it and seeing the incredible stuff inside the ocean.

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