New York City used to have over 300,000 acres of wetlands; today, less than one-tenth remain, due to development projects that have taken place over the past 150 years. Various federal and state laws regulate development in wetland areas, but there are gaps in the rules, which means many of the city’s marshy areas fall through the cracks.
To try to close the regulatory loopholes, the City Council recently passed a bill requiring that the city identify and document all remaining wetlands and develop a comprehensive conservation strategy for them. The goal is to prevent further net loss of wetlands in the city.
The bill passed unanimously in the council, and the mayor is expected to sign the legislation on Tuesday.
You might think the bill isn’t proposing anything that new. After all, don’t we already know where the city’s wetlands are?
“No, we don’t,” said Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), chairman of the Environmental Protection Committee and author of the bill. “We know generally where they are, but generally knowing where they are is different than making a precise inventory and doing a detailed delineation of them.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation inventoried and mapped the city’s tidal wetlands in 1975 and did the same for freshwater wetlands twice in the 1980s. But that was the last comprehensive documentation, and in 30-some years, the size and quantity of wetlands can change significantly.
Documentation is the first step in developing a conservation program for wetlands, according to Dan Montella, chief of the wetlands protection team for the Environmental Protection Agency Region 2.
“You can’t protect them if you don’t know where they are,” Montella said.
Documenting wetlands isn’t as easy as it sounds, though — in part because you don’t always know a wetland when you see one.
Wetlands are transition areas between water and land — places with enough surface or groundwater, enough of the time, to support vegetation that is “adapted for life in saturated soil conditions,” according to the bill.
“You know when you’re in a wetland if you’re up to your ankles in water,” Montella said, “but the boundaries can be difficult to discern,” especially since water levels typically fluctuate depending on the season.
Aerial photography and satellite imaging are often the first steps in identifying wetlands, but to determine exactly where the marshes begin and end, it’s necessary to examine soil characteristics and plant and animal life, Montella explained.
Documentation of the wetlands is to be completed by September 2010, according to the bill. After that, a conservation strategy can be developed.
Various federal regulations already govern wetlands. Most notably the Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of pollutants into “navigable waters” and prohibits dredging and filling without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Anyone who wants to fill a wetland has to show why they have to fill that wetland,” Montella said. “It can’t just be because it’s convenient.”
Those who fill in wetlands also have to mitigate the impact of the development, for example by creating or restoring wetlands elsewhere.
But the Clean Water Act doesn’t apply to all the city’s wetlands, because many aren’t considered “Waters of the United States.” For instance, small, isolated freshwater wetlands, such as the ones found in many of the city’s parks, aren’t generally considered WOTUS, Montella said. During the Bush administration, the scope of what qualifies as a federally protected wetland became even narrower, according to DEC Regional Spokesman Arturo Garcia-Costas.
State regulations pick up some of the slack left by federal law, but again there are loopholes. Most notably, the Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act of 1975 doesn’t apply to wetlands smaller than 12.4 acres or to unmapped wetlands.
The size threshhold is “kind of ridiculous, because there are so many wetlands that are just under that acreage,” said Doug Adamo, chief of natural resources at the Gateway National Recreation Area, which encompasses the wetlands in Jamaica Bay.
At the local level, the city launched the Waterfront Revitalization Program in 2002, which seeks to prevent the net loss of wetlands. The city has also designated several areas — including Jamaica Bay — as “Special Natural Waterfront Areas,” which are recognized as having special natural habitat features “that should be considered in connection with any waterfront activity.”
But according to a report issued by PlaNYC, the oversight of wetlands mitigation is uneven, so the city’s standards do little to close the gaps in state and federal regulations.
The goal of the legislation by the City Council is to reverse that problem by creating a city conservation strategy, to be completed in 2012.
“What we really need is a local regulatory program to complement the federal and state plans and also in some cases to strengthen them,” Gennaro said.
Some progress has already been made. A comprehensive Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection bill was passed several years ago, setting restrictions for activities in the bay’s watershed area, which includes the bay, the wetlands and the drylands above the bay.
In addition, the City Council passed a bill requiring that public wetlands — those owned by city agencies — be inventoried. An effort is also underway to transfer most city-owned wetlands to the Parks Department for protection. Of the wetlands that have been transferred so far, 90 percent are in Queens.
So why are wetlands so important?
“Ecologically speaking, they’re the most precious lands that we have,” Gennaro said. “But back when we didn’t know any better, we filled them in.”
Two key functions of wetlands are water purification and flood control. Wetlands filter out pollutants, thus leaving the water cleaner as it flows from upland areas into estuaries and the ocean. They also help curb flooding by absorbing excess rainwater, and they control shore erosion and promote aquatic biodiversity. Finally, there’s the aesthetic factor; wetlands are often visually attractive and provide locations for birdwatching and other recreational activities.
Conservation of wetlands doesn’t mean they will never be developed, Gennaro said; it just means it will be more difficult to fill the areas, and it means more attention will be directed toward mitigation.