Little Neck Bay is the cleanest of all the bays in the city. It is the only bay where people can swim — but it still has a long way to go.
The Parks Department Natural Resources Group is working to identify and address major threats to the water quality and ecological habitat within Alley Pond Park and the surrounding watershed, according to Zachary Feder, a spokesman for the Parks Department. The two-year project is funded by a $350,000 grant from the NYS Department of State and matched funds by the Parks Department.
The Parks Department aims to “make sure communities have a roadmap for protecting aquatic resources,” said Marit Larson, a Parks Department project manager.
The bulk of the project involves redirecting storm water runoff from impervious areas, such as roads, into areas where it can seep into the groundwater by using green landscaping techniques.
For example, they are looking for areas downstream of large impervious areas to create rain gardens, or mini-wetlands, with loose soil and vegetation that can tolerate inundation.
“The first objective is to have water stay out of sewer systems and get into the bay,” Walter Mugdan, a member of the Udalls Cove Preservation Society, said.
Sewage contains bacteria, viruses, and organic matter. This leads to secondary problems, like low dissolved-oxygen levels, which harm wildlife.
The problems at Alley Creek are similar to water-quality problems throughout the city. Most of the city uses combined sewage systems, which direct home waste and excess rainwater to waste water treatment plants. During heavy rainfalls, the sewers overflow at specific points such as Alley Creek since the sewers were not built to manage the present volume of liquid.
The Department of Environmental Protection has invested $142 million to improve water quality in Alley Creek and Little Neck Bay.
This includes $122 million on a 500 million gallon tank next to the Alley Pond Environmental Center, which became operational in 2011. The tank captures the “first flush” of sewage, which fills up when it rains, and pumps the retained contents to the Tallman Island Treatment Plant after the rain stops. Since the facility was built, sewage outputs into the bay have decreased by 51 percent, from 517 million gallons to 256 gallons per year, according to the DEP’s website.
The DEP is legally required to continue reducing sewage in the bay, through a long-term control plan for the area. Their planning process overlaps with the Parks Department’s efforts, since both have the same objective.
Parks is currently in the fact-gathering phase, which involves taking an inventory of the local natural resources, noting the natural watercourses through creeks and streams into the bay. The process will take place over many months and include many meetings to discuss possible improvements.
“We are strong believers in doing work in a watershed context,” Larson said.
The Parks Department has applied this approach to similar projects throughout the city, including the recently completed Bronx River watershed restoration.
Other goals include mitigating the impacts of past storms, which have caused severe erosion and gullying, to areas that have been degraded by uncontrolled storm water runoff, Larson said.
Larson also noted that some people dump trash in the area. “Once it starts to degrade, it invites more degradation because people stop viewing it as a resource.”
Alley Pond Park contains valuable and unique habitats, such as vernal pools and kettle ponds, Larson said. She also noted the high level of interest in access to trails.
“People really care about the area,” Larson said. “We want to create a watershed plan that’s responsive to people’s concerns.”
“The goal is to incentivize people to have rainwater off the roof soak into the ground,” Mugdan said.
For example, the roofs of individual homes can drain into the ground, instead of the gutter, which goes into the sewers.
Possible solutions include installing dry wells in backyards, or concrete tanks, with holes in them, to hold water until it can drain safely. The city also distributes free rain barrels, which hold water, to be used for watering lawns and gardens.
One aspect of the project is already underway: the removal and control of invasive species on the eastern shore of Alley Creek between Northern Boulevard and the LIE, according to Feder. There are currently approximately 20 acres of aggressive species along the stream corridor, such as phragmites, Japanese knotweed, autumn olive, porcelainberry, vines and blackberries.
The first phase of replanting with coastal maritime forest species will begin on Saturday, April 27, with a large volunteer effort, as part of the MillionTreesNYC spring planting day. Contract work will continue in this area until the fall of 2015, according to Feder.