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Queens Chronicle

Restoring wetlands in Jamaica Bay

Marsh restoration moving forward; worries about new airport runway

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Posted: Thursday, February 2, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 8:28 am, Mon Feb 27, 2012.

Jamaica Bay has had its fair share of environmental problems, but it appears as if progress is being made.

A deal reached in 2011 between the city Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and local environmentalist groups has resulted in a concerted effort to restore the bay to its previous environmental state.

The deal, which was organized in part by the National Resources Defense Council, focuses on cleaning the bay by reducing nitrogen input in the water and restoring marsh islands that have been lost to rising water levels.

The greatest concern for many groups has been the nitrogen levels found in the bay’s water. Nitrogen is dumped into the bay daily by four sewage plants in the area. A statement from the NRDC claims that nitrogen levels measured in the bay are among the highest in the world.

Elevated nitrogen levels are blamed for the buildup of harmful algae in the water. The algae is blamed for suffocating plant and animal life underneath the water.

Under the new agreement, nitrogen levels are expected to be decreased by 50 percent. According to Brad Sewell of the NRDC, that goal is expected to be accomplished by the year 2020, barring any complications.

“We’re working with the DEP to make structural improvements to these sewage plants to cut their nitrogen output,” Sewell said.

Dan Mundy of the Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers, one of the organizations represented by the NRDC, said that the deal was necessary to keep track of a pollution threat that had not been considered before.

“Previous pollution tests looked for things like toxins and fecal matter,” said Mundy. “Nitrogen wasn’t included in any readings because it was something that occurred naturally.”

“However, too much of anything isn’t good,” he added.

The deal, which had existed in principle in 2010, is now a legally binding contract. If the city and state do not fulfill their obligations according to the deal, environmental groups represented by the NRDC can take legal action against the city and state.

The DEP had issued a comprehensive plan to help restore the bay in 2007, and they had increased their efforts in 2010 and 2011. Part of their plan has involved the introduction of new wildlife such as — oysters, mussels, and eel grass — into the bay in an attempt to improve water quality.

The task of restoring the bay islands has been given to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been bringing in sand to restore islands that previously had been submerged. To date, two islands in the bay have been restored, and a third is expected to be completed by this summer. The Corps also plans to restore two more islands in the near future.

The islands are created using sand and dredging techniques to fill in footprints of previously existing islands. Sand is then shifted to create high and low marshes, after which plants are either grown or transplanted onto the sites. The creation of the first two islands resulted in the creation of 900,000 plants, and the planned third island would result in the creation of 89,000 plants.

The cause of the disappearance of the islands, however, is still a mystery.

“A scientific study done on this subject concluded that there isn’t a single definitive cause as to why these islands have disappeared,” said Lisa Baron, a spokesperson for the Corps of Engineers. “However, there are a number of things that could contribute to this phenomenon, such as rising water levels in the bay, the erosion of sediment at the bottom of the bay, and the putrefication of water in the bay.”

While work continues to be done, there are still concerns about the future of the bay. Recently, the Regional Plan Association proposed an expansion to John F. Kennedy International Airport that would likely result in wetlands being filled in to make way for new runways.

The New York/New Jersey Port Authority, which would have to approve any airport expansion, could not be reached for comment by press time.

A statement issued by the Eco Watchers said that any expansion into the bay “would irreversibly harm what is not simply New York City’s ecological crown jewel but a wetlands and estuarine area of national importance.”

Barring that, Mundy was optimistic about the future of the bay.

“We’re trying to get to a tipping point where the marshes can become a self-sustaining environment again, and we’re getting there,” he said.

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