The Department of Environmental Protection’s draft response to the great Jamaica Bay mystery that residents started noticing 15 years ago — the die-off of tidal wetlands — may contain some fresh ideas about how to save one of Queens’ greatest natural resources. But the unfortunate fact of the matter is that as marshlands continue disappearing at the breathtaking rate of 40 acres per year, we don’t need any more talk. What we need is action.
By the time DEP actually starts implementing some of the over 75 strategies it proposed in its preliminary plan, the hundreds of species of birds, fish and plants that call Jamaica Bay home will be further imperiled. In the race against careless development throughout the bay’s watershed, it’s almost as if DEP hasn’t heard the starting gun.
More is at stake here than just striped bass or great egrets. On a practical level, the wetlands provide a buffer for winds and waves and protect homes in Hamilton Beach, Howard Beach, Rosedale and Broad Channel from storm surges and flooding. And while commercial fishing and crabbing are not the thriving industries they were a century ago, some residents still eke out a living on the bay, and we should allow them to continue.
Perhaps above all, we have a moral obligation to be effective stewards of nature’s creation. That notion may not be easily transferred onto a DEP flow chart, but the bay is truly something that we share. Millions of people throughout the borough, city and state can and do jump on subways and buses in search of refuge from the concrete jungle. Ask the birdwatchers and fishermen down there — the sea, sun and marshes form an organic metaphor that can teach us lessons about peace and coexistence. Moreover, our inability to tend the garden in our own backyard sets a disastrous example for our children who are already inheriting a conflict-riddled world.
DEP is only one of many city, state and federal agencies that have the ability and authority to step in. And yes, DEP’s Protection Plan Draft is just that — a draft. But the agency’s well-documented propensity for dragging its heels on the important environmental and health issues was again on display when they asked for (and received) a one-year extension to deliver their final plan. The agency fares even worse on upgrading sewage treatment plants, an initiative that is running many years behind schedule.
The reasons for Jamaica Bay’s troubles are complex, but that is no excuse for not acting in ways that we know can promote a healthier ecosystem right now. While we consider the expensive remedies, such as creating an outflow pipe that would keep millions of gallons of sewage from entering the bay or making technological upgrades, small-scale projects can be undertaken sooner. Because of efforts like the marsh restoration program implemented on Big Egg Marsh, Yellow Bar and Elders Point, the bay is healthier than it has been in a long time. And what about teaching more school children about the bay and the New York City environment in general? After all, “nature” isn’t just a National Geographic special on dolphins or the Amazon.
As the planning process inches ahead, our elected and DEP leaders must not loose sight of Jamaica Bay’s ticking clock. The longer we wait to fix the damage, the higher the price —and price tag —we will pay. Our arrogant presumption that we will somehow get a second chance in Jamaica Bay may well deny future generations a first.