2002-07-20 / Editorial/Opinion

Jamaica Bay, A Gem Worth Saving

Jamaica Bay, A Gem Worth Saving

The following editorial was written by former Rockaway resident Alex Storozynski, a member of the Daily News editorial board. It originally appeared as an op-ed piece in the Daily News.

While many New Yorkers will trek out to the Hamptons this summer in search of a quiet getaway, there's another great spot right here in the city: the islands of Jamaica Bay, bounded by Brooklyn and Queens to the north and the Rockaways to the south. But this tidal wetland of grassy salt marshes, beaches, woods, a freshwater pond and a wide expanse of bay is threatened by a phenomenon that's causing more than 40 acres of marshland to disappear every year. More than 80 species of fish, as well as crabs, turtles and small mammals, inhabit the 20 square miles of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. And more than 325 species of migratory birds have been spotted there by bird watchers. For five decades, until the mid-1970s, the islands in the bay lost about 10 acres of land each year. From 1974 to 1995, the rate of loss doubled. Now, 44 acres are lost each year. Scientists have concluded that unless something is done, the marshes will disappear within 20 years. The state Department of Environmental Conservation announced it was committing $150,000 to study the problem last month, and last week the National Park Service announced a grant of $598,000 to figure out why the marsh is melting away. The probable causes include landfills that leach toxins, runoff of motor oil and other pollutants from local roads and sewage from wastewater treatment plants that flows directly into the bay on rainy days. Even when treated, the wastewater is filled with nutrients that cause algae blooms, which spur explosive growth and then death of the mussel beds that hold the grasslands together. Then there's the runway at Kennedy Airport that juts into the bay and chokes off the natural flow of the tides. With currents forced to meander around the runway, the tidal flushing that used to take 10 days now can take as many as 35. If the Port Authority built culverts under the runway, it would help replenish the bay regularly with cleaner water from the ocean. On top of that, the pits caused by the excavation of sand for airport construction are filling with silt that lies at the base of the bay's beaches and marshland. The benefits of saving Jamaica Bay are many. Wetlands absorb pollution. They store carbon and keep it from being released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In addition, the marshes serve as sponges that soak up floods and buffer the city from waves and storms. Without them, the city would have to build costly hurricane barriers. Letting the bay die would be a disaster for the city's ecology because this magnificent resource is New York's Everglades. The difference is that Floridians take care of their wetlands, as do other states. With help from Washington, Florida has started an $8 billion Everglades restoration project. Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster declared a "holy war" to get attention and funding for restoring his state's wetlands. And the Army Corps of Engineers wants $307 million to restore ecosystems along the Ohio River. Rep. Anthony Weiner has been lobbying Congress for money to restore the Jamaica Bay marshes. Finally, the Park Service has taken notice. But figuring out why the marsh is vanishing is only the first step. Federal, state and local leaders will have to keep the pressure on to preserve the invaluable salt marshes of Jamaica Bay.

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