2003-09-26 / Community

DEP Issues Report on ‘Sick’ Jamaica Bay

By Brendan Brosh
DEP Issues Report on ‘Sick’ Jamaica Bay By Brendan Brosh

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has released its annual report on water quality in the New York Harbor area. The report details water quality and EPA initiatives over the past year in New York City, including Jamaica Bay.

With a thriving wildlife population and intense human use, the report emphasizes the environmental stresses.

Where there was once 16,000 acres of salt marshes a hundred years ago, there are now only 4,000 acres.

"Increased boat traffic, worldwide increases in sea levels, increased nutrient input are contributing to salt marsh depletion," says Robert Ranheim, chief of the Marine Sciences section of the DEP.

Water clarity in Jamaica Bay has also been declining over the past 16 years. "It’s a simple process," says Ranheim, "clarity in the water is related to the levels of algae in the water."

(Algae flourish when carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous are present. Sewage treatment plants release water high in these elements and it leads to an increase in algae reproduction.)

With the highest amount of algae in the city, Jamaica bay has a low dissolved oxygen level. This is of particular concern in Grassy Bay to the east of Cross Bay Boulevard near the Joseph B. Addabo Bridge.

Past dredging projects to create runways for JFK Airport and land for the Belt Parkway have created sixty-foot pits in Grassy bay. (Prior to human settlement, the deepest part of the Jamaica Bay was eleven feet.)

The bottom layers of water in the pit become isolated and stagnant creating a near zero dissolved oxygen level, which causes "that rotten-egg smell from hydrogen sulfide," says Ranheim.

Government agencies are attempting to refill the man-made pits as many ideas and proposals are currently in discussion. A panel comprised of federal, state and city bodies along with community groups has been formed to explore the effects of dredging and human activity on the salt marshes. Ranheim says the future dredging of Jamaica Bay, however, would be highly unlikely except for navigation purposes.

Over twenty percent of all North American birds visit the bay during migration periods and a remarkable 350 species of birds have been spotted in the wildlife refuge in the past year. In addition to the birds, over 49 types of fish including eels, shellfish and invertebrates live in Jamaica Bay.

To control garbage in the Harbor area, the DEP is using skimmer boats to collect floating trash and debris. The Cormorant, which can frequently be seen off the coast of Rockaway, is the DEP’s largest vessel and collected over 400 tons of material in 2002.

The report indicates that illegal discharges have been reduced by 96 percent of in the past five years. In 1998, 3 million gallons of untreated waste were dumped into the harbor daily. Today through the improved maintenance of over 6,000 miles of sewer main and ongoing abatement of illegal discharges, water quality in the New York Harbor area has improved.


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