2005-04-08 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken

The Council Committee on Environmental Protection believes something needs to be done about the disappearance of marshland in Jamaica Bay. I mean, isn’t it about time? Every other state and federal agency has just about jumped on board with this issue. The city has been lagging, probably for intentional reasons. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has been operating sewer outflows, discharging into the bay and has been operating under numerous consent orders by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservations. The D.E.P. has been on the losing end of many rulings, as documented on the NY State D.E.C’s website.

At the March 31 City Council meeting, Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows) planned to present three bills aimed at safeguarding the vanishing wetlands and award a central agency to protect them.

The bills would create a trinity of preservation and renewal: a bay watershed protection plan, a task force to study the feasibility of transferring all wetlands to the responsibility of the city Parks Department, and limits to the total maximum daily load of nitrogen flushed into the bay.

At present, Jamaica Bay loses 40 acres of wetland a year. About 1,000 acres are all that remain. It has been predicted that the bay’s marshland may be entirely lost in 20 years. Scientists and environmental agencies and groups are conducting experiments in the bay to save and renew marshland, but no one is certain why the shrinkage is happening. Many experts say the bay has been “studied to death” and no solid plan has been derived. Nitrogen is suspected to be the major cause of the bay’s erosion. Tests have shown that the water’s nitrogen levels are over limits established by the Federal Clean Water Act. Not all equipment for discharge of water from the DEP’s sewer plants have been upgraded with nitrogen eliminating equipment.

Another big factor is that the bay was aggressively overdredged to provide materials for landfills, especially for the extension of the Kennedy Airport runways. If we look at geological maps that exist from the early 1900’s (Historical columnist Emil Lucev has pictured these in past editions of the WAVE), we see that the depths of the bay reached no more than 15 feet. Today, there are depths up to 63 feet. Filling of the borrow pits will only place a bandaid on a more serious situation. The dredging of channels within Jamaica Bay have been necessary to facilitate the barging in of oil and construction materials. If Jamaica Bay is to have any type of ferry service, dredging will probably be necessary. Do we then request a moratorium be placed on construction in and around the bay until we have a handle on the situation? Do we ask for a moratorium be placed on all activity in the bay except for remediation? These are not questions that can be easily answered in this column. But for sure, we need to come up with some sort of plan to protect our environment. It isn’t just about the fish and wildlife, but about the protection of our shores and homes. These marshes are buffers for the mainland and the Rockaway peninsula. Do we need to shore our homes on stilts in the next twenty (20) years?

One more thing: The bulkheading on the north side of the Rockaway peninsula is in a serious state of disrepair. Some owners of bayfront private properties have fenced off their bulkheads because they are so dangerous. There is undermining of property visibly apparent. This is another loss of protection for the Rockaway peninsula.

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