2012-05-11 / Columnists

Rock Solid

Fossils Living Among Us
Commentary By Vivian Rattay Carter

Here’s a cool story: I helped to find good homes for 30 living fossils on the last weekend in April. Really, I did.

The Rockaway Civic Association gave away 100 free trees donated by New York Restoration Project and Million Trees NYC.

About a third of them were 10-foot high gingkoes, called “living fossils” because they date back to the age of the dinosaurs, and have survived virtually unchanged since that time, to grace the streets and parks of New York City.

Working hard each day to absorb rainwater through their roots, filter pollutants from the air, and reduce the temperatures of our sidewalks and dwelling units.

How much we take them for granted.

Around Jamaica Bay, we have other living remnants of prehistoric times. The horseshoe crab is another magnificent example.

Every year at this time, they bob on up to the shorelines, several males attached to the back of one large female, in their persistent quest to reproduce.

It’s such an amazingly useful creature that it would take more than the space in this column to extol all of the horseshoe crab’s many virtues. Google it. Or better yet, attend Don Riepe’s horseshoe crab program at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, May 20 at 8:30 a.m.

It’s worth it to get up early for this one. How little we appreciate these organisms, yet man’s tenure on the planet has been short, in comparison. It may become even shorter if we don’t wake up soon. Many are lucky to actually feel the water in Jamaica Bay, while in a kayak, a fishing boat, or at one of the few bay-front swimming beaches. But be sure to take a shower with soap afterwards. Federal regulations today prohibit swimming in the bay, due to high fecal coliform levels.

If the quality of the water improves, perhaps we could swim in it again. Historically speaking, swimming was banned in Queens County waters due to pollution as early as 1916. It is said that the only prudent place to swim in the bay today is near the shores west of the Marine Parkway Bridge, where the strong current and tidal action flushes impurities away.

Given the various layers of agencies our society has put in charge of the bay, it seems a small miracle that this ecosystem carries on at all. Agencies with roles around the bay include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, New York City Parks Department, the National Park Service of the U.S. Interior Department, the EPA, the DEP, the DEC and the EDC (just scramble the letters and you get new permutations). I’m probably forgetting some.

The transportation agencies try to keep the boats, trains, people and cars moving. In an endless cycle, soil washes off the land into the water during storms, and silt eventually clogs harbors and shipping channels. We lose the sand on our beaches in Rockaway, as well. The U.S. Army Corps is the collector. Scoop it up, lay it back on the land.

Over the past several years, major efforts have been undertaken to use the dredged materials to provide a substrate for new marsh grass plantings on various Jamaica Bay islands.

In fall 2010 and 2011, Colonel John Boule of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosted boat cruises to show off his agency’s work to community activists.

In 2011, we were able to actually debark from the boat and see the work at the grassroots level.

Some of the Jamaica Bay marsh islands were created from landfill decades ago, like Canarsie Pol, which began life as a spot of dry land at high tide and is now enormous. This is also true of Barren Island, which could be reached by wagon at low tide during the mid-1800s, and was later expanded to become the out-sized Floyd Bennett Field when a municipal airport was needed.

Other areas in the bay experienced the reverse – they were formerly huge expanses of marsh grass that shrank over the years. These areas were literally drowned by massive amounts of excess water too rich in nitrogen to support a balanced ecosystem. Man’s waste changes the water, so it only seems right to constantly adjust the imbalance.

It’s a constant struggle to counter the “out of sight, out of mind” notion. We finally seem to be correcting the type of short-sighted thinking expressed in the 1880s, when developers bragged that the grand Rockaway Beach Hotel could accommodate 7,500 guests, while “all the refuse matter is discharged through massive iron pipes at a point distant four miles from the hotel, and is carried by direct currents into Jamaica Bay, without the possibility of a reflux to any portion of these shores.” Those “distant” points were, at one time, the richest oyster beds imaginable.

Within two generations, they were polluted beyond repair.

In 1921, the shellfish beds were declared off-limits by health officials, after typhoid outbreaks in 1904 and 1915.

If she could ask for a Mother’s Day present, Jamaica Bay would probably cry out for a chance to repair herself.

Why not give her a rest? While we spend millions reseeding marsh grass and planting a million trees, we also crow victoriously about adding thousands of housing units on the peninsula. More housing, more people, more toilets, more showers, more dishwashers and washing machines.

The treatment plants must work, full tilt, to process it all. If we collectively resist changing our lifestyles, maybe there is no sensible choice but to stop building high rise housing units in waterfront areas.

In the 1960s, some U. S. waterways were so polluted that they spontaneously combusted, on occasion.

When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, they used to say that you could practically walk across Lake Erie due to all of the garbage in it.

We managed to bring our lakes, rivers and streams back from the brink via prudent government regulation, specifically, through passage and enforcement of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Enforcement of this law is just as important today as it was in the 1970s.

Otherwise, Jamaica Bay may become a fossil — and I don’t mean a living one.

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