The Battle to Save the Disappearing Jamaica Bay



by Maria Luisa Tucker

This summer, environmentalists estimated that dozens of lush marsh islands in Jamaica Bay could turn into dead mudflats and erode into the water within five years if the government did not intervene. Now, the city has taken its first major step to preserve the marsh land, issuing a long-awaited report with wide-ranging recommendations to stop the pollution that has plagued the bay for years.

The report produced a whole lot of paper—two volumes worth—but little thus far in the way of actual timetables or plans to get the funding to save the bay.

“We just don’t know if its actually going to get done,” said Brad Sewell, co-chair of the Jamaica Bay Advisory Committee. “It still looks a little bit too much like a plan for a plan.”

Most New Yorkers have only had a peek of the marshlands from the sky as they fly out of Kennedy Airport, or know it as a rumored mafia dumping ground. But despite its urban address (it’s accessible by subway) and nefarious history, the marshlands are considered one of the best birdwatching spots in the Western Hemisphere where 325 species can be seen.

Unfortunately, more than half the marshland, which covers parts of which covers Brooklyn, Queens and Nassau County, has already disappeared. In 2005, the mayor mandated that the city’s Department of Environmental Protection draw up a plan to restore the wildlife haven. A year and half later, the city has done that, releasing the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan on October 2nd. Last week, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which had previously been absent from the table, sent out a press release announcing that they were—drum roll please—creating a task force to review the city’s report.

The slow pace and bureaucracy has some worried, especially since the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan Advisory Committee reported this summer that the rate of disappearing lands are accelerating more quickly than previously thought.

But while the city may not be speedy, it is thorough. The report includes a lengthy profile of the bay, pinpointing several culprits for its decline. Several wastewater treatment plants pump treated water into the marsh, causing high nitrogen levels that may be killing off vegetation. Another pollutant is runoff from nearby roadways and the airport runways.

To respond to these pollutants, the city has proposed changing the practices at two of the water treatment plants to lower the level of nitrogen released into the bay, and adopting several storm water practices that are also included in the mayor’s PlaNYC, like providing rain barrels to nearby homeowners. In addition, the report proposes dozens of smaller projects to speed the restoration of the marshlands, like skimming off harmful algae, planting eel grass, reintroducing oyster reefs, cleaning nearby sewers, and building community gardens along the perimeter of the bay.

It all sounds great, but “the commitments to certain definite timetables and certain funding is not there yet,” says Sewell.

View a summary of the report here.