Alexander Brash, Northeast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, points to floating trash in creek of Gateway National Recreation Area.
One of several sewage treatment plants drain off wastewater into the creek. A sewage treatment plant looms in background of Spring Creek.
A green heron flaps gracefully across a bright blue sky, but on the ground, the scene is far less idyllic.
Decaying car parts litter the banks of Spring Creek, while a neighboring sewage-treatment plant pumps waste into the water. Purple clots of oil float on the surface, above a long, dark strip of sludge being sucked out into Jamaica Bay.
The plant is one of four nearby that discharge about 260 million gallons of treated wastewater into the bay daily, according to the city's Department of Environmental Protection.
During heavy rains, overflow from the plants and from storm drains adds, respectively, untreated sewage and polluted runoff to the mix.
The result, according to a recent report by the National Parks Conservation Association - a nonprofit parks advocacy group - is that the waterways of the Gateway National Recreation Area "are still inundated with treated and untreated sewage, floating trash, industrial waste and toxic sediments."
Spring Creek is one of four city parks to the north of the Belt Parkway near Howard Beach, Queens. To the south is the 26,600-acre Gateway, a national park that spans Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey's Sandy Hook Peninsula.
Gateway was designated a national park in 1972. That year, Congress authorized $92 million for the park, but the money was never appropriated. And on a tour of Gateway this month, it seemed that not enough has been done since to bring it up to the level of other national parks.
"For many regional residents who might not be able to afford to go to Yellowstone, but also for so many new citizens of our nation, Gateway may be their first national park experience," said Alexander Brash, an ecologist and the conservation association's Northeast regional director.
In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg signed a law requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to create a watershed protection plan for the bay; the plan is due in October.
The DEP has built two giant tanks to hold storm overflow; two more tanks are under construction. As for the 260 million gallons of treated sewage, "approximately 99% of all bacteria is removed before this wastewater is returned to the bay," said DEP Deputy Commissioner Anne Canty. "Only a very small fraction of that - less than 1 million gallons a day" is untreated overflow.
But the association says the tanks' capacity should be increased so there is no overflow, wastewater should be cleaned better to decrease harmful nitrogen, and rainwater should be diverted into the ground instead of the bay.
Other groups point to potential health consequences from the toxins that end up in the bay.
Dennis Suszkowski, science director of the Hudson River Foundation, which is wrapping up a nine-year study of New York Harbor, said while animal life isn't being destroyed, "the bigger concern is those contaminants can get into fish and crabs, and people will eat them" and get sick.
The association's study gave Gateway's "natural resources" - factors such as cleanliness of water and air - a 53 out of a possible 100, the lowest rating of 27 other national parks that the National Parks Conservation Association has measured. One effect of that is loss of salt marshes has accelerated to 44 acres a year from about 10 acres a year before the mid-1970s.
Scientists say the marshes - which act as filters, absorbing toxins, and provide food, protection and a breeding ground for wildlife - may disappear completely within 20 years.
To draw attention to conditions at Gateway, the association helped organize a competition to redesign the park.
Five winners were announced on June 4. The association hopes the National Park Service will incorporate their ideas into its management plan for Gateway.