Jamaica Bay is going to the birds. And that's a good thing.
Officials gathered at the bay on the eve of Earth Day to announce that the City’s only wildlife refuge had grown for the first time in decades.
“These marshlands are the very foundation of this ecosystem,” said U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - Kew Gardens). “They are havens for insects, attract clams and support fish and birds. For years, concerned residents and environmentalists have warned us that they are disappearing. We can say now that the marshlands are coming back.”
The bay is home to 325 species of birds, 91 species of fish and 214 species of special concern – including some classified as threatened and endangered. The salt marshes also serve as natural levies for the City – breaking down storm surges and protecting against coastal flooding.
Conservationists have struggled for years to stanch the loss of marshlands, which are dissappearing at a rate of 44 acres every year. And for the first time, they are seeing glimmers of hope. The marshes expanded by 15 acres this year.
The increase was thanks to a $16 million Army Corps of Engineers project to restore Elder’s Point, a small island in the northern portion of the bay where 48 acres of marshland were rebuilt. The engineers replaced 240,000 cubic yards of beach soil and transplanted more than 750,000 native plants into the depleted area.
“We’ve now tried to expand by quite literally growing grass elsewhere, planting it in acres in this area and trying to see if it holds,” Weiner said. “And the answer so far is: yes it’s holding.”
Jamaica Bay’s marshes have suffered for years under the twin threat of rising sea levels and water pollution. Nearby water treatment plants dump more than 15,000 kilograms of nitrogen every day into the surrounding waters, according to the National Parks Service, killing the marsh plants that form the foundation of the wetlands’ ecosystem and strengthen island beaches against erosionary forces.
“This is a jewel. And it’s a jewel that disappearing little bit by little bit,” Weiner said. “We have to stop the man-made reasons that we have this problem. We have to stop dumping nitrogen in the water here as we process our waste water. We have to do something about global climate change that’s causing the water levels to rise. And generally speaking we have to be better stewards of the earth if we expect to be better stewards of Jamaica Bay.”
To combat those threats, Weiner announced plans to hold and improve on this year’s gains.
Paramount among them is an effort to reduce nitrogen emissions by 60 percent using $431.5 million allocated to the state for environmental initiatives through federal stimulus funds. The money will fund plans to retrofit four coastal sewage plants, significantly reducing their nitrogen output.
Meanwhile, engineers will continue to build on their success at Elder’s Point. An additional $9 million was allocated for restoring nearly 100 acres of marshland over the next few years. The engineers will build 60 acres of marsh using 250,000 cubic yards of sand on Yellow Bar Hassock, 34 acres of marsh using 200,000 cubic yards of sand on Elders Point West and study additional restoration options for sites around the bay.
“We have to reverse the trend of what we’re losing each year,” Weiner said. “We’re going to have to do more work here to keep up with the loss that we have.”
More than 2,000 acres of marshes have disappeared from the bay since the decline began in 1924. And while Weiner acknowledged that restoring the marshes would be a long and expensive slog, he said the alternative is unacceptable.
“We’re putting our finger in the dike right now,” he said. “It’s a race – we are putting in 50 acres and losing 44. It’s not a great success, but it sure beats the alternative.”