Monday, May 4, 2009

Jamaica Bay's Earth Day Success Story by Lisa Fogarty - Queens Chronicle

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Congressman Anthony Weiner points to diagrams that show a significant loss in salt marshes at Jamaica Bay within the last 60 years. (photo courtesy Anthony Weiner)

Queens residents — as well as local birds, fish and hundreds of endangered species — have an added reason to celebrate this Earth Day. Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn and Queens) announced Tuesday that 50 acres of threatened marshland in Jamaica Bay have been restored and, thanks to his new four-part plan, wetlands rehabilitation is about to become a paramount priority.

Jamaica Bay’s 26,645 acres of salt marshes, which are home to 91 species of fish, 325 species of birds and 214 other species that include threatened and endangered animals, also play a major role in mitigating wave, wind and flood damage to its surrounding residents. Over the last 60 years, however, the marshes have begun to erode, mainly because of rising nitrogen levels that could be attributed to several factors, including their proximity to Kennedy International Airport and Jamaica Bay’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, Weiner said.

“We’ve had a rough patch for the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay. We’ve gone through this period where they’ve been disappearing little by little and that is bad news,” Weiner said. “We all understand the ecosystem requires a strong foundation. The foundation of the ecosystem of Jamaica Bay and the wildlife that live here are the salt marshes and marshland.”

Between 1924 and 1994, more than 1,800 acres of salt marsh disappeared, at an average rate of about 26 acres per year. That rate of loss increased between 1995 and 1999, with 220 acres of marsh being depleted at an average rate of 44 acres per year.

In 2006, Weiner addressed the issue by helping to fund a $16 million Army Corps of Engineers project to rebuild Elders Point East, just one of the marshlands in Jamaica Bay. The plan proved a success. Engineers were able to recover 43 acres of wetland by adding beach and transplanting more than 750,000 native marsh plants into the barren area. Last year, for the first time in history, Jamaica Bay actually gained more marshland than it lost, Weiner reported.

But the effort to restore Jamaica Bay is an ongoing challenge, said Barry Sullivan, Gateway National Park’s general superintendent. Sullivan lauded Weiner’s efforts, but noted that at the same time 43 acres were replaced at Elders Point, the Bay lost about 40 acres.

“While we made a net gain, the net gain is really fighting an uphill battle,” Sullivan said.

Weiner’s new four-point plan involves using federal stimulus funds to reduce nitrogen levels in Jamaica Bay by 60 percent in 10 years, with a reduction of 20 percent in the next three years. In order to accomplish this goal, the congressman proposes appropriating a portion of the $200 million the city will receive from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to modernize the four sewage plants surrounding Jamaica Bay. Experts say the plants are responsible for dumping more than 250 gallons of nitrogen-rich wastewater into Jamaica Bay each day.

Weiner also plans to build on the success of the Elders Point East project by requesting $9 million to provide engineers with the resources they need to build up 60 acres of marsh on Yellow Bar Hassock, a nearby wetland. The National Park Service predicts Yellow Bar will be entirely lost by 2020 unless efforts are made to restore growth in the area.

The fourth point in Weiner’s plan calls for engineers to double the number of saltwater cordgrass and salt marsh plant hammocks replanted in both Yellow Bar Hammock and upcoming Elders Point West.

Weiner and Sullivan admit the project cannot restore the marshlands back to their original state. Global warming, human neglect and rising sea levels share the burden of blame for the erosion of wetlands, Sullivan said.

Still, engineers have the ability to reverse the trend, they said. Gateway National Recreation Area attracts 10 million visitors a year and is the third most visited park in the country — a veritable urban oasis, Weiner said.

“It’s easy to forget that New York City, with airplanes going out by the dozens every day, with concrete beneath our feet, the honking of horns, that we are standing in the most visited urban national park in the country,” Weiner said. “This is a jewel, and it’s a jewel that’s disappearing little bit by little bit.”