Jamaica Bay is 25,000 acres of grassy marshlands, coastal lagoons, open waters, and islands neatly surrounded by Queens to the north, Brooklyn to the west, and Long Island to the south and east. It is directly under the flight path of planes taking off and landing at JFK Airport. Nonetheless, when I visited the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, it was like being in a remote natural setting, teeming with the migratory birds that make annual stopovers in the area. So bustling with non-human life was it, that it was easy to forget that I’d gotten there with a quick ride on the A train – that is, until I looked up and saw the surreal presence of the Empire State Building looming from behind a hill.
The vibrant health of Jamaica Bay is only illusory, or is at least threatened. The insalubrious waters of the New York City harbor, runoff pollution and rising nitrate levels from four sewage treatment plants are undercutting the natural ecosystem, causing the salt marshes to erode and dissipate. Nitrates promote increased algea blooms, which lead to a reduction in soluble oxygen in the water, affecting marine life. As salt marshes disappear, there is less habitat available to support the great variety of species in the Bay. About 20 percent of North America’s bird species visit the area each year, and to allow this wildlife sanctuary amidst our urban sprawl to be destroyed would threaten the survival of birds the length of the continent.
The good news is that the migratory birds and resident marine life may be getting a reprieve. In February, Mayor Bloomberg, the State Environmental Council and the Natural Resources Defense Council announced an agreement that would improve water quality and preserve the wetlands of Jamaica Bay. The Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan commits to restoring degraded marshlands and reducing nitrogen discharge into the bay by 50 percent over the next ten years at a cost of $115 million to the city alone. Federal funds and resources are expected to supplement the project.
This Gotham Gazette article by Anya Khalamayzer provides a good overview of the history of the movement to protect Jamaica Bay. She reports that “Reclamation of Elders Point West Island has already begun. Clean fill, or “slurry” — muck being dredged from waters around the city — is currently being shipped from the harbor and Long Island and will become 35 new acres of marsh. The U.S Army Corps of Engineers is hand-seeding Spartina grass into the fill. When they finish this at the end of the summer, they will move on to reclaim Yellow Bar island.”
Today there were signs of the waste water treatment project moving forward: “ThermoEnergy Corporation has entered into a $27.1 million contract with the City of New York, to deploy a state-of-the-art ammonia recovery system at the City’s 26th Ward Wastewater Treatment Plant situated on Jamaica Bay. Once in full operation, the company’s CASTion Ammonia Recovery Process (ARP) will prevent approximately 2.4 million pounds of ammonia from entering Jamaica Bay each year, helping the city improve the health of Jamaica Bay as outlined under Mayor Bloomberg’s Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan.”
The birds aren’t aware of any of this, but as the plan moves forward, the Bay’s waters may become more welcoming to them. Which will be nice, for a change.
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