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Taking Action On Jamaica Bay
by Sam Williams
"Emergency situations require drastic action," says Dan Mundy, founder of Ecowatchers, a group of Broad Channel and Howard Beach residents that first publicized the crisis six years ago; according to a 1999 study, the 13,000-acre bay was losing up to 45 acres of vegetation and wetlands every single day. "The patient is dying and we've got to try anything available."
"Anything" in this case means the Army Corps of Engineers, an organization once regarded as the No. 1 enemy of U.S. wetlands by environmental groups. Thanks to an institutional change of heart -- motivated in large part by the Water Resources Development Acts of 1986 and 1992 -- the 229-year-old civil engineering wing of the U.S. military is now a leading player in the battle to reclaim lost swamps and marshland.
For New York, that means bringing Jamaica Bay and the non-commercial sections of the Hudson and Raritan River estuary systems back to a semblance of their original state. The Army Corps of Engineers will take the first step in that long journey this spring when it begins to level the banks of Gerritsen Creek, a Marine Park waterway that empties west of Floyd Bennett Field. Using bond funds from the New York City parks department and a small portion of its own $25 million special projects war chest, the corps plans to spread the resulting materials into the waterway at levels amenable to native grasses such as Spartina alterniflora (smooth cord grass), a primary food source for migrating waterfowl.
The Gerritsen Creek project is a signal move, representing one of the first major shifts away from studying the problem to reversing the problem.
Whether or not such a reversals proves permanent, Len Houston, the corps' environmental chief for the New York District, sees the 70 acre redesign as setting the table for more ambitious projects aimed at reshaping some of the hardest-hit regions in the bay.
"We're very much interested in getting this first [project] in place, in learning from it, and in using that knowledge to improve our future projects," Houston says.
Delivering that news at a community forum this month, Houston was the rare optimist amid a two-hour lineup of sobering skeptics. The forum, held at the New York Aquarium, was the culmination of a two year study initiated by a National Parks Service blue ribbon panel in 2001. The study's aim: monitor and quantify erosion patterns within Jamaica Bay, identify the root causes, and -- hopefully -- offer a solution.
Though the scientists agreed that the bay was losing vegetation and wetlands at an alarming ratem, about the only other consensus was the need for more time and more data. Especially baffling was the fact that some marshes, most notably the JoCo marsh just off JFK Airport's southernmost runway, have remained stable. Could it be the rising sea level? The freshwater effluent from nearby sewage treatment facilities? The effects of mussels and geese on local drainage patterns? Scientists could only turn up their hands.
"There's no one single factor, and no single smoking gun," argued Denise Reed, a visiting professor from the University of New Orleans and a member of the 2001 blue ribbon panel.
Such assertions offered cold comfort, however, to attendees like Mundy, who, even while lending his bird watching skills to one of the scientific programs, has been campaigning for more short term restoration projects to balance out purely observational studies ever since the blue ribbon panel issued its call for "pilot projects."
"My fear is that scientists like to study the problem more than they like to fix the problem," Mundy says. "The wetlands will go away and they'll still be out there studying."
Mundy voiced approval for one scientific project: the artificial expansion of the marsh known as Big Egg carried out by scientists from the National Parks Service and Brooklyn College. Using a dredge boat and a jet sprayer, scientists relocated bottom sand to the top of the marsh. This spring, they will be on hand to observe whether or not the buried grasses can break through.
Though not entirely successful -- lead scientist George Frame of the Gateway National Recreational Area acknowledged that much of the spray stream fell short of its intended target -- the project, like the Gerritsen Creek project, puts scientists in the position of pitting one tactic against the next in the hopes of finding the stronger remedy.
"It started a bit later than I hoped it would, but now, at least, we'll get to see if it works," Mundy said. "And even it doesn't work, it's better than nothing, and we'll still be able to learn something."
Other (literal) grass roots activists weren't as optimistic. David Schulman, a resident of Marine Park and a member of the Salt Marsh Alliance, voiced concern over the aggressive Gerritsen Creek plan. "I walk through that park at least three times a week," Schulman said. "Right now, it's gorgeous the way it is. We've got bats hanging in the trees, many of which are probably going to be torn out."
With the project already slated to go forward, Schulman said he would take a camera to the Gerritsen Creek park and take photos to document the work. With the corps planning a similar project for Spring Creek, a Jamaica Bay tributary located on the western side of Howards Beach, he said the photos might lend weight to a community critique on the corps' engineering methods.
Speaking on behalf of the Salt Marsh Alliance, an organization founded in 2002 to help support the city's new Salt Marsh Nature Center in Marine Park, Schulman welcomed the corps' assistance in expanding Brooklyn marshland but didn't welcome the leap of faith that came with it.
"We just want to make sure they don't screw it up," he said.
One additional way to prevent that, Mundy says, is to get local input into the process before the earth-moving machines go to work. After years of buttonholing local politicians, Mundy knows he can influence the process. Still, in a situation where most residents can only offer input during a brief public comment period, governmental groups such as the corps run the risk of flying blind.
As an example, Mundy points to Houston's recent attempt to secure local help in finding a lost tide-measurement device. Planted in the middle of the bay during the fall, the device disappeared during January when winter ice crushed its anchoring platform. In a bid to get both the instrument and its valuable data back, Houston passed out flyers with a picture of the device.
"If they'd told us they were going to put that device out in the bay and what they wanted to do with it, we might have been able to set up a system for people to check up on it," Mundy says. "Even when it was icy, I could have gone out on my ice boat. Now it's gone and they need our help to get it back."
Because the project involves the pooling of government funds, data, and equipment, Houston says he prefers the current set-up whereby governmental organizations do the planning and then submit those plans for public comment before going forward. Motivated citizens can lobby the key players, offering advice and local insight, but for the moment, Mundy's higher priority is building trust with the agencies whose assistance can streamline similar future efforts.
"Agencies need to learn how to work together," Mundy says.
Jim Gennaro, a member of the New York City Council representing eastern Queens and the chairman of the council's committee on environmental protection, says his committee will be holding its second hearing on the bay this spring. The first was in 2002, and the goal of the forthcoming hearing, he says, is to measure the progress since then.
Gennaro believes that the first order of business is building rapport between government groups, first, and only after that has been achieved, with grassroots groups as well.
"Everybody's got a role to play here," he says. "Dan's trying to win individual battles in this marsh or that marsh, but the goal at the end of the day is to win the war with a coordinated attack."
Related Stories"State OK's Use of Dredge Material to Cap Landfill" (Staten Island Advance)
"S.I. to Land New Park, If Funds Found" [NY Daily News]
"Wholesale Center Brings New Life to Former Flushing Airport Site" (Queens Tribune)
"Flushing Airport Site" [Newsday]
"Coyote Leaves Cops Out in the Cold at Breezy Point" (Rockaway Wave)
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