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The Gem of Jamaica Bay

Fall 2015 Issue

Jamaica Bay, located in the southernmost part of New York City, is a natural gem of national importance and its restoration is vital. Historic dredging, filling, dumping and polluting have dramatically harmed the bay. Too much nitrogen, with associated algae blooms and low dissolved oxygen (DO), has been discharged to the bay. A number of studies have cited the high levels of nitrogen as a major factor in the bay's dramatic loss of critical marsh island habitats. These marshlands not only serve as prime wildlife habitat, but offer natural resiliency to the mainland against storms, diminishing storm surge and wave intensity. Many Jamaica Bay communities were flooded during Superstorm Sandy. More than half of the approximately 2,400 acres of marsh islands that existed in 1924 have been lost. As marshes decrease and disappear, storm protection is diminished.

A significant portion of the bay and upland areas are owned by the federal government as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and the federal Army Corps of Engineers are working on projects to restore these marshland areas. Since 2006, five projects have restored over 150 acres of Jamaica Bay's marsh island habitat, re-establishing ecological and flood protection benefits.

The levels of nitrogen, pathogens and "floatables" being discharged to the bay are being reduced through a multi-pronged approach. The NYSDEC and New York City have established consent order programs that will reduce the amount of nitrogen discharged from the four contributing New York City wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) by nearly 50 percent. When completed, the city will have spent over $200 million on just the nitrogen treatment upgrades, dramatically reducing the extent of low DO. Bacteria and floatables from combined sewer overflow (CSO) outfalls are another significant problem facing the bay. Large CSO storage tanks at Paerdegat Basin and Spring Creek were installed to hold combined sewage for treatment at the city's WWTPs.

An extensive green infrastructure program to decrease CSOs is underway in many Jamaica Bay communities so that stormwater on the landscape is retained and never reaches the sewers. Because of their proven effectiveness, the city is investing $1.5 billion over the next 20 years to advance green initiatives, with additional benefits achieved through enhanced building code provisions. Still more efforts are underway to enhance CSO controls and reduce polluted runoff - so stay tuned.

The NYSDEC also is engaged in two floodplain projects around Jamaica Bay, using FEMA funding totaling $68 million to restore 151 acres of shoreline and upland along Spring Creek - enhancing the natural area and increasing flood protection for Howard Beach. The NYSDEC works with the Army Corps of Engineers on extensive restoration projects in the Rockaways that will increase resiliency against storms as well.

Improvements on the bay's ecology and coastal resiliency can be achieved at the same time. While all the work is not done, New Yorkers are seeing improvements and reaping the benefits of a healthier Jamaica Bay.

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