Thursday, April 30, 2009

After Years of Erosion, Jamaica Bay Marshes Make a Comeback

By Conor Greene

In honor of Earth Day, Rep. Anthony Weiner announced last week that 50 acres of Jamaica Bay’s marshland has been restored, reversing years of erosion.

Already, 50 acres of the bay’s threatened marshland has been restored, and another 100 acres are slated for restoration in the coming years, as the congressman plans to make the issue of wetlands preservation a top issue. “Jamaica Bay is going back to the birds more and more each year,” said Weiner (D-Forest Hills).

The bay’s 26,645 acres of marshes suffer as buffers that help mitigate waves, wind and floods and reduce damage to surrounding residents. The salt marshes are home to 91 species of fish, 325 species of birds and 214 species of special concern, including threatened and endangered species.

Experts have concluded that rising oxygen levels in the bay have caused the marshes to erode at an ever-quickening pace. According to Weiner, much of the blame for the rising oxygen levels rests with four nearby wastewater plants, which dump more than 250 gallons of nitrogen-rich wastewater into Jamaica Bay everyday. This kills delicate marsh roots and retards re-growth.

To make matters worse, the rate of loss has been increasing over the past few decades. Between 1924 and 1994, more than 1,800 acres of salt marsh disappeared, at an average rate of about 26 acres a year. However, the rate of loss increased between 1995 and 1999, with 220 acres of salt marsh disappearing at an average rate of 44 acres per year.

To combat the quickening salt marsh erosion, Rep. Weiner helped fund a $16 million Army Corps of Engineers project in 2006 to rebuild Elders Point East. As part of that project, engineers rebuilt 48 acres of marshland, adding more than 240,000 cubic yards of beach and transporting more than 750,000 native marsh plants including Saltwater Cordgrass, Salt Meadow Grass, Salt Grass and Rush into the depleted area. Weiner now calls that effort “a major success story” as recovery efforts now outpace marsh erosion for the first time by 15 acres.

“These marshlands are the very foundation of this ecosystem. They are a haven for insects, attract clams and support fish and birds,” said Weiner. “For years, concerned residents and environmentalists have warned us that they are disappearing. We can now say that the marshlands are coming back.”

To ensure the marshes’ survival, Weiner has announced two key upcoming projects that will help restore the marshland, as well as a four point plan to save the marshes. Both projectsare expected to commence next year. First, Elders Point West, located in the north-central part of the bay, will be rebuilt at a cost of $10.6 million. Building on the successes of the restoration projects at Elders Point East, the next step is building up 34 acres of marshes with 200,000 cubic yards of sand. Engineers will replant native Saltwater Cordgrass onto the restored land.

The second project is the restoration of Yellow Bar Hassock, located in the center of Jamaica Bay, west of Broad Channel. Due to erosion of the beach foundation, the salt marsh habitat here has been converting to mucky peat and mudflat at an estimated rate of six acres a year. The rising saltwater was drowning the marsh habitat and National Parks Service officials have projected that Yellow Bar will be completely lost by 2020.

Using Elders Point East as a model, the Yellow Bar Hassock design proposes building up to 60 acres of marsh with 250,000 cubic yards of sand. Within this new elevated marsh foundation, engineers will replant existing salt marsh plant hummocks to spur growth. There currently is no final cost estimate available for this project.

These projects will coincide with Weiner’s four-point plan,which includes reducing nitrogen in the bay by 60% in 10 years, including a 20% reduction in the next three years. Under the plan, Weiner will provide $9 million to fully fund the Yellow Bar Hassock and Elders Point West projects and study restoration options for other sites around the bay. In addition, federal stimulus money will be used to retrofit four sewage plants surrounding the bay. Finally, the plan doubles the number of Saltwater Cordgrass and Salt Marsh Plan Hammocks to be replanted in the two upcoming projects.

Gateway National Recreation Area attracts 10 million visitors a year, making it the third most popular park in the country. While great strides are being made to restore the wetlands, Weiner noted that there are other factors jeopardizing the marshes, including global warming and rising ocean levels, meaning they likely will never return to their natural state.

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