New Hope for Jamaica Bay

The preliminary agreement being announced today between New York City, New York State, NRDC and several other citizen groups to clean up Jamaica Bay promises to be a game changer for this unique resource (my colleague Larry Levine makes this clear in his post today here). Among other things, in a resolution of a long-running dispute over the city’s Clean Water Act permits, the agreement calls for major sewage treatment plant upgrades, new stricter permit terms to lock in the upgrades and resulting water quality improvements in the future, and improved water quality monitoring in the bay.     

What is Jamaica Bay, you ask?

I don’t doubt that many of you had never heard of it, or at most have only obliquely encountered it when coming in for a landing at JFK International Airport (perhaps you wondered to yourself: “what’s this huge wetland we’re flying over?”).  But Jamaica Bay deserves a much larger role in the city’s, indeed the region’s, environmental consciousness.  It is the crown jewel of the city’s ecological resources, with more than 25,000 acres of water, marsh, meadowland, beaches, dunes and forests in Brooklyn and Queens (see map here) that is home to an astonishing diversity of animal life, including 80 different fish species as well as the occasional sea turtle and porpoise.  The bay is particularly invaluable for birds, as it is located on the Atlantic flyway and serves as an oasis as they migrate through our country’s largest and most densely populated city.  It is estimated that nearly 20 percent of North America's bird species visit Jamaica Bay annually.  (Read more about the ecosystem in our fact sheet here.)

Photo by Don Riepe

I like to describe Jamaica Bay as the one place in New York City where nature is so dominant that it makes the city a backdrop, literally and figuratively.  In Jamaica Bay, the panoramic Manhattan skyline seems an abstraction, akin to a movie set background (albeit a dramatic one).  The vast expanse of the marshes and water and the bay’s sounds and smells -- the salt air, the buzz of the insects, the calls of the migrating songbirds, and flocks of floating ducks and grebes – are that powerful.   

Given that more than a half million New Yorkers do in fact live in its watershed/sewershed, Jamaica Bay serves as an attractive and accessible fishing and boating area as well.  Its marsh islands provide flood protection for the surrounding homes and businesses.  And, because most of the bay is publicly-owned and under some type of protected status, it will remain – if cared for -- a keystone component of the city’s natural and social heritage for generations to come.

Photo by Don Riepe

Various initiatives have been launched over the years to protect and restore Jamaica Bay.  Most recently, in 2007, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan (find it here).  DEP is currently implementing the plan, with updates every two years.  NRDC served as a co-chair of the Advisory Committee that helped DEP in developing the plan. 

The Advisory Committee’s #1 recommendation to DEP was to drastically reduce nitrogen pollution in the bay.  Almost 40,000 pounds of nitrogen a day pour into the bay from four city sewage treatment plants, making it among the most nitrogen-polluted water bodies in the world.  The excess nitrogen causes harmful algae blooms that frequently render portions of the bay inhospitable to marine life and unusable for people. There is also mounting evidence that elevated nitrogen levels are contributing to the rapid erosion of the marsh islands.  It was the Advisory Committee’s determination, one shared by many other experts, that the bay’s ecosystem will not survive without a substantial reduction in nitrogen loadings. 

But today is a new beginning for Jamaica Bay – the city promises to do exactly that.  The agreed-to sewage treatment plant upgrades are expected to cut nearly in half the city’s current nitrogen discharges to the bay.  As Larry Levine cautions, we certainly still need to finalize what right now remains only an agreement in principle.  But if we do finalize it, and we fully expect we will, then the bay truly has a new lease on life.