New York City Announces Commitment to Clean Up Jamaica Bay

Today, New York City, New York State, NRDC and several other citizen groups have reached a historic agreement-in-principle to clean up Jamaica Bay. At 25,000 acres spanning Brooklyn and Queens, Jamaica Bay is  a refuge for wildlife and residents, and the crown jewel of New York City’s natural resources (my colleague Brad Sewell explains why in more detail today here). When the agreement is finalized this spring, it will be a landmark achievement to help ensure the ecological and economic values of Jamaica Bay are protected for future generations. 

Jamaica Bay with NYC skyline in background. Photo by Larry Levine.

Specifically, New York City today publicly committed to significantly reduce nitrogen pollution into the bay – which is currently among the most nitrogen-polluted waterbodies in the world, as a result of discharges from four city sewage treatment plants. The city has also committed to large-scale marsh restoration activities and to improve water quality monitoring in the bay. 

Algal blooms caused by nitrogen pollution (top), fish kill from polluted waters (bottom). Photos by Don Riepe.

The city has committed to invest in a series of upgrades at four sewage treatment plants that, over a period of 10 years, are expected to cut the current nitrogen discharges to the Bay nearly in half.  Some of the cost-effective pollution abatement technologies the city will be using are quite innovative and, in the tradition of New York City leading the way, could well be applied elsewhere to address nutrient pollution, which is an escalating global environmental problem. 

The city will also be directing $15 million over the next five years to restoring the bay’s marshes that we hope will be matched nearly 2:1 by federal funds through the Corps of Engineers. Jamaica Bay has been losing acres of marsh islands at an alarming rate and there is evidence that the nitrogen pollution plays a significant role, in addition to other factors such as climate change-induced sea level rise. This funding will go toward restoring those signature marsh islands.

Eroded marsh island. Photo by Don Riepe.

And, the city will significantly improve its monitoring of water quality in the Bay.  This may include using new equipment to provide continuous, real-time information on conditions in the bay, so New Yorkers can track the success of this plan.  Under the agreement, citizen groups will continue to have a formal role in the development of these new monitoring plans.  The intensive monitoring will also allow state and federal regulators to determine, after all of the treatment plant upgrades are completed, whether additional measures to reduce water pollution are needed to fully restore the bay to health.

Work still remains over the next several months to turn what is currently an “agreement in principle” into the necessary comprehensive legal documents.  But the news is exciting enough to let you know now.  And we feel confident that, with the strong working relationship NRDC and our environmental partners have built with new DEP Commissioner Cas Holloway through these negotiations, we will get to a final, signed agreement. 

The details of the final documents will, of course, be critical on many fronts, and the city has agreed to draft them jointly with us and the state to ensure they make today’s commitments binding and enforceable into the future – that means enforceable by both the state and by citizens, as provided by the Clean Water Act. 

In this regard, one key element of the city’s commitments today is that they will resolve a long-running dispute over the sewage plants’ Clean Water Act permits.  The city is agreeing to new, stricter permit terms that will lock-in a binding and enforceable schedule for treatment plant upgrades and the resulting reductions in nitrogen discharges.  This will ensure they are lasting commitments not only by the Bloomberg administration, but by the City of New York for years to come. 

Today’s announcement resulted from months of intensive 3-way negotiations among the city, the state, and NRDC and its environmental partners (Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and American Littoral Society), following a “notice letter” we sent the city in August 2009, under the Clean Water Act.  Indeed, the announcement follows years of tireless advocacy by our groups and many others.  Once we complete the job of translating the city’s commitments into final agreements, their implementation will help ensure that the bay remains a haven for all of its amazing wildlife and for the millions of New Yorkers that learn from it and enjoy its refuge.