2010-03-04 / Top Stories

City Commits To Major Jamaica Bay Improvements

Bloomberg (at podium) announcing upgrades at local water treatment plants and marsh restoration in Jamaica Bay. Spencer T. Tucker      Bloomberg (at podium) announcing upgrades at local water treatment plants and marsh restoration in Jamaica Bay. Spencer T. Tucker Mayor Bloomberg, the City Department of Environmental Protection, the State Department of Environmental Conservation, and four environmental groups last week announced an agreement in-principle to significantly improve the health of Jamaica Bay through major sewage treatment plant upgrades and investments in marsh restoration.

“Today marks a new beginning for Jamaica Bay – an amazing recreational and economic resource for New Yorkers,” said Lawrence Levine, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The city has committed to address the biggest source of pollution that has plagued Jamaica Bay for decades. We look forward to continuing to work with Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Holloway to turn today’s historic commitments into reality.”

“Jamaica Bay is without question one of the most bountiful wildlife habitats in the entire Northeast,” said the mayor. “It is important to the people who live in the area for its rich biodiversity, the recreation it offers, and the protection the marshlands provide from flooding.”

This announcement follows months of intensive negotiations among the city, state, and environmental groups represented by the NRDC as legal counsel — plus Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers, American Littoral Society and NY/NJ Baykeeper — over alleged permit violations at four city sewage treatment plants, which currently discharge levels of nitrogen pollution into Jamaica Bay that are among the highest in the world.

Last Thursday’s announcement is a critical milestone in the effort to restore the Bay. The groups will continue over the next several months to work with the city and state to finalize the agreement, in a way that ensures long-term implementation of a 10-year water quality improvement plan and can help secure federal funding to back up the city’s efforts.

Specifically, the agreement-in-principle announced today includes commitments from the city to:

• Upgrade four sewage treatment plants — including the one at Ralph and Flatlands avenues — to drastically reduce nitrogen discharges to the bay, on a schedule running through 2020

• Spend at least $15 million on marsh restoration over the next five years;

• Resolve a long-running dispute over the city’s Clean Water Act permits by agreeing to new, stricter permit terms that will lock in the treatment plant upgrades, and the resulting water quality improvements, into the future

• Improve water quality monitoring in the bay, which may include using new equipment to provide continuous, realtime information on conditions in the bay.

Nitrogen discharges from the sewage treatment plants are the biggest cause of the severe water quality problems in Jamaica Bay. The plants discharge nearly 40,000 pounds of nitrogen into the bay daily, which cause 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 contribute to the rapid and accelerating loss of the bay’s signature marshlands, which provide not only invaluable wildlife habitat but also shoreline erosion control and a protective flood barrier to the neighborhoods ringing the bay.

Jamaica Bay is considered 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. The bay is a diverse ecological resource that supports multiple habitats, including open water, salt marshes, grasslands, coastal woodlands, maritime shrublands, and brackish and freshwater wetlands. These habitats support 91 fish species, 325 species of birds, and many reptile, amphibian, and small mammal species.

It is also home to various endangered and threatened species – from sea turtles to peregrine falcons. More than a half million New Yorkers live near Jamaica Bay, which is a popular fishing and boating area.

Dan Mundy of Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers said, “The upgrades to the wastewater treatment plants that this agreement will require will ensure significant nitrogen loading reductions are achieved at this critical juncture in the future of Jamaica Bay.”

“Jamaica Bay is a national treasure that has been degraded and put at risk because of excessive pollutants harming its delicate tidal ecosystem,” said New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Grannis. “This agreement puts in place a critical and comprehensive program to bring back the bay – improving water quality, restoring it as a premier wildlife refuge, and continuing to provide generations of New Yorkers with a refuge of their own.”

“This agreement holds great promise to bring cleaner water to Jamaica Bay,” said Don Riepe, Director of American Littoral Society, Northeast Chapter. “We are encouraged by our discussions over the last several months and the work we’ve been able to do with the city towards cleaning up serious sources of pollution.”

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