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The Topic
"Environment" refers to the places where New Yorkers live; our surroundings; the air, water and land that make our existence possible.
The Context
With more than 22,000 people per square mile, NYC must take considerable measures to protect the environment from the effects of such population density. Problems like asthma, PCBs, lead poisoning and waste disposal compromise the quality of the City's natural resources and threaten the health of its residents. The policy implications for solving environmental problems are complex: Should commercial activity take priority over environmental protection? To what extent can we require changes in lifestyle and consumption through legislation? How far does our responsibility extend to those in other places and future generations?
The Reporter
Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Environment.

by Eric Goldstein

Jamaica Bay

Jamaica Bay, located off the south shore of Brooklyn and Queens, is a natural wonderland. The bay's shallow waters and low-lying island marshes stretch over some 13,000 acres, providing a unique interconnection between the natural environment and the nation's largest city. With its freshwater ponds and saltwater wetlands, the refuge offers sanctuary to more than 300 species of birds and nearly 100 species of fish, as well as amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.

In addition to their ecological importance, the marshes of Jamaica Bay perform an essential role in controlling floods and in protecting a vast swath of the Brooklyn and Queens shorefront from storms and erosion.

But today, the original marshlands that are integral to the bay's ecosystem are disappearing.

"We have a drastic situation on our hands," warns Dan Mundy, Chairman of the Environment Committee at Community Board 14 in Queens and founder of Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers. "The patient is on his way out."


For much of the 20th century, Jamaica Bay's ecological importance was ignored or placed behind other city interests. Pollution from industrial expansion on its shores and sewage from pipes in Brooklyn and Queens led to bans on swimming and, by the early l920s, an end to what was once a flourishi ng shell-fishing community. Meanwhile, dredging of the shallow bay to create shipping channels began to change the underwater environment.

Over the decades, large portions of marshland were filled in for both commercial development and other uses. The construction of Kennedy Airport (then called Idlewild) in the l940s destroyed 4,500 acres of wetlands within the eastern portion of the bay. And the New York City Sanitation Department's development of its Pennsylvania and Fountain Avenue landfills, beginning in the l950s and 1960s, led to the filling in of another 12,000 acres of marshland on the bay's northern shore.

Sewage remains a major contributor to pollution in Jamaica Bay, with four city-owned treatment plants discharging many millions of gallons a day of treated wastewater, containing large amounts of nutrients, chlorine, and other harmful substances. And during periods of rainfall or snow-melt, millions of gallons of raw sewage are regularly funneled directly into the bay (a citywide problem known as "combined sewer overflow").

Despite these and other environmental assaults, Jamaica Bay has survived and become a natural resource of worldwide prominence.

"Though half of its original area and three-quarters of its original wetlands are gone, what remains still has enough ecological vitality to make Jamaica Bay an estuary of international significance," the city's Department of Environmental Protection concludes in a 1994 management plan for the Jamaica Bay watershed.


Fundamental to Jamaica Bay's ecosystem are its tidal marshlands. While the bay's marshes have been declining in size for years, the acceleration of this trend has now reached alarming proportions, according to government scientists and independent watchdogs.

From 1924 to 1974, the bay was losing perhaps 10 acres a year, probably due to natural forces such as erosion. From 1974 to 1994, the data show, this trend increased, and average annual losses climbed to 22 acres a year. Since l999, the rate of loss has spiked to 50 acres per year.

"It's actually more than that," says Dave Fallon, a marine scientist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who has been measuring changes in the bay's marshlands. "It's over 50 or 60 acres a year that are now being lost."

What is responsible for the rapidly increasing loss of marshlands in New York's number one ecological treasure? Theories abound.


"It's the pits," claims Al Appleton, former New York City Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection and long-time friend of Jamaica Bay. He is referring to the deep "borrow pits," which resulted when huge amounts of sand were scooped out of the bottom of the bay and used, among other things, for filling in the wetlands during the construction of Kennedy Airport. Mr. Appleton and others believe that these pits and other dredging activities in the bay have interfered with the natural flow of sediments, which are essential to maintaining the marshlands.

There are, however, plenty of other suspected causes.

"Sea level rise is probably the number one culprit," says Dave Fallon from the State Department of Environmental Conservation, who also pointed to the trench pits, dredging and alterations to the shoreline as contributing factors.

Some scientists also believe that changes in the tidal flows in Jamaica Bay (attributable to several factors, including the extension of the Kennedy Airport runway in the l960s) is adversely affecting sediment flows in the bay.

"All the shoreline development and the deep channels have interfered with sediment transport across the marshes," adds Don Riepe of the National Park Service's Jamaica Bay unit.

Experts also point to the treated sewage and stormwater that are pouring into the bay, leachate from the former city landfills, and the continued alteration of coastal habitat as contributing factors.

But perhaps the most interesting theory comes from Dan Mundy of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers. Mundy, a retired fireman who has lived by the bay for 60 years and has kept close tabs on the ominous changes, suspects that concentrated city sewage sludge waters may be the leading cause.

The marshes took a dramatic turn for the worse, he says, about the same time that the city ended its program of dumping sewage sludge more than 100 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. With the end to ocean-dumping of sewage sludge, the city began to "dewater" its sludge. The dry materials that are left at the end of the de-watering process are shipped out-of-state. But the remaining sludge water (think of the rinse water in your washing machine) is now being discharged into the bay. And this water, which is very high in nitrogen and phosphates, is contributing to algae blooms in Jamaica Bay for much of the year.

"I'm not ready to identify this as the cause absolutely," Mundy adds, "but the authorities need to step up their action now, because we don't have the luxury of time."


The multiple pollution and development problems facing Jamaica Bay's ecosystem have complicated efforts to design a rescue plan for the marshlands.

Some experts believe that filling in the borrow pits with clean fill is essential to the long-term health of the bay and to reversing, or at least slowing, the disappearance of the marshlands.

Others believe that improving tidal flow to enhance the movement of sediments in the bay is needed.

Still others suggest that reducing the flow of sewage and other nutrients is the obvious first step.

"Why not start with an autopsy of the marshes?" Dan Mundy asks. "Compare water and soil samples of good marshes with samples from the dying marshes and find out what's different."

But to outside advocates what is missing as much as the definitive solution is a sense of urgency at the highest levels of the National Park Service and other government agencies. "Overlapping jurisdictions leading to conflicting uses remains the primary [governmental] problem," according to R.L. Swanson and his colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook's Marine Science Research Center. In addition to the Park Service, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are just some of the players who must be involved in forging a solution at Jamaica Bay.

It does seem as if the issue is finally receiving a douse of added attention. Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose district includes Jamaica Bay, has secured funds to get pilot studies underway. Other city, state and federal funding is also beginning to flow. But advocates worry that a leadership vacuum still exists.


Almost twenty years ago, a special task force of government officials, community leaders and environmental experts was formed, under the leadership of the late Congressman Joseph P. Addabbo, to address the problems then threatening Jamaica Bay.

Today, with Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer active and effective on a wide range of environmental issues, it seems like a propitious time for them, along with Congressman Weiner, to bring together the National Park Service and the other appropriate agencies, departments and experts in a renewed and expanded effort. The urgent mission -- to work together on an action plan for the rescue of the disappearing marshlands of Jamaica Bay before it's too late.

Related Sites

1) National Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area -- The official website of the National Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area (the federal unit that includes the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge) includes maps, directions and helpful information.

2) New York State Department of Environmental Conservation -- On the official website of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, you can find an analysis by DEC scientists, complete with overhead photos, of the accelerating loss of Jamaica Bay's marshlands.

3) Friends of Gateway and the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition -- The website of Friends of Gateway and the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition, is always packed with well-written news and information concerning Jamaica Bay and the city's other parks, community gardens and waterfronts.

Sites For Beginners:

Other Recommendations:

  • Wind Power New York (WPNY) - A project of the American Wind Energy Association, was formed to promote the development of wind-powered electricity generation in New York State. For more information about the PG&E project in Madison, follow their link to The windmills of Madison County, a feature of Syracuse Online.
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension - Entomologists from Cornell University tell you everything you want to know about the Asian Longhorn Beetle, from how to identify it to how it can be destroyed.
  • Audubon Society - Founded in 1905 and named for famed ornithologist, explorer, and wildlife artist John James Audubon (1785-1851), the National Audubon Society's mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity. Learn why birds are an "ecological litmus paper".
  • www.moregardens.org - This pro-garden web site provides background on Esperanza Garden and efforts to preserve the city's other community gardens. Log on to learn about the Samson Bill, which would make all New York City community gardens permanent State parkland, and SLR 61, a complimentary bill that the City Council must endorse before the State can act.
  • Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities - Environmental concepts made easy. A great little Web site that provides comprehensive information about lead, environmental estrogens and, in case you were wondering, environmental astrobiology.
  • The Environmental Defense Fund - In conjunction with several other prominent environmental groups, presents a comprehensive explanation and analysis of global warming. Contents range from a simple explanation of how global warming works, to a discussion of its likely impact in the coming century. Be sure to check out the map of early warming signs.
  • Environmental Health Center's Asthma page - The Environmental Health Center, a division of the National Safety Council, provides voluminous, easy-to-understand background information on a comprehensive array of environmental and safety issues. If you live in New York City, this is a good place to start learning about asthma risks and prevention.
  • The Fire Island Ecology Coalition - Fans of Fire Island who can't bear the long winter separation may visit this comprehensive site, but they won't get the languorous summer feeling associated with their traditional summer visits. Instead, it offers a vigorous examination of threats to the island that demand serious attention˝from the proliferation of jet skis and deer to global warming.
  • The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance - This page belongs to a coalition of grassroots organizations concerned with providing a clean and safe environment to communities of color and low-income communities, with topics such as "What's Transportation got to do with Environmental Justice?" This site connects you with such groups and shows you what they're doing . . .and how you can help.

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