Gotham Gazette

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Wetland Restoration in Jamaica Bay: Will Katrina Threaten Its Funding?

Should New Yorkers sacrifice the city’s last remaining wetlands to help the citizens of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast regain theirs?

The bargain isn’t that direct, of course, but as the White House and Congress budgetmakers count up the dollars needed to meet President George W. Bush’s September 15 commitment to rebuild Mississippi River levees, extend Gulf Coast breakwaters, and restore the once massive network of flood-absorbing bayoux around the New Orleans metropolis, those with a stake in local, federally-subsidized marsh restoration are already bracing for impact.

“The [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers has a big plan to do about 70 to 90 acres of restoration next spring,” says Don Riepe, Jamaica Bay guardian for the American Littoral Society. “This project only costs $16 million, but with the Bush Administration promising $200 billion for the Gulf Coast, I’m wondering if we’re going to lose a lot of these projects as Congress or whoever authorizes the money for this takes it away.”

The $16 million project is already underway and already budgeted according to an August 3rd summary put out by the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers. It involves the relocation of sand and sediment gathered in the dredging of local shipping channels and the spraying of that sand onto targeted islands such as Elders Point and Yellow Bar Hassock.

Based on a successful 2003 pilot study that increased both the acreage and amount of erosion-resistant vegetation of Big Egg marsh, the project is slated to commence this month with the dredging of Ambrose Channel at the entrance of Lower New York Bay and of Rockaway Channel at the entrance of Jamaica Bay. The gathered materials, estimated to be upwards of 200,000 cubic yards, will be stockpiled at the end of Floyd Bennett Field and relocated to local marshes in the spring of 2006.

While Riepe has few doubts that the project will go off as planned, it’s the fate of future projects that causes him concern. The restoration plan for Elders Point and Yellow Bar owes much to a mid-1990s policy shift on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers. After the upper Mississippi River flooded its banks in 1993, the federally-funded civil engineering agency began looking for alternative remedies to levee-raising, a tactic which had merely increased the volume of water penned in during flood conditions. Encouraged by environmental groups eager to regain wetlands lost when the Corps effectively channelized the river in the 1930s, the agency began buying up lowland portions of the river valley in an attempt to regain the river’s natural floodplain and thus create an escape valve for flood waters.

That eco-friendly strategy is sure to be modified in the coming years. Earlier in September, according to the Associated Press, the Justice Department sent an email to regional U.S. attorneys’ offices, seeking information on the role environmental lawsuits played in the delaying of federal funded levee-strengthening projects in and around New Orleans. The inquiry came on the heels of an Internet posting by the conservative think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, noting that in 1996 the Louisiana chapter of the Sierra Club sued to block an Army Corps of Engineers project to raise and fortify levees along the lower Mississippi.

Congressional Democrats, including New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, denounced the Department of Justice inquiry as a Bush Administration attempt to deflect blame at a time when polls showed a majority of Americans disapproving both the president and the entire federal government’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina. Subsequent news stories, meanwhile, have shown that the levees in question were eventually fortified and were not the levees that failed in the wake of Katrina.

Still, with the death toll from Hurricane Katrina still rising, restored habitats and healthy marshland will no doubt take a back seat to the simple protection of life and limb in the coming allocation of Congressional funds. What’s more, as fiscal conservatives float the argument that the $200 billion needed to fix the Gulf Coast should come from pet local projects, even a $16 million effort to fight marshland erosion in the heart of New York City has a target on its back.

Maybe that’s why Jamaica Bay’s primary Congressional benefactor, Democratic U.S. Representative (and former mayoral candidate) Anthony Weiner, when discussing next spring’s sand-spraying and other related projects, framed it as a way to strengthen the city’s own flooding defenses.

"We need to increase coastal protection programs in New York,” Weiner said, and such programs mean “marsh restoration, beach renourishment and the contruction of jetties and groins to protect waterfront communities like Manhattan Beach, Sheeps Head Bay, Rockaway, and Broad Channel."

Such arguments might not win over the newly ascendent deficit hawks in Congress, but they are playing well at City Hall. That’s where Jim Gennaro, Democratic council member for the 24th District in Central Queens and chairman of the council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, has secured the recent passage of two laws designed to push the city to the lead role in both protecting and reversing the loss of Jamaica Bay wetlands. Passed this spring, the first law calls for the development of a watershed protection plan encompassing Jamaica Bay and its surrounding environs. The second law calls for the creation of a task force to examine city-owned properties adjacent to Jamaica Bay and earmark which of those properties can be returned to wetlands status and put under the aegis of the parks department.

“I feel that each level of government has to be responsible and do what’s appropriate,” says Gennaro. “I think we’re still going to have [federal funding]. My focus is more on taking steps to try to stem the loss of the 40 or 50 acres of wetlands we lose every year from the forces that are at work now.”

Gennaro is particularly interested in finding a bigger role for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection in the restoration of Jamaica Bay. Currently, the department’s primary interaction with the bay comes via the 26th Ward Water Pollution Control Plant, a facility near the end of Flatlands Avenue that has been blamed for boosting the nitrogen content in the bay and possibly contributing to the die-off in local marsh grasses. Currently, the state Department of Environment Conservation, a superseding agency when it comes to waterway discharge, is looking to impose a cap on the maximum amount of nitrogen effluent released. Gennaro says he would rather avoid the inevitable litigation such a process would generate and simply give the Department of Environmental Protection a greater stake in keeping the bay’s waters healthy enough to support marsh ecosystems.

“We’re looking for creative ways to have DEP expand its role and they have been very receptive to that,” says Gennaro.“We want to take it beyond stormwater and sewage treatment and take it to the point that some of the properties that are managed by DEP, such as the old Pennsylvania Avenue landfill, would become prime spots for wetlands restoration.”

Such a strategy would literally work around the edges of the current problem. It would allow a percentage of the dry land along channelized inlets such as Hendrix Creek near Canarsie to revert back to their original wetlands state. It wouldn’t, however, be able to replace the fast-disappearing islands soon to be targetted by the Army Corps of Engineers and its sand-spraying project. That’s why environmental stakeholders such as Don Riepe of the American Littoral Society are keeping an eye on both the weather in the Gulf of Mexico and the political climate in Washington, D.C.

“If we don’t start doing these [sand-spraying] projects, we’ll never get a basis for restoration. We’ll lose the whole system,” he says. “I know in the past [the Army Corps of Engineers] have had a lot of projects on the books for Jamaica Bay, and they haven’t done them because Congress hasn’t authorized the money. I’m hoping it doesn’t happen again.”


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