Stormwater Controls Recommended for New York City's Jamaica Bay

NEW YORK, New York, July 20, 2006 (ENS) - Best management practices to minimize and control soil erosion and stormwater runoff are at the core of a set of preliminary recommendations for improving the water quality and ecology of Jamaica Bay newly issued by the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan Advisory Committee.

Adjacent to New York City, the bay is one of the largest and most productive coastal ecosystems in the northeastern United States, and includes the largest tidal wetland complex in the New York metropolitan area.

Connecting to the Atlantic Ocean via the Rockaway Inlet, the bay is an important component of the larger Hudson-Raritan Estuary, which contains the New York-New Jersey Harbor complex, one of the world's busiest waterway systems.

Jamaica Bay's wetlands serve as flood protection and shoreline erosion control for the homes and businesses of the encircling neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, home to more than 500,000 New Yorkers.

The Jamaica Bay watershed, which feeds the freshwater portion of the estuary, extends deep into Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau County.

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Lifeguard station Jamaica Bay in the Gateway National Recreation Area, part of the National Parks of New York Harbor (Photo courtesy NPS)
But Jamaica Bay is jeopardy. Thousands of acres of the bay's marshlands are mysteriously disappearing. Scientists predict that, at the current rate, the marsh islands will completely vanish in less than 20 years. Poor, and in some places deteriorating, water quality remains a continuing problem for the bay, and may even be spurring the marsh loss.

To stem these losses, the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan Advisory Committee recommends best management practices to minimize and control soil erosion, and reduce both point and nonpoint source pollution.

After more than a year of study, the committee recommends that the New York government agencies take measures to address threats to aquatic habitat, such as restoration of natural features and water flows.

Co-chaired by Doug Adamo of the National Park Service and Brad Sewell of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the committee also recommends land acquisition, planning and development practices that encourage more sustainable land uses, and enhanced enforcement against polluters.

Finally, the committee recommends a protocol for agency coordination and a public education program.

These preliminary recommendations were submitted on June 29 to the Speaker of the New York City Council and the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) under Local Law 71, which mandates development of a watershed protection plan for the "watershed/sewershed" of Jamaica Bay.

The committee, created by Local Law 71, must provide its final recommendations for a a watershed protection plan by June 1, 2007.

The committee is charged with assessing the legal, technical, environmental and economic feasibility of possible measures. The committee must also develop a schedule, with interim and final milestones, to implement the watershed protection plan and achieve the specific goals, and establish methods for monitoring progress.

In preparation for writing its recommendations, the committee convened expert panels on the topics of stormwater and green building, best management practices, wetland loss, and water quality in order to gain greater knowledge of the issues facing Jamaica Bay.

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Peat exposed by beach erosion at low tide in Jamaica Bay. (Photo courtesy USGS)
The committee and DEP held public meetings at the start of the process in Brooklyn and Queens in January and February 2006.

Historically, the bay has served such competing functions as providing food and recreation for local residents, and as a place for sewage effluent and solid waste disposal. High bacterial levels from waste disposal ultimately forced the closure of the once-vibrant shellfishing industry in 1921.

Sections of the bay's bottom were dredged in the early part of the 20th century as the city considered turning Jamaica Bay into a major commercial and industrial port. Although the port was never built, the dredged channels and pits continue to impact the bay's water quality and ecology. Many marshes surrounding Jamaica Bay have been filled and tributaries drastically altered to accommodate residential, commercial and transportation needs. Construction of John F. Kennedy International Airport alone decreased the surface area of marshland by 18 square kilometers.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has included Jamaica Bay on its Section 303(d) impaired water list since 1998 because of violations of water quality standards relating to pathogens, nitrogen, and oxygen demand.

DEC's list cites combined sewage overflows (CSOs) and wastewater as the primary causes of the impairment. Specifically, CSOs have been documented as causing localized exceedances of bacterial standards in Jamaica Bay tributaries during and after storm events.

CSOs are also believed to be significant sources of both organic pollutants and metals such as dioxins, various pesticides, PCBs, lead and mercury into the bay.

Together with CSOs and stormwater, past releases from industrial facilities and three closed landfills Edgemere Landfill off Rockaway Peninsula and the Fountain and Pennsylvania Avenue Landfills in Brooklyn have significantly contributed to contaminant loading in the sediments of Jamaica Bay, the committee states in its report.

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Big Egg marsh in Jamaica Bay (Photo courtesy NY DEP)
Reduction and eventual elimination of CSOs will require a "multi-pronged approach," the committee recommends. Increasing the system's wet weather holding capacities and system maintenance, and cleaning out sewer lines to remove accumulated sediment are both recommended as immediately necessary.

It remains important that DEP continue to site, design, and construct adequate CSO storage capacity, particularly for areas in the watershed/sewershed in which this is the only or principal CSO abatement option available, says the committee.

But it is becoming "increasingly clear that simply building huge storage tanks to capture for eventual treatment all of the ever-expanding wastewater and the stormwater will need to be augmented with other strategies on a citywide basis," the report states.

By DEP's own calculations, the currently planned suite of CSO storage tanks will barely keep pace with the city's currently projected development patterns. In other words, the committee says, "DEP's planned projects will not improve overall water quality, but will simply prevent it from getting worse."

DEP has suggested that a long-term solution to the CSO problem include a weakening of water quality standards for certain waterbodies. The committee strongly discourages this "move the goalposts" approach.

The goal of "fishable and swimmable" water for Jamaica Bay and its tributaries should not be changed. The bay deserves and requires this standard of performance, as do the communities that rely on and enjoy these waterbodies.

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A salt marsh creek in the Jamaica Bay wetland area (Photo courtesy NPS)
To achieve this goal, it is "vital" to move solutions to the CSO problem up into the watershed/sewershed and closer to the problem's source, the committee recommends.

Stormwater best management practices can diminish water flow to the plants through increased conservation methods and incentives and delay and/or reduce stormwater flow into the sewer system through increased plantings that encourage infiltration and minimize runoff from pavement and other impervious surfaces directly to sewers, reducing the deluge of water that overwhelms the sewage system's holding capacity.

On a high priority basis, the committee recommends an upgrade of the 26th Ward and Jamaica wastewater treatment plants to tertiary treatment to reduce nitrogen inputs into the bay and help screen out endocrine disrupting chemicals. Both wastewater plants have nearby vacant property which could accommodate these new facilities, the committee points out.

Also high priority is an end to centrate processing at Jamaica Bay's sewage treatment plants or further treatment of centrate for nitrogen removal. Centrate is the water leaving a centrifugal treatment facility after most of the solids have been removed.

Ultraviolet (UV) and ozone treatments are recommended as alternatives to toxic chlorine for treatment plant disinfection.

The committee recommends that state revise the JFK airport State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit that was first issued in 1987 as it no longer meets Environmental Protection Agency and state regulatory requirements.

A draft permit was recently released for public comment. The final permit should incorporate requirements for monitoring and stormwater pollution prevention planning, and include effluent limits that ensure that the permit fully protects Jamaica Bay's water quality from harmful contaminants in the airport's runoff, particularly from de-icing chemicals, the committee recommends.

The state should develop and implement strategies to trap initial stormwater runoff, known as the "first flush," in communities that are separately sewered. Initial runoff is usually more polluted than runoff originating later on in a storm event and such strategies can prevent high pollutant loads from reaching the bay, the committee said. A first flush collection system can capture the most polluted stormwater during a rain event for treatment and allow for less polluted stormwater discharges.

And finally, the committee recommends the use of natural resource damage assessment procedures to impose fines for illegal discharges to the bay that could have been avoided by proper maintenance, and create a dedicated fund for restoration programs arising from these claims.

To view the full report, visit: http://nbii-nin.ciesin.columbia.edu/jamaicabay/news.html