An urban marsh’s unfinished saga
New York’s Jamaica Bay serves as a microcosm for the world’s wetland woes.
If we view cities as densely populated areas surrounded by increasingly less populated and wilder land, then New York’s Jamaica Bay wetlands present this phenomenon in reverse. The 39-square-mile saltwater marsh at the far eastern edge of Queens and Brooklyn is a piece of nature engulfed by the country’s largest metropolitan area. Since the mid-1990s, the marsh, which hosts a multitude of fish and bird species, has been disappearing at an accelerating rate.Skip to next paragraph
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“Something has dramatically changed,” says Dan T. Mundy, a battalion leader for the New York City Fire Department and a lifelong resident of Broad Channel, Queens, an island community in the bay. “The marsh has lost its ability to hold itself together.”
Scientists have a list of possible culprits. None – excess nutrients and the hardening of the bay’s shoreline, for example – is mutually exclusive. Indeed, the combination of several factors – what one scientist calls “a destructive synergy” – is likely behind the marsh’s degradation.
“We don’t think there’s necessarily a [single] smoking gun,” says Kim Tripp, director of the National Park Service’s Jamaica Bay Institute. “There’s basically been a snowball rolling downhill, and now it’s an avalanche.”
As such, the bay is something of a case study for the predicament of coastal wetlands in the United States and the world in general. Often, there’s not enough space for both wetlands and the sizable coastal population (53 percent, in the US) to coexist. Wetlands are drained, filled, and hemmed in by sea walls and bulkheads. Sediment deposition, necessary to counterbalance natural erosion, halts. With sea levels rising due to human-induced global warming, the wetlands, which could migrate inland in a pristine environment, drown.
City, state, and federal agencies are hashing out, and in some cases already implementing, various wetland-restoration strategies in Jamaica Bay. Proposed solutions include lowering nutrient influx and mimicking natural sedimentation by carting in sand. But the abiding question is, will these efforts address the underlying causes of marsh degradation?
As of 2003, only 37 percent of the marshland that existed here in 1951 remained. A 2001 report by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) concluded that, at the then current rates of loss, the marshes would disappear by 2024. A 2007 update by the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan Advisory Committee found that the loss had accelerated again, and revised the “no marsh” date to 2012.