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Jamaica Bay Wetlands

7/16/2007

NEW YORK — The scene from Dan Mundy's living room window is
worlds away from the normal urban views of New York City.

The sky is a brilliant blue, and the waters lapping at the stone
wall just a few feet away are clear and calm. A duck paddles off,
and even a jellyfish looks more peaceful than dangerous as it
undulates near Mundy's dock.

Welcome to Jamaica Bay, a wildlife haven just next door to John
F. Kennedy International Airport, reachable by subway from
Manhattan's skyscrapers some 15 miles away.

The tranquility hides a truth well-known to Mundy and others who
have spent their lives here - the salt marsh islands dotting
Jamaica Bay are disappearing.

The loss of the islands could have huge ramifications for the
environment because a quarter of the country's bird population
makes its way through Jamaica Bay.

Marsh loss has always been part of life in the bay, but it has
been accelerating in the past decade or so, said Mundy, a retired
firefighter who advocates for the marshes.

Records show Jamaica Bay averaged a loss of 26 acres a year from
the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s, but the pace picked up to more
than 40 acres a year by 1999, the last time a comprehensive look
was taken, said Brad Sewell of the Natural Resources Defense
Council, who serves as co-chairman of an advisory committee for the
bay.

Anecdotal evidence indicates the situation has probably gotten
worse in the last couple of years.

There are around 1,000 acres of salt marsh islands in the bay.
If the disappearance continues at its current rate or accelerates,
the islands could be gone in less than 20 years, Sewell said.

No one knows for sure why the marshes are disappearing. Several
possibilities are being considered, including the rise in sea level
and the lack of sediment to renew the marshes flowing into the bay.

"Research has looked at a handful of contributing factors, none
of them have emerged as a clear cause," said Steve Zahn, a program
manager for a marine resources unit for the state Department of
Environmental Conservation.

Some are convinced that excessive nitrogen from the city's four
wastewater treatment plants is a factor. The nitrogen - a byproduct
from the water treatment process - feeds algae blooms, which die
off and are decomposed by bacteria that use a lot of oxygen,
leaving less in the system.

The city acknowledges that more nitrogen than the system can
handle is being discharged into the bay, but also says there is no
definitive scientific evidence that the nitrogen is the main cause
of the marsh loss.

The scientific model for water quality doesn't show that making
the significant financial investment into reducing the amount of
nitrogen coming out of the wastewater treatment plants will
significantly raise the dissolved oxygen level, said Angela Licata,
deputy commissioner of environmental planning and analysis at the
city Department of Environmental Protection.

The water quality model did show an improvement in Long Island
Sound, so the city invested in reducing nitrogen output there, she
said.

Restoration is one possible way to fix the problem, but
restoration projects are expensive.

A couple of marsh islands have been replanted, but the cost
needs to come down before more projects are done, said Douglas
Adamo, chief of the division of natural resources for Gateway
National Recreation Area, of which Jamaica Bay is a part.

Otherwise, "the cost will be so prohibitive that we're not
going to get many acres for the dollar," he said.

But the price of a bay without the marsh islands is higher than
anyone would want to pay, said Mundy and others.

Mundy pointed out that the islands act as a buffer for waves
coming across the bay. Without them, the waves would roll in
several feet higher than they already do. "It's like a disaster
waiting to happen here," he said.

And the role the marshes play in the ecosystem can't be
overstated, with so many fish and fowl in the bay, Sewell said.

Plus, he said, it's a resource for urban dwellers. "It's the
only unit of the National Park Service that's accessible by
subway," he said.