By JoAnne Castagna (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District)January 8, 2010
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New York District recently shared its plans to improve the New York - New Jersey Harbor Estuary with members of Congress and other key decision-makers. Representatives of more than 20 organizations joined the District commander aboard the USACE vessel Hayward tour of the estuary and the Hudson River.
"It's the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's historic exploration up this great river," said Col. John R. BoulAfA II, New York District commander, addressing the group from the bow of the Hayward. "Our view must be very different from his. Years of industrialization have considerably degraded this part of the Hudson."
The Corps plans to help turn back the hands of time on the estuary. The event to celebrated the unveiling of an innovative, comprehensive restoration plan created in collaboration with partners, and with a focus on restoring the estuary. This will create a healthier environment for fish and wildlife, and also provide the public cleaner waters, healthier fisheries, increased flood protection, recreational opportunities, and a boost to the region's economy.
"The primary goal of the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan is to develop a mosaic of habitats that provides maximum ecological and societal benefits to the region," said Lisa Baron, project manager and marine biologist with the New York District.
A diverse group of USACE technical experts and consultants developed the plan as part of the Hudson Raritan Estuary Ecosystem Restoration Study sponsored by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The plan was prepared in collaboration with the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program and more than 60 partnering organizations, including federal, state and local agencies, non-governmental organizations and regional stakeholders. The overall plan is unique in that these agencies are presently combining their funds and forces to reduce redundancy, become more efficient and save taxpayers a considerable amount of money. The plan will serve as a master guide and framework for restoration efforts throughout the estuary.
The plan involves many partners because the estuary spans 1,600 square miles across New York and New Jersey. An estuary is the area where the fresh waters of a river meet the salt water of the sea. The New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary includes rivers, wetlands, coastline and open waters, and is located within a complex ecological system and a metropolitan region with a population of 20 million people. The plan's boundary covers a large region of the estuary, which is a 25-mile radius around the Statue of Liberty National Monument.
"To perform restoration work in the estuary, the plan divides the estuary into eight regional areas associated with specific watersheds," said Peter Weppler, chief of the New York District's Coastal Ecosystem Section. He is a biologist with an extensive background in ecological investigations.
The plan includes 11 priority targets for restoration, recognized as Target Ecosystem Characteristics that include methods to restore and create habitats, ensure these habitats live in harmony and with the surrounding urban infrastructure, and to ensure the estuary is safe and accessible to the millions of estuary residents and visitors.
Habitats being considered for restoration and creation include coastal wetlands, shellfish reefs, islands for waterbirds, coastal and maritime forests, and eelgrass beds.
Coastal wetlands are the regional areas that connect the estuary's open waters to dry land.
"Due to industrialization, nearly 80 percent of the wetlands have been lost and most of what remains is degraded," said Baron, who has been involved in environmental restoration projects for more than 18 years. "Wetlands provide such an incredible benefit to the region, on so many levels. Their vegetation provides a critical habitat for wildlife, fish and migratory birds. We live in an urban environment where there are lots of hardened surfaces and surface water runoff."
Surface water runoff is water, from rain, snowmelt, or other sources that flows from the land surface into waterways, and can bring with it contaminants from the land. Wetlands filter and detoxify water by catching contaminated sediments in the water.
"Wetlands are also nature's sponges, and act as shoreline barriers and stabilizers. They diminish wave impact, reduce erosion and provide a buffer from flooding for our coastal areas and the communities living there," said Jodi McDonald, chief of the USACE New York District Ecosystem Restoration and Flood Risk Management Section. She is a marine biologist responsible for developing the reports that justify the Army Corps involvement in performing the restoration opportunities presented in the plan.
The plan has identified over 26,000 acres of wetlands throughout the estuary suitable for coastal wetlands creation and restoration.
One of the plan's priorities is to restore and create shellfish reefs including oysters, the keystone species for the estuary, mussels, clams, and other shellfish. Oyster reefs have been almost eliminated due to poor water quality conditions, disease and over-harvesting. In fact, the estuary supported a thriving oyster industry up until the late 1800s, covering approximately 200,000 acres.
The proposed reefs are intricate underwater structures made up of live shellfish and layers of empty shells. These reefs provide nooks and crannies and potential nursery grounds for other species because they provide hiding places, feeding grounds, and egg attachment sites for many species.
Shellfish also improve water quality. As shellfish feed, they filter sediment from the water and improve water clarity. They filter out about 50 gallons of water every day. They act like a filtration unit in your pool or aquarium at home.
Islands for Waterbirds
The plan will restore island habitats for birds whose numbers have declined considerably in the estuary due to hunting, pollution and habitat loss. The estuary supports 300 species of birds.
These birds include long-legged wading birds such as herons, ibises and egrets that provide a vital role in the health of the estuaries' environment. These birds help regulate the population of other species by consuming these other species for food.
Coastal and Maritime Forests
Coastal and maritime forests are found on the fringe of seacoast habitats, behind the dunes or a wetland, and provide critical upland habitat.
Maritime forests have trees that are often stunted by salt spray and high winds and may grow in unusual, gnarled shapes. These hardy forests are needed by many species because they provide a home, food and a nesting place for migratory birds. They also contribute to shore stabilization and flood control, as well as moderate global climate change.
Over the years, these forests have been destroyed by timber harvests and development.
Eelgrass,once plentiful in the estuary, exists now in only a few small beds. Eelgrass lives underwater. and its long shoots provide habitat and food for fish nurseries and other estuary wildlife. It improves water quality by releasing oxygen into the water, and reduces shore erosion and improves water clarity and quality by acting as a sediment trap and filters contaminants from the water.
The plan not only includes ways to create and restore habitats, but also methods to connect the habitats so that they can benefit from one another. These methods include rebuilding shorelines and creating habitats for fish, crabs and lobsters.
Over the years, the estuary's 1,000 miles of natural shorelines have been replaced with piers, docks, and bulkheads. These structures destroyed the naturally sloped shorelines that transition from shallow to deep water needed by fish and sea life to thrive.
The plan suggests replacing abandoned piers with naturally sloped shorelines and creating new piers and other shore structures designed to have less impact on the natural shoreline, and to foster habitat complexity.
Regional fish and other sea life, such as the American lobster, blue crab and striped bass, require many different habitats to breed and develop to maturity. To provide these diverse habitats, the plan suggests connecting and creating a mosaic of habitats, including oyster reefs, eelgrass beds and tidal marsh habitats, wherever possible throughout the estuary.
Habitat Support Structures
The plan also focuses on the estuary's physical landscape, balancing necessary urban infrastructure with environmental restoration. These ways include opening up tributaries that may be obstructed by man-made barriers and improving the water quality of enclosed waterways.
Tributaries are streams that flow into larger streams or bodies of water. Networks of tributaries connect rivers and streams to the estuary.
Each year, migratory fish must navigate these connections, swimming many miles upstream to spawn. Man-made barriers such as dams can prevent fish from reaching egg-laying sites, threatening the future of these fish populations. The plan recommends removing unnecessary barriers and reconstructing others to include such things as fish ladders that connect upstream habitats with the rest of the estuary. In addition, dams that currently don't allow fish passage could be reconstructed to do so.
In some areas of the estuary bodies of water are isolated or enclosed, such as dead-end canals. Often these areas collect pollution discharge and storm water runoff, resulting in water that is polluted, stagnant, contains sparse vegetation, has low species diversity and emits noxious odors.
Health and Societal Values
The plan also includes ways that millions of people can safely enjoy access to the estuary. For centuries, the estuary was a dumping ground for chemical and industrial wastes. These contaminated sediments are harmful to the estuaries wildlife, pose a public health risk and reduce the port's commercial viability.
The goal of the plan is to reduce contaminated sediments throughout the estuary by isolating or removing contamination. Cleanup will reduce human health and ecological risks, improve fishery resources, remove fish consumption advisories and provide the public economic benefits. Increasing and improving public access throughout the estuary is also a goal of the plan.
"Although not a prime Corps mission, the improvement of public access is of the utmost importance to the region," said Baron. "Our hope is to enable everyone in the region to be able to reach the estuary in a 20-minute walk or by public transportation."
The public will be able to once again enjoy boating, swimming, fishing, walking and biking along a scenic waterfront. The plan is the first regional planning document of its kind, for a number of reasons.
"It attempted to include everything that is going on in the harbor. It's like one stop shopping," said Baron. "If you want to know what the priorities and goals are for restoration in the estuary, what the agencies are doing, what needs to be coordinated, and what the issues are in order to perform restoration in the region - This is the one document that you can find it."
The plan is a living document. The plan's partners have identified 296 habitat restoration opportunities and 436 public access opportunities. These numbers will increase as more opportunities are identified by the team and nominated by the stakeholders.
The partners are also holding extensive public outreach events and are using feedback from these meetings to revise the plan as needed.
Among the plan's short and long-term goals are creating 1,200 acres of coastal wetlands by the year 2015 and 15,200 by 2050; enhancing four or more islands for water- birds by 2015 and all islands by 2050; creating or restoring 250 acres of coastal and maritime forest by 2015 and 1,000 by 2050; and creating 500 acres of oyster-reef habitats by 2015 and 5,000 by 2050.
The New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan was launched to become the blueprint for the region to move estuary restoration forward in the future.
"The team is already achieving the plan's restoration goals," said Weppler. "Salt marshes are being created within some of the estuary's regional areas. This is tangible evidence towards fulfilling our vision of a restored estuary."