On a chilly afternoon late last month, John McLaughlin was talking about oysters, algae and nitrogen with a group of scientists in the back of a boat touring Jamaica Bay, New York City’s 25,000-acre estuary nestled between JFK Airport, Starrett City and the Rockaway peninsula.

The autumn cruise served as a cap to a two-day symposium exploring new research about the future of Jamaica Bay, sponsored by the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). McLaughlin, director of ecological services for the agency, was soliciting additional thoughts about how to nurture the body of water back to health. The rapid disappearance of the bay’s distinctive marsh islands has a lot of people very worried. A report by the Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan Advisory Committee – a 7-member panel comprised of federal government officials, academics, and environmental activists – estimated that the bay’s marshes could be completely gone by 2012. They currently stand at less than half their pre-colonial size. The bay, part of Gateway National Recreation Area, is the city’s largest park space. It supports hundreds of species of wildlife, many native to the area. The marshes also are a key rest area along the trans-continental pathway for migrating birds. Four short years from now, they could be gone.

McLaughlin talked to the scientists about oysters—specifically, how best to use $600,000 of oysters to remove pollutants from the water. (Oysters are nature’s Brita filters, processing up to 50 gallons of water a day; if your fish tank is murky, try using some live oysters.) DEP’s oyster-planting project is part of the bundle of strategies that comprise its Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan, which was required by City Council in 2005. Local Law 71 – sponsored by Queens Councilman James Gennaro, who chairs the Environmental Protection Committee – called for DEP to establish specific goals to improve the bay’s water quality and ecological integrity and to identify both interim and final milestones and methods for monitoring progress. The bill also authorized the independent Advisory Committee to oversee DEP’s compliance with its own plan.

But now that committee is questioning whether DEP is really fixing Jamaica Bay. In an October letter to Council Speaker Christine Quinn and DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd (who has since resigned, replaced for the interim by First Deputy Commissioner Steve Lawitts) members said they think DEP has failed in its legal obligation to produce an effective plan. The committee believes the Protection Plan – the final version of which was submitted to Council in Oct. 2007 – is not quite a plan, but more of a report.
The committee’s leaders applaud the efforts and commitment of McLaughlin and his team, and think some of the agency’s projects are promising. In particular, they admire the oyster project and a similar initiative to plant eelgrass in targeted areas, which also increases oxygen levels. The agency is also exploring some clever ways to reduce the amount of water that ends up in the bay—along with pollutants in that water—through what are called “stormwater best management practices.” This includes adding more trees and grass to the watershed area and attempting to use porous concrete for areas like parking lots, all of which would have stormwater draining into soil rather than sewers. Throughout Queens, DEP also has funded and distributed rain-collection barrels, which collect water from rain gutters for garden use, diminishing the amount of water passing through city streets and sewers and ending up in the bay.

The problem is not a lack of ideas or ability, but rather failing to see both the forest and the trees—or both the entire bay and its many constituent parts. According to Committee co-chair Brad Sewell, senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, DEP’s Jamaica Bay planning document lacks both big picture goals, such as making the bay swimmable, and smaller scale details, such as what quantifiable impact it hopes the oyster project to have. “It’s just a list of activities, not a plan,” Sewell said. “A plan would require some degree of accountability and funding. They don’t want that, I believe. They would rather just list what they’re already doing, because these activities are fungible and discretionary.” Alison Chase, Sewell’s colleague and a policy analyst at NRDC, explains the problem with this approach: “If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you get there?” she said.

The Committee’s frustration doesn’t end there. Its letter to Quinn and Lloyd—co-signed by Sewell and Mike Adamo, an administrator at Gateway National Recreation Area and the other co-chair of the Committee—also lambasted the agency for failing to tackle the biggest problem at play: The excess nitrogen in the water which, most parties agree, is the main reason for the erosion of the bay’s marshlands. Nitrogen acts like a supercharged fertilizer, causing algae to bloom out of control. When the algae bloom dies, it falls to the bottom and smothers plant life that produces oxygen. At the same time, high levels of nitrogen and other pollutants cause marsh roots to die, grasses to break off, and the marsh islands to fragment. Large portions of the islands become “unvegetated mud flats,” according to the Advisory Committee report, which means they no longer produce the oxygen needed to support marine life. “If you don’t have dissolved oxygen, you don’t have fish and little critters,” Alison Chase explained.

Every day, 40,000 pounds of nitrogen enter the bay, mostly from four wastewater treatment plants ringing its shores. All the sewers in the entire Brooklyn-Queens watershed area, which is home to 1.7 million people, lead to these facilities, where solid waste is removed and the water is treated and then dumped into the bay. But this treated water is extremely high in nitrogen—in part because ammonia in urine is so nitrogen-rich. And in heavy rains, all the urban detritus that washes into the sewers ultimately spills into Jamaica Bay. After rainstorms, pieces of trash speckle the water like lily pads. (For much more on NYC’s stormwater problems, see Deep Trouble, City Limits Investigates, Summer 2007.)
Sewell thinks DEP hasn’t taken aggressive enough action to fix this problem, so the advisory committee he chairs has urged the agency to upgrade the treatment plants. The agency has taken some steps to improve infrastructure – such as building a 30-million gallon rainwater overflow tank on the bay – but it has resisted more comprehensive improvements. Sewell says that DEP has justified its tardiness by pointing to outstanding negotiations with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the state’s regulatory agency, over the question of which of the two agencies has primary responsibility for the changes.

None of this is to say that DEP and its public and private partners have been inactive, nor that it is failing to meet all of the legislative requirements of Local Law 71. In particular, the bill called for the agency to pull together and coordinate government and nonprofit work to improve the Bay. At the symposium on Oct. 28 and 29, DEP’s accomplishments in coordinating the work were apparent. A presentation by a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers showed what the federal government is doing to rebuild two of the Bay’s remaining marsh islands. Its decisions are based in part on DEP-funded satellite imaging that shows what the islands looked like before their dissolution. Another presentation by Don Riepe, head of the northeast chapter of the American Littoral Society, showed how his nonprofit group is working with the Army Corps to maintain the islands after they’re rebuilt, and how he relies on DEP to remove large clusters of litter with its skimmer boat. “If you give nature a little chance, she’ll restore herself,” Riepe said. “Our job is to periodically come by and clean up the stuff that gets in the way”—a job that he made clear would not be possible without his partners at DEP.

But nonetheless, everyone who is trying to makes things better at Jamaica Bay agrees that coordination among these groups could be better. Steve Zahn, the state DEC’s Regional Natural Resources Supervisor for the city, underscored this point. “We have lots of partners and goodwill, but we tend to trip over ourselves. We tend to run into bureaucratic walls. Despite all the goodwill, we haven’t been that great on the ground. We have to get better at that,” Zahn said. From their perspective watching DEP and its partners from the outside, NRDC staffers couldn’t agree more. “People like John McLaughlin are totally committed. He clearly loves the bay. But he’s working at odds within his own agency,” said Chase.

On the boat, McLaughlin discussed his stewardship of the Bay with due gravity: “When someone you love is dying, you do the best you possibly can to make him or her comfortable. If the earth is sick or dying, shouldn’t we all be doing the same?”

– Matt Schwarzfeld