Corps Mission: NY/NJ Harbor Estuary Health

Posted on by Dodge

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director

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Partners in restoring and protecting the environmental health and integrity of our waterways come in all shapes and sizes, but none perhaps as mighty (or as surprising to some) as the Army Corps of Engineers.  The New York Division, which covers northeastern New Jersey, eastern and south-central New York State, and parts of Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, engages not only in flood damage reduction, shoreline protection, and environmental remediation, but also in a comprehensive effort to restore the New York New Jersey Harbor Estuary.

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Admittedly, there are critics and skeptics who think the Corps’ historic and present efforts do not place the environmental component of its work on par with activities related to navigation and port development. I wonder, however, if a trip to Jamaica Bay, like the one I recently joined, might change minds and hearts about the Corps commitment, ability, pride and investment in its environmental mission.

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On a chilly October 22 morning, a group of nonprofit and civic leaders, scientists and other civilians boarded the Corps’ vessel, the MV Hayward. This inspection tour and learning journey included leading environmental advocates (also Dodge grantees) from Clean Ocean Action , Edison Wetlands Association and NY NJ Baykeeper. These may seem like unlikely Corps partners, but these environmental groups and others are teaming in innovative ways to bring restorative practices to Jamaica Bay. We talked about the strategic vision for the Harbor as we were treated to a view of wetlands restoration projects; specifically, the marsh island restoration at Elders Point.

Much has been written about the importance of Jamaica Bay’s role as a natural sanctuary, buffer and ecological life support of the regional water system. As much or more has been written about the alarming loss rate of wetlands and salt marshes from this 26 square mile area. Wetland coverage has gone from 16,000 acres some one hundred years ago to approximately 800 acres today, with a loss rate of about 33 acres per year.

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As we approached “Elders Point East,” Col. John R. Boulé II, Commander of the NY Division, described efforts regarding the 42 acres of restored wetlands. On this project, the Corps experimented with various methods of salt marsh revegetation, which has taken off and successfully repopulated the island. A point of interest here; there is a direct connection between the Corps’ navigation channel dredging and the wetlands restoration efforts. Dredging, we learned, produces up to nine different types of materials. For this project, nearly 300,000 cubic feet of mud and sand were pumped in to build the elevation level of the land. There is just a slight trick to this task. If the wetlands elevation is too high, the wetlands will not grow and function properly; if the elevation is too low, the wetlands will flood and fail. All signs at Elders East demonstrate the Corps got it right. Now they have turned their attention to Elders Point West.

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The Hayward was positioned between the two islands so we could see the fledgling restoration that will soon give rise to marsh vegetation that will cover an additional 34 acres. Next in line is a 50-acre wetlands restoration project at nearby Yellow Bar Hassock. These are critical steps forward in the Bay.

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Let’s return, however, to the power of partnerships. In the instance of the marsh islands, none may have been more important than the one with the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers . This small but mighty all volunteer group founded by Dan Munday, a retired NY fireman and recreational outdoor champion for the Bay, underscores the value of public watchdogs. All of the wetlands restoration efforts outlined above can be traced back to the Ecowatchers vigilance, documentation and research about the loss of wetlands at Elders Point. Their direct observation at a landscape scale refuted gross data that the Corps and others had been following. Dan raised awareness through public forums , conferences and workshops – and recommendations from those proceedings are being implemented today. It turns out that David can sway Goliath and help Goliath advance a critical environmental agenda.

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At present, the Corps has joined forces with the Port Authority, various NY State entities and others to produce a comprehensive restoration plan for the Harbor Estuary. You can follow the efforts at The Waters We Share website. To give you a sense of the ecosystem commitments in the plan consider the following guiding principles:

  • The five habitat restoration targets include coastal wetlands, islands for waterbirds (Harbor Herons) , coastal and maritime forests, eelgrass, and oyster reefs. A note here about the oyster restoration projects – despite recent setbacks on the NJ side of the waters, NY NJ Baykeeper, the Corps and the State of New York remain leaders in creating critical oyster reef structures in NY waters. These structures will act as natural filters of pollutants and sediment as they provide critical marine habitat. This project also uses dredge material. Here one 15 x 30 foot oyster bed rests on a formation that is the result of 22 tons of dredged rocks and 9 tons of empty shells upon which oysters will reproduce. New York has set an ambitious 500-acre oyster restoration goal.
  • Linkages between habitats include efforts to transition from shorelines and shallows, and to support the diverse habitat that crabs, lobsters and certain fish species require to transition from to spawning to raising young to full adult activities.
  • Infrastructure supports include tributary connections to help fish swim upstream, as well as improvements to enclosed waterways.
  • Public values include controls for contaminated sediment (isolation or removal) and public access so we can reconnect with and enjoy our waters (boat launches, pedestrian and bike ways, scenic vistas, etc.).

Other efforts of significance to NJ and several key nonprofits include: the watershed based remediation and restoration study for the Lower Passaic River; Hackensack Meadows restoration program; Liberty State Park restoration efforts; flood control on the Passaic River (in conjunction with the Passaic River Coalition); the Newark Bay Superfund Site; activities with the Hackensack Riverkeeper; and Delaware Bay coastal habitat restoration efforts with American Littoral Society. Many of these activities also benefit from dredge materials. Items like stone can create artificial reefs, mud is used for brownfield remediation, and sand is used in numerous projects.

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Being out in the Harbor punctuates the diverse activities and interests it serves. Side by side, we saw recreational sailors, cargo ships, dredging operations and site seeing operations in action. According to the Corps, the Harbor serves 35% of the American population, supports $150 billion in ocean-borne cargo, and provides 230,000 direct and indirect jobs, which translates into $14 billion in wages. Without the Army Corps’ (NY Division) early channel deepening, we would not have the rich port commerce structure we now enjoy. And from what I witnessed and heard, the Corps is committed to rectifying environmental harms of the past and crafting a future that fully integrates and values environmental protection as part of a healthy Harbor and economy.

Do you have a wetlands story – loss or restoration – to tell?

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All photos: Michelle Knapik

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