History of the Ecowatchers
The Ecowatchers were formerly organized in 1998 in response to startling observations that were made by the founding members beginning in 1996, regarding the water quality and Salt water Marsh disappearance within the Bay. The group’s members, who spend many hours out enjoying the bay in various pursuits such as fishing, boating, kayaking, windsurfing, scuba diving, and bird watching, were concerned as it appeared something was traumatically affecting the health of the bay at that time. Unusual algae blooms with their resultant poor water clarity, reduced dissolved oxygen and fish “die offs” became the norm throughout the summer and early fall months. Simultaneously it was noted that large sections of the saltwater marsh islands were disappearing. Many of these islands were becoming fragmented and could be seen, at low tide, strewn about the mud flats where they ultimately disintegrated. The inner portions of the salt marsh islands in many cases seemed to subside and collapse from within becoming pools of silted mud. Various agencies including the National Parks Service, which is in charge of Jamaica Bay, initially were unaware of and even challenged these observations when group members would present them at forums such as the Jamaica Bay Task Force meetings. The Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers were formally created to ensure that these issues were acknowledged and necessary resources were brought to bear to address them.
Photographs were taken, secchi gauge readings recorded, dissolved oxygen content documented, and maps of Marsh loss areas were compiled. The Ecowatchers efforts continued and in 1999 Dan Mundy Sr. made a presentation at the Jamaica Bay Restoration Project meeting hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers. His presentation regarding the Salt water marsh loss problem was questioned by Corps officials who ultimately sent a representative down for a tour of the affected areas. The representative acknowledged that something was indeed affecting the health of the marsh islands. In June of 2000 a similar presentation was made at the Jamaica Bay Task Force meeting with National Parks Service representatives, including the head marine biologist of the park, still stating that this was anecdotal information being offered and that the health of the bay’s marshlands was fine. This only renewed the Ecowatchers efforts to find and collect more detailed data to make the case.
The group received a big break towards that end when Dan Mundy JR. made contact with Jim Fallon and Fred Muschake from the NYS DEC and discovered that the two were using the latest in GIS software to inventory all of the marshlands from the Tappan Zee Bridge out to the tip of Montauk. When the two parties met, at the DEC’s staff offices in Setauket, Fred and Jim were startled to see how accurate the Ecowatchers maps indicating marsh loss mirrored their high tech GIS findings. The Ecowatchers arranged for the two DEC reps to present their findings at the Jamaica Bay Task Force meeting held in November of 2000.
The environmental groups in attendance that night were shocked at the findings and immediately passed a resolution to request that a blue ribbon panel be formed to investigate this dire emergency. National Parks officials reversed their position and acknowledged that this was a serious situation with then deputy superintendent of the park, William Garrett, indicating that this would be the parks number one priority.
While the NPS was preparing to hold the Blue Ribbon Conference the Ecowatchers were gathering information about the marsh losses in the Bay.
On April 25, 2001 the Ecowatchers hosted an all day Round Table Conference attended to by a panel of 20 people, scientists, engineers, fish & wildlife biologist, aquatic biologist, marine biologist, ecological consultants, and residents with local historic knowledge assembled to discuss the loss of salt water marshes in Jamaica bay. They represented the NYS DEC, NYC DEP. ACOE, private consultants and local communities.
The discussion period covered a wide range of opinions and hypotheses on a list of possible losses presented by Dan Mundy. They included the following:
1) A discussion of the DEP outflows including forms of nitrogen, nitrogen
2) Eutrophication, and the impact of nitrogen enrichment on the ecosystem.
3) Sediment deprivation and a wetlands management program to create wetlands and a
discussion on possible procedures to re-sediment a marsh.
4) Effects of Geese “eat-outs” on the marsh
5) Possible sulfide accumulations or other chemical changes on marsh due to pooling
of water -caused by improper drainage.
6) Affect that mussels and fiddler crabs could have on the health of the marsh.
After lunch the attendees and members of the Ecowatchers boarded boats for a tour of the bay concentrating on the wetland areas for a guided close-up inspection of the effected marshes. Discussions continued after the tour and all agreed that there was a serious loss of marsh and that it was worse than they had anticipated. What was causing it and what to do about the accelerated losses were two critical issues that the group agreed must be immediately addressed. There was a general agreement that a pilot program should be instituted to provide sediment in the form of clean fine grained sand to be deposited on selected degraded areas of the marsh.
On May 1, 2, 3 of 2001 the NPS convened the BLUE Ribbon Panel which met at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. They heard testimony from Dan Mundy Sr. (JBEW), and representatives from other agencies and scientists. They concluded that Jamaica Bay’s salt marshes were disappearing at an alarming rate and those near-term investigations as to the cause of the loss and pilot projects for restoration must begin immediately.
After the Blue Ribbon panel issued its findings the Ecowatchers on July26, 2001 held a second panel and discussion of marsh loss in Jamaica bay. They discussed the findings of the Blue Ribbon Panel and the subsequent recommendations made by the NPS. Dan presented the Ecowatchers proposals on the same points and these were discussed and commented on by the participants. Bob Will from ACOE discussed funding possibilities and the need for close coordination and cooperation between the agencies. Billy Garrett of the NPS thanked the Ecowatchers for their input and efforts in regard to the marsh loss problem. He also stated that a comprehensive strategy was essential and that a project of this type can any be accomplished with cooperation and coordination of all effected agencies. $150,000 from DEC Jamaica Bay Damage Account would be released to AREAC/Brooklyn College. The NPS would allocate $50,000 of which $40,000 would be used to Jump start future projects and $10,000 to bring back the Blue Ribbon Panel to assist in developing long-term strategy.
Mr. Garrett also commented on various regulatory and legislative issues that will have to be addressed as well as a strategic “framework” for identifying future marsh restoration sites, protecting and enhancing existing marsh and allowing natural systems to work as much as possible.
Dave Fallon of NYSDEC gave an update of the condition of the marshes as well as a videotape of a recent helicopter flyover.
The afternoon session was comprised of a number of in-depth discussions by the various participants concerning possible causes, projects and strategies.
At the close Mr. Garrett asked the attendees for written comments.
Mr. Mundy explained the Ecowatchers proposals in detail and also asked for written feedback from the participants.
With the problem finally recognized for the threat that it posed the strategy agreed upon was twofold. First immediate action had to be taken to stem the loss, up to fifty acres per year, of the Marsh islands thru restoration efforts. Second studies needed to be conducted to attempt to identify the cause of the problem.
In 2002 the Ecowatchers made contact with Florida power and Light who agreed to donate One hundred thousand dollars to them for marsh restoration projects. The Ecowatchers who did not have a 501c3 Tax Non-Profit designation recommended that the monies go to the NPS to be used as “seed monies” towards the proposed restoration projects. This enabled the “Jet Spray” project to move forward and then other funding became available and this money was then agreed upon to be used as follows;
Twenty Thousand dollars to fund the “Center Piece” exhibit at the Jamaica bay Wildlife Refuge Visitor center in Broad Channel and the remaining eighty thousand dollars towards Oyster restoration studies through Stony Brooke University.
The Ecowatchers research of efforts around the country led to the selection of a construction team from Louisiana that used a shallow dredge “Jet spray” barge to take sediment immediately adjacent to the restoration site and, using powerful jet nozzles, spray this sediment back up on the site of the former marsh area which would provide for a increased elevation and a base in which to plant the marsh plants. The National Parks Service was the lead agency and the Ecowatchers assisted with site identification, construction concept, plant and material transport thru various vessels and volunteers, and plantings of the actually marsh plugs. This Big Egg Marsh Restoration Project took place during the summer of 2003. The project has shown to be a huge success with growth and success rates exceeding those of the scientist’s expectations. The Ecowatchers contacted the local elected officials and enlisted their help in acquiring funds to help make future restoration projects possible. Congressman Wiener, whose district includes the Bay, was key to obtaining such funds and this allowed the Army Corps of Engineers to create the next two restoration projects in the North of the Bay –Elders East Marsh Island and Elders West Marsh Island. These two projects used clean sand fill from the Corps harbor deepening project to recreate two marsh islands that had disappeared. They have, like the Big Egg project, exceeded the expectations of the projects designers and biologists.
In 2004 the Ecowatchers were receiving many reports from members of their organization of large increases in the number of sludge vessels that were entering Jamaica Bay in order to drop off waste treatment sludge for dewatering process. Prior to this increase the sludge vessels entering the bay averaged one or two over a two week period this jumped to as many as fourteen vessels over the two week period. These vessels carried hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sludge and when it was processed its byproduct was very high nitrogen filled waste water that ultimately increased the nitrogen loading of the bay. This was contributing to the algae bloom issues and low dissolved oxygen issues the bay was confronting as well as the marsh loss problem. After a number of phone calls to the NYC DEP it was discovered that the SPEDEs permit (that regulated the amount of nitrogen that could be put into the bay) was currently under re negotiation between the state DEC (the regulatory agency ) and the NYC DEP who ran the plants, and was responsible for the nitrogen loading of the bay. The Ecowatchers convinced the DEC that as stakeholders their input should be taken into consideration regarding the future nitrogen loading permit levels that would be issued. This began a four year process of meeting with the state as well as reviewing the proposals that the city issued for their plan to reduce nitrogen loading from their four treatment plants that emptied into Jamaica Bay. It was apparent from the very beginning that the large cost involved in upgrading the plants was driving the city to seek alternative options. Some of these were very frustrating such as filling in those areas of the bay that were experiencing low dissolved oxygen levels. The Ecowatchers held meetings and publicly rejected these ineffective proposals and pushed the state to hold the city to more stringent standards citing all the problems the high nitrogen loading was contributing to the Bay. In Spring of 2009 the negotiations between the city and the state appeared to stall and hope for any real upgrades appeared to fade and than in the summer of 2009 the Natural Resource Defense Council, who had become involved in the talks, and saw that lack of any real progress due to the city’s refusal to make the financial commitment necessary, recommended that a Clean Water Act (CWA) lawsuit be brought by the Ecowatchers, the Littoral Society , and the NY/NJ Baykeeper against the mayor of the city of NY for violations that the treatment plants were causing. Upon notification to the city of the lawsuit’s impending filing a flurry of high level activity and involvement from the highest levels of city hall began. The lawsuit was placed on hold as the city, under the guidance of now commissioner Cass Hollaway, than deputy mayor, engaged in weekly meetings with the lawsuit parties to try to come to a meaningful and acceptable agreement. After a number of lengthy, sometimes contentious, meetings an agreement in principle was reached and on February 25th 2010, a press conference was held and the agreement was announced by Mayor Bloomberg. In attendance was the commissioner of the DEC as well as the Ecowatchers, Natural Resource Defense Council, the Littoral Society, and the NY/NJ Baykeeper(see link-)
This agreement will see over 100 million dollars spent to upgrade all four wastewater treatment plants. Some of these upgrades will be using the most state of the art technology available such as the Ammonia Recovery Process by Thermoenegry Corp that will be used at the 26th ward. In addition to the 100 million there was an additional 15 million set aside for future saltwater marsh restoration projects in the center of the bay. The agreement will also include additional testing sites in areas of the bay that have had dissolved oxygen issues. The overall impact to the bay will be extremely positive.
Since 2010 the Ecowatchers have been working jointly with the NPS and Stony Brook University to start the first phases in an attempt to restore oysters to the Jamaica bay estuary. Cages have been placed by divers, as well as at docks, throughout the bay, in order to determine if the oysters will survive and where to put future oyster reefs. To date the survival rate and growth rate has been very successful. Spring 2011 will give us a chance to retrieve the sub tidal cages that have been left in over the winter to see the affects of the cold water have had. Hopefully we will soon see large oyster reefs returned to these waters where they were once so prolific.by