A flotilla flitted on West Pond, while hundreds of tree-swallows swooped overhead. Their blue iridescent backs sparkled in the sun as they bobbed along. Manhattan’s skyline loomed in the distance.
The pond is part of Jamaica Bay, a National Park Service wildlife sanctuary next to Kennedy Airport between southwest Queens Beach and Rockaway Beach. It is one of few freshwater stops for migrating bird migrations in the urban New York City area. In 2012, it was breached by Superstorm Sandy’s tumultuous waves and 115 mile per hour winds, becoming a tidal lagoon.
Now, a “living shoreline” restoration project devised by the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy is showing early signs that new marsh grasses, protected by degradable jetties, could become a prototype for other coastal resiliency projects looking to protect habitats and coastlines from the increased storms and rising sea levels of climate change.
“There are vanishingly few spaces for birds to enjoy fresh water sources in New York City,” said Scott Middleton, the conservancy’s project planner. “So it’s critically important to protect West Pond as one of the last remaining sources of freshwater for native birds and for migratory birds.”
Reparing the Breach
Superstorm Sandy ravaged Jamaica Bay, pushing through low lying marshlands to overtoppng sandy dunes. The damage to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was a shock to park rangers as well as local birders. The storm had cut through a popular nature trail around West Pond’s berm, filling it with salty baywater.
The conservancy’s “living shoreline” approach, an experimental strategy developed in partnership with the National Park Service, was designed to slow erosion and mend the breach with thousands of marsh grass plugs, instead of a seawall or other hard structure. The grasses’ roots, protected by the degradable jetties and breakwaters made of recycled Christmas trees, coconut husks and oyster shells, would help secure new sand fill. But there was no guarantee that the grass would take or that the materials wouldn’t be washed away in a winter storm.
“Nothing is ever permanent in coastal geology,” said Middleton. “One would fool oneself to think otherwise.”
Middleton explained that the project is a response to climate changes, which is making storms more severe and more frequent. The structures and grasses are designed to protect berms from wave action.
The $4 million project was a milestone in 2022, when the marsh grasses were first being grown. Along the pond’s 2,400-foot shoreline, tall wooden stakes poked out of the sand with strings connecting them to create quadrants, and orange plastic tags flapped in the breeze to deter geese from gobbling up the newly planted grasses. The project is funded by both city, state, federal and private donations.
The pond became brackish after Sandy because it was not contained. Freshwater tree species along the pond’s banks started to die. Their ghostly remains are now bare and white.
Although the National Park Service had filled in the breach to restore the pond in 2017, significant erosion continued along the shoreline. The “living shoreline” project began taking shape in 2019, with construction beginning in May 2021 and ending in November.
To fill the West Pond breach, and to create nine acres of marsh habitat, 44,000 cubic yards of sand was added. Contractors and volunteers planted more than 200,000 native grasses along the new shoreline. The different grasses were planted according to their elevation along the shoreline and each plant’s water tolerance.
Middleton said that over 93 percent survived the winter, ranging from saltmarsh cordgrass in low marsh to little bluestem in the upper high marsh. To make up the loss of winter ice, some 13,000 plants will be added in this summer. In three years, the goal will be to have 80 percent of the original vegetation.
The results show that the grasses will eventually take root and the living shoreline may be as successful as other Jamaica Bay marsh restoration projects. These projects have already demonstrated that they can provide ecosystem services like storm surge protection, nutrient extraction, carbon storage, and wildlife habitat. Mary Alldred is an assistant professor of environment science at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. Alldred is a researcher on coastal management and marsh restoration in Jamaica Bay, but she is not currently involved with the living shoreline site.
The jetties of coconut husks (called coir logs), old Christmas trees, and oyster shells—Middleton calls them “breakwater burritos”—will degrade into the bay. While West Pond is an engineered shoreline, Alldred said, it also contains components you’d see in a natural marsh, like a variety of plants along the tidal zones.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge covers 12,600 acres of freshwater lakes, saltmarshes and fields. It also includes open bay water. Cross Bay Boulevard runs down the middle of the bay and connects to traffic and the A train that takes you to Rockaway Beach in southwest Queens. Robert Moses, then the famed New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner created the refuge in 1950. Moses is also known for his design of Washington Square Park and many other infrastructure projects in the city. In 1972, the Refuge was taken over by the National Park Service. The Gateway National Recreation Area was established along the New Jersey-Queens coastline.
‘We Need Substantial Marshes’
The West Pond living shoreline was not the first marsh restoration project in this bay. In 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started marsh restoration projects. This was done in response to the loss of 220 acres salt marsh at a rate 47 acres per year between 1994 and 1999. Recent partnerships have been formed by groups such as the American Littoral Society or Jamaica Bay Guardian to restore historic marshlands.
The Army Corps can track marsh shrinkage using aerial photos dating back to the 1950s and determine areas that need to be restored.
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Alldred said two factors over the last century have been big contributors to Jamaica Bay’s marshland loss. The first is that the downstream flow of sediment has been disrupted by development. The stormwater system has made it possible for creeks to drain underground or have hardened them by building seawalls. The majority of the water entering the bay comes from sewage outflows. However, the water has been treated to remove any solids, including sediment. Second, Alldred stated that Jamaica Bay has been dredged for ship channels and to fill in areas of the coastline. The bay is now deeper than it would be naturally, so there is more storm surge—a shallower bay would absorb more energy from incoming storms. “This damages the ability of the marsh to grow vertically and keep pace with climate change,” said Alldred.
Don Riepe is the Jamaica Bay program director for littoral society. He has been working with the Army Corps for the past six years to restore the Black Wall marsh (20-acres) southwest of West Pond. It protects communities from waves and provides habitat for marine life as well as shorebirds. But one project isn’t enough, in Riepe’s eyes: “We need substantial marshes, really, to have major storm protection here,” he said.
Riepe, a man who has been managing habitat and overseeing Jamaica Bay community outreach and marsh restoration programs for more than thirty years, stated that Rulers Bar Marsh (another restoration site that was completed two-years ago) is now looking good.
He can see the marshgrasses approximately a quarter of a mile offshore from his Broad Channel house, a small fishing community south the refuge.
“It’s nice to know you’ve accomplished something,” said Riepe.
He sees the restoration of the marshlands as a win-win situation for the ospreys and horseshoe crabs, as well as the New Yorkers who call Jamaica Bay home.
Source: Inside Climate News