Jamaica Bay Restoration: Anything is Possible if You’re Strategic

[This is a guest post from Charles “Si” Simenstad, Research Professor; Wetland Ecosystem Team, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, in response to the question posed in a prior post, “What specific actions would you propose, if several billion dollars were available to improve the environment of Jamaica Bay and its surrounding neighborhoods?”]


I’ve enjoyed reading the SeaAndSkyNY blog, and was particularly attracted to your earlier post about how Jamaica Bay is not exactly New York City’s “crown jewel” and the plethora of problems not only affecting the estuary’s ecosystems (e.g., low-oxygen dead zones and disappearing marshes and islands) but the future livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people living in neighborhoods surrounding the bay. However, I might from some experience caution you to not discount either the resilience of the Bay’s ecosystems or the capacity of the stakeholder community to respond with initiatives that would enable adaptation to future degradation.

My experience with restoration initiatives in Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay and other coastal regions, which has included extensively urbanized systems, suggests that all but the most extensively degraded estuaries have the capacity for resilience.  Even when residents think that their shorelines have become permanently anchored and contaminated by development and industry, as you say, “anything is possible!” San Francisco Bay is a case in point, where the somewhat modest Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals project in 1999 synoptically identified and mapped areas for improvement and recovery of the Bay’s shoreline ecosystems, much to the disparagement by many stakeholders; but, likely due simply to identifying the potential capacity of marshes, tidal flats, lagoons and other wetlands to recover, we now find restoration actions like the ~15,000 acres of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project on a trajectory to recovery. While not without its conundrum of complications, inherent in shifting baselines and being situated in the “most invaded estuary in the world”, the promise of emerging wetlands is enlivening a broad spectrum of stakeholders.

Not that we necessarily can or even have the political will to reverse 100-200 yr of coastal change. The historic template is a noble goal, but many of the fundamental ecosystem processes—such as fresh water and sediment delivery—as well as new phenomenon—such as introduction and colonization by non-indigenous species—have changed the way estuaries function. As a result, the estuary’s response to restoration may alter the structure and composition of component ecosystems in a way that may not be part of the historic template. Thus, a fundamental criterion is for both restoration practitioners and stakeholders to acknowledge system constraints and understand and work with extant ecosystem processes. In the case of Jamaica Bay, where like many urban estuaries the shoreline has been extensively hardened, and nearly all of the fringing wetlands have been removed historically, the only feasible goal is to establish sites that are self-regulating and integrated within their mosaic of the developed landscape. But, if there is any opportunity to reconstitute natural processes that we know can recover more sustainable estuarine landscapes, features and biota, we have the opportunity to advance beyond the less-than-satisfactory mitigation represented by parks and esplanades even if we often have to settle for rehabilitation rather than rigorous restoration. Initiatives in urban estuaries offer the opportunity for expansion of public understanding, appreciation and even direct involvement in restoration that is actually often harder to mobilize in less disturbed landscapes.

While the functions, goods and services that humans value from natural ecosystems may not be easily, rapidly or totally recovered from multiple-stressed environments such as urban estuaries, understanding how we have constrained natural ecosystem processes can move us beyond just the “random acts of kindness” that tend to characterize urban shorelines (some of these ideas are expanded upon in http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092585740500193X). We need to be more strategic and less opportunistic; more comprehensive and less project-specific; and more imaginative and less circumspect. In Puget Sound, where I am involved in the stimulating, albeit challenging, planning of comprehensive restoration and protection of the Sound’s ~4,000 km of nearshore ecosystems (see PSNERP; http://www.pugetsoundnearshore.org/) we have found considerable scientific and social traction by shifting the paradigm from opportunistic, “structure-based” (e.g., focus on ‘designing’ habitats) restoration approaches to repairing impaired and degraded nearshore processes that account for a broad spectrum of ecosystem functions, goods and services. This “process-based” concept also implies greater sustainability and adaptation to future stressors such as sea level rise and other climate change impacts at the coastal margin (see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092585740500193X). In fact, the innovative restoration planner would view climate change just as much an opportunity as a constraint.

But, as you well know, tackling restoration at these comprehensive scales and approaching it through the improvement of ecosystem processes requires more science that we have typically accumulated for these systems. And, the multiple stressors inherent in urban estuaries require more disciplines, skills and tools than suburban and rural landscapes.  Interdisciplinary science and engineering teams must be assembled to confront the complex issues of rehabilitating highly developed landscapes. Given the persisting uncertainty in urban estuary restoration, two science and technology approaches are almost essential: models – from conceptual to hydrodynamic, sedimentological, and ecological – to formulate predictions of ecosystem responses to restoration actions, and an adaptive management structure to reduce that uncertainty through more experimental learning. Based on our PSNERP experience, I suggest you will find that initiating scientific and technical white papers and other guidance documents, developing conceptual models that bring stakeholders to the table, instituting rigorous external peer review, and other “lessons learned” mechanisms that provide timely dissemination of results to the broader restoration community will instill both trust and confidence in the feasibility and value of taking on restoration at Bay-wide scale.

I applaud the incentive that through SeaAndSkyNY you have introduced to the concept and reality of restoring Jamaica Bay. Good luck!

Charles (“Si”) Simenstad, Research Professor; Wetland Ecosystem Team, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington (http://fish.washington.edu/people/simenstd/)

This entry was posted in opinion, water and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.