Restoring the New York–New Jersey Harbor Estuary

Sept. 23, 2014

A group of professionals from the Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, joined more than 200 scientists, engineers, academics, and restoration professionals on June 3, 2014, at a major symposium in Manhattan to discuss progress restoring the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary and initiatives to continue improving the area’s ecological health, contributing to the region’s coastal resiliency. The conference, “Restoring the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary: Ensuring Ecosystem Resilience and Sustainability in a Changing Future,” was hosted by the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program’s Restoration Workgroup.

State of the Estuary: Past and Present
The estuary, where freshwater from the Hudson, Hackensack, Passaic, Rahway, and Raritan rivers meets saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean, provides a rich environment for plant and animal life. Spanning a 25-mile radius encircling the Statue of Liberty, the area includes 1,000 miles of coastline, 1,600 miles of open water, and more than 500 species of birds and fish.

Over the years, shoreline development and industrialization have destroyed nearly 85% of wetlands; oyster reefs (beds of oysters filtering water and reducing wave action) and eelgrass beds (submerged aquatic plants) have completely disappeared. Most damage occurred before the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1978, when wetlands were filled in with hard surfaces and stormwater runoff went unchecked. Although the estuary has improved since the 1980s, it’s still plagued by degraded habitat, poor water quality, contaminated sediments, and impediments to fish swimming upstream. In addition, Hurricane Sandy battered shorelines and damaged wastewater treatment plants, releasing more than 10 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage, negatively impacting habitats.

Credit: James D’Ambrosio, New York District Public Affairs
Peter Weppler, Chief, Environmental Analysis Branch, presents an overview of coastal management projects.

Comprehensive Restoration Plan
But things are improving. The District, agency partners, and regional stakeholders have been making progress for a number of years. In 1999, Congress authorized the Corps to conduct a feasibility study to develop a long-term restoration plan for the estuary. In the following years, the draft Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan (CRP) was released and ultimately adopted by the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program (NY-NJ HEP) in 2009. As part of the CRP outreach efforts, the plan has been updated to include stakeholder input and lessons learned from Sandy. An executive summary of the 2014 plan was showcased at the symposium.

The CRP–a collaboration among the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the NY-NJ HEP, and more than 100 regional partners–is a master plan guiding conservation and restoration efforts in the region, serving as a shared vision of a vibrant estuary. Lisa Baron, New York District project manager, and Peter Weppler, chief of the Environmental Analysis Branch, were major contributors. “A great deal of effort and input from nearly 130 organizations helped shape the 2014 Comprehensive Restoration Plan,” notes Baron. “The symposium was an excellent venue to highlight the revisions to the plan–targets and objectives, achievements, future opportunities, and meeting implementation challenges.”

Restoration Targets
The plan focuses on 12 target ecosystem characteristics (measurable objectives related to ecosystem restoration), each representing an important feature needed for a healthy estuary. There are both short-term (2020) and long-term (2050) goals for each. Targets include

  • Wetlands: Create and restore coastal and freshwater wetlands at a rate exceeding loss or degradation, resulting in a net gain in acreage.
  • Habitat for Water Birds: Restore and protect roosting, nesting, and foraging habitat (inland trees, wetlands, and shallow shorelines) for long-legged wading birds.
  • Coastal and Maritime Forests: Create a linkage of forests for migrant birds and plant communities.
  • Oyster Reefs: Establish sustainable oyster reefs at several locations.
  • Eelgrass Beds: Establish eelgrass beds at several locations.
  • Shorelines and Shallows: Restore shoreline vegetation, create sloped areas in tidal zones, and clear shallows (the bottom is visible).
  • Habitat for Fish, Crab, and Lobsters: Create functionally related habitats in each region of the estuary.
  • Tributary Connections: Reconnect and restore freshwater streams to the estuary, promoting quality habitats for aquatic organisms.
  • Enclosed and Confined Waters: Improve water quality in all enclosed waterways and tidal creeks, matching or exceeding that of receiving waters.
  • Sediment Contamination: Remove contaminated sediment until all area are free of pollution.
  • Public Access: Improve access to water and create linkages to recreational areas for swimming, boating, and fishing.
  • Acquistion: Protect environmentally sensitive coastal areas from development through land acquisition.

Symposium Activities
Lisa Baron, chair of the Harbor Estuary Program’s Restoration Work Group, opened the conference with a presentation, “The Waters We Share: A Shared Vision for Restoring the Estuary,” outlining revisions to the plan, updates, and restoration progress. She also moderated a panel, “Progress and Next Steps for Comprehensive Restoration Planning and Actions in the Estuary,” with participants sharing progress towards the goals.

Restoration Progress
Significant progress has been made since the 2009 draft Comprehensive Restoration Plan, including:

  • restoring more than 220 acres of wetlands,
  • implementing 15 oyster pilot sites totaling 1.38 acres,
  • removing three dams on the Raritan River in New Jersey,
  • improving more than 18 miles of fish habitat,
  • restoring more than 200 acres of forest and 80 acres of dune and grassland habitat,
  • establishing seven eelgrass test beds,
  • acquiring over 250 acres for habitat preservation,
  • restoring habitat and foraging habitat of an island for water birds,
  • enhancing or acquiring 12 public access sites, and
  • developing assessment tools and programs to improve the ecology of urban shorelines.

Historically, restoration activities centered on improving the estuary’s health and providing ecosystem benefits. After Sandy’s severe impact, regional stakeholders are referring to the CRP to incorporate green strategies to better manage flood risk, attenuate wave energy, and create more sustainable and resilient shorelines. This expanded focus was addressed by two panels. Peter Weppler served on one discussing integrating nature-based features into coastal storm risk management with wetlands, oyster reefs, dunes, and upland forests. He spoke about the District’s Sandy Coastal Restoration Program, ongoing studies, and resiliency practices.

Exploring Partnerships
A third panel discussed the need for partnerships. A potential partnership could involve the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Rebuild by Design”–a year-long competition in which teams of architects, engineers, and restoration professionals developed proposals promoting resilience in Sandy-impacted areas. One winner, “Living Breakwaters,” is a design to manage flood risk to Staten Island’s south shore through a series of breakwaters reducing wave energy. A second, “The New Meadowlands,” is a system of berms and marshes designed to reduce ocean surges and collect rainfall, reducing risk of sewer overflows in nearby communities.
Breakout groups focused on one central question: What ingredients are needed to meet the region’s challenging restoration agenda? Feedback included the need to secure resources (capital, management, monitoring); improve community engagement; consolidate information into a single data center; overcome regulatory hurdles; and develop an evaluation tool balancing and integrating the benefits of nature-based (soft) and manmade (hard) coastal storm risk reduction measures.

Moving Forward
The next steps include finalizing the 2014 Comprehensive Restoration Plan, which is expected to be available on the District’s website in fall 2014, and completing a feasibility study seeking new construction authority (funding) for restoration projects. Until then, work continues through existing programs.

Further Information
Additional information about restoration efforts is available from the following sources.

The New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary Program (www.watersweshare.org and www.harborestuary.org ) The Hudson River Foundation (www.hudsonriver.org ) The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (www.panynj.gov)
About the Author

James D’Ambrosio

James D’Ambrosio is a public affairs specialist with the US Army Corps of Engineers New York District.

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