New York State
For the birders and birds of the Empire State
Jamaica Bay West Pond Environmental Assessment Sets Stage
For Restoration of this Important Bird Habitat (January 2016)
by Seth Ausubel
As birders throughout New York State and beyond know, the West Pond at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was breached by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Progress toward restoring the pond has been slow. However the National Park Service (NPS) finally released the long-awaited Environmental Assessment (EA) for the West Pond in October 2015. The public comment period closed November 6, 2015. Fortunately for birders, the NPS preferred alternative for the pond would, if properly designed and implemented, restore habitat values supporting avian and other wildlife. A wide range of stakeholder groups, including a coalition of birding groups, support the NPS proposal.
The EA evaluates the potential impacts of four alternatives: two action alternatives, the NPS preferred alternative and the no-action alternative. The NPS preferred alternative includes filling and repairing the primary and secondary breaches and the subsequent restoration of the West Pond and loop trail. The preferred alternative would be implemented in phases, with the initial phase addressing filling and repairing the primary and secondary breaches, replacing the water control structure, the possible installation of a supplemental water supply system (either groundwater or municipal water) to provide freshwater to the pond, and restoring the West Pond loop trail. Future phases of work would include upland habitat restoration at Terrapin Point, shoreline and saltmarsh restoration to increase resiliency against potential future storm damage, and installation of other visitor amenities, such as boardwalks, trails, pathways, viewing blinds, and educational signage.
The NYSOA Conservation Committee provided comments on the EA during the public comment period. The preferred alternative substantially addresses our concerns that the restoration of the West Pond emphasize re-establishment of a freshwater pond to support a diverse biota, including avian, in the Jamaica Bay ecosystem. The alternative will also provide opportunities for the enjoyment of the West Pond by birders and many others.
While the Conservation Committee supports the NPS preferred alternative, we do have some concerns that we believe need to be addressed during the design. The following reflects the comments we provided to the NPS.
One concern is that the EA did not address the possibility that the West Pond area has silted in during the time since the breach occurred. It is important that the design consider the former depth profile of the pond as well as optimal contours to support wildlife including waterfowl such as diving ducks, wading birds, shorebirds, and marsh birds; fish, reptiles and amphibians. This should include substantial shallow areas, but also large areas with depths suitable for waterfowl, and possibly some deeper areas suitable for refuge and overwintering of the non-avian wildlife. Our concern is that should extensive dredging be needed to re-contour the bottom, the costs might well exceed the $2.5 million upper bound estimate in the EA for Phase I of the preferred alternative, such that the project objectives could not be accomplished.
Another concern is that the EA did not address revegetation of the pond and its margins. The salt and flood intolerant vegetation that dominated the margins of the former pond has died. If not replanted, the area will be much more vulnerable to erosion and the re-establishment of non-native invasive vegetation. To provide maximum habitat benefits, re-establishment of native flora should be emphasized within a landscape that provides a vegetative buffer along the north and northwestern side of the pond to provide shelter from prevailing winds in the fall and winter; relatively open areas of varied character with trees, low shrubs and grasses to provide secure roosting and feeding areas for waterbirds, erosion control and resiliency; and areas of emergent marsh to provide additional cover. Because this was not addressed in the EA, we do not know what the range of costs might be or whether NPS has sufficient funds to complete such work.
We are happy that NPS is considering establishing a permanent, active freshwater source for the restored West Pond. We hope this can be done inexpensively. We encouraged NPS to consider establishment of beneficial habitat features in association with a freshwater source, such as a small pond, marsh, and/or flowing surface water.
We are also happy that NPS is planning to design the Phase II resiliency and habitat improvement projects as part of the Phase I design. This will enhance the prospects that funding will be secured for construction of the projects. The restoration of Terrapin Point is extremely important, and the resiliency of the overall project is essential. We would like to better understand how water level regulation capabilities would be designed in Phase I and used to provide protection from storm surges and overtopping. We would also like NPS to consider how salt marsh restoration and restoration of Terrapin Point could be integrated to enhance resiliency.
Birders have many times voiced concern over long-term deficiencies in resource management at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge that have contributed to the deterioration of habitat values. The prospects of restoration, both through the West Pond work and the NPS’s current cooperation with The Nature Conservancy to remove invasive vegetation and restore upland areas, are exciting. However, these efforts could be wasted for lack of adequate maintenance directed by qualified resource management professionals. We therefore urged the NPS to fully address long-term management plans, strategies, costs and staffing during the design phase. We understand the value of partnerships to help meet these needs and we believe the birding community might have some role both in promoting and implementing long-term management.
Finally, we expressed our continuing concern at the lengthy process involved in restoration of the West Pond. On the current schedule (contracting and design in 2016; construction in 2017) completion of the work will not occur sooner than five years after Hurricane Sandy. Delays have occurred at every stage in the effort so far. We sincerely hope that there will be no further delays.
The Conservation Committee is looking forward to additional discussions among stakeholder groups, including NYSOA and the Birders’ Coalition for Gateway, so that we can fully understand and provide input to decisions made during the design phase that will fully define the West Pond restoration project. This is particularly critical given our concerns above that might require trade-offs in Phase I based on funding limitations.
It is important that birders continue to voice their interest and concerns over the restoration of the West Pond. Our collective efforts have greatly influenced the NPS’s decisions, and must continue to if we expect restoration of the West Pond to come to fruition.