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July 1997
Cleaning up the Hudson Estuary

By Benjamin Longstreth


The Hudson-Raritan Estuary is the system of bays and tidal rivers that surround New York City and embrace the long shoreline of northern New Jersey. The Estuary is where the Hudson, Hackensack, Passaic and Raritan rivers meet the ocean. It supports hundreds of species of plants, fish, shellfish and wildlife; it is the ecological heart of the metropolitan region.

The Estuary also bears the brunt of the region's pollution. Located at the bottom of the Hudson and Raritan rivers, it is the final stop for pollutants from all over these large watersheds. For over two centuries, the Hudson-Raritan suffered from industrial pollution, sewage discharges and the destruction of over 80 percent of its critical wetland habitats.

Now the Estuary has begun to recover. The environmental movement of the 1970s spurred cities to improve sewage treatment and reduce the discharge of industrial pollutants. We are finally starting to see the results of these pollution controls.

As water quality improves, the ecosystem regains its vitality. The fish in the Hudson-Raritan are literally breathing easier; the average amount of dissolved oxygen in the Hudson off 42nd Street doubled between 1974 and 1995. Thousands of egrets, herons and ibis now nest on a few islands in the Arthur Kill and East River. The striped bass population has rebounded to an astonishingly high level and major clam beds have been reopened to fishermen.

People are also returning to the Estuary. Small boaters are resurrecting boathouses along the Harlem, Hudson and Passaic rivers. People are clamoring for new waterfront parks: Liberty State Park in Jersey City, Hudson River Park on Manhattan's lower Westside, Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn and Governor's Island.

However, the Estuary has not yet regained its full health. Most Estuary fish still contain pollutants; ecologically important species such as oysters and eel grass have not yet returned; and public access for sitting, walking, boating and swimming is still limited. An array of less straightforward, less visible problems continue to harm the Estuary. Combined sewer overflows, polluted runoff, toxic discharges, slow clean-up of historic pollution and limited public access must be addressed in order to keep the Estuary's recovery on course.

Unfortunately, government agencies are investing less and less in these efforts. Federal contributions to New York and New Jersey to help achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act dropped from an annual average of $600 million in direct aid between 1972 and 1987 to around $235 million in low interest loans today. Similarly, New York's share of the Land & Water Conservation Fund has dropped 90 percent since 1978.

Ironically, while government has withdrawn from the effort to clean up the Estuary, ordinary citizens are investing more. They are cleaning up the shoreline, restoring estuarine habitats, monitoring water quality and advocating for improved access. But in order to restore the Estuary, we need full engagement at both the government and citizen level.

So, we want firm promises and timelines from New York, New Jersey and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that our fish will be safe to eat, our waters swimmable, oysters restored to clean shellfish beds, more plentiful anadromous fish (i.e. fish like the salmon that swim up rivers to spawn), and real access for the public. These goals are now within sight but will only be reached through specific agreements that keep restoration efforts on track and on time.

These specific targets are like canaries in a coal mine. They reflect the health of the larger Estuary. Contaminated fish indicate high levels of toxic pollution and sediment contamination (which is also a problem for the port). Historically abundant, oysters are now mostly absent from the Estuary because of its poor water quality. They cannot grow in turbid water polluted by nitrogen, phosphorous or sediments. In addition, oysters provide important habitat for numerous other species of fish and shellfish. Blueback herring, shad and alewife swim up creeks to spawn and need healthy streams to reproduce successfully. Healthy streams require healthy watersheds, a key element in the Estuary's health overall.

Public access is vital to the restoration of the Estuary. Until people can use the water for relaxation, recreation and contemplation, the benefits of the Estuary's restoration remain incomplete. And over the long-term, maintenance of the Estuary's health is meaningful and viable only if it has a substantial constituency.

Imagine the metropolitan region with a healthy Estuary at its heart - an Estuary where people have access to any part of the 600 mile shoreline and find water clean enough to swim in. This vision is nearer than you think. If we can reinvigorate our government's commitment to this restoration, we can make it a reality.

Benjamin Longstreth works for Baykeeper, a private conservation organization dedicated to restoring the health of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary. Baykeeper's New York office is located at 153 Waverly Place, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10014.


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