Report to detail, address coastal pollution in NY
Faced with more beaches closed by algae, bacteria and toxics, depleted shellfish beds and sharply reduced commercial fisheries, New York is poised to act against a rising tide of unhealthy coastal waters.
Officials are scheduled to release an overdue plan Thursday that will exploit state jurisdiction over waters extending three miles from the coast to reverse what critics call years of federal inaction and revive fisheries, protect beaches and restore the economy that has thrived there.
With similar efforts in states across the country, the goal in the Northeast is to turn back the decline of the Atlantic as a source of jobs, revenue, wildlife and natural beauty, and even consider massive offshore wind farms as the region fights economic decline.
In New York, officials will release the comprehensive plan for “ecosystem-based” management of the Great Lakes and Atlantic coasts that will address land and water uses, economy, climate change, energy, and building capacity.
The stakes are high. The plan shows, for example, that New York’s commercial and recreational fisheries are valued at $60 million annually, only 21 percent of what they were 50 years ago, and the port of New York contributes $18 billion in annual economic activity. And with 60 percent of the state’s population living in an ocean or estuary county, pollution caused the loss of 1,200 beach days to closings statewide in 2006, said George Stafford, who heads the Department of State’s Division of Coastal Resources.
New York lawmakers established the state Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council in 2006 and ordered the heads of nine state agencies to devise a long-term coast management plan, which was due last Nov. 1 and meant to resolve turf issues that fragment the government’s response to growing problems. The report has been delayed in part by the state’s financial problems. The legislature also established a task force on rising sea levels to recommend measures to protect communities and ecosystems from flooding. The panel began hearings began this month.
Environmentalists said they turned to the coastal states for help because of difficulty making progress with the Bush administration or Congress. Elsewhere, California lawmakers have established an ocean protection council, Massachusetts’ coastal plan is expected this year and several states are working regionally.
“Worldwide, our ocean systems are in a silent state of collapse,” said Sarah Chasis, ocean initiatives director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We had in 2007 more than 1,500 beach closings and advisories due to pollution along New York’s coastal waters and Great Lakes.”
Nationally, 1,167—or 32 percent—of all monitored beaches had closings or advisories in 2007, according to state data collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That compares to 23 percent a decade earlier. In 2004, the EPA set stricter standards for E. coli and enterrococci bacteria in recreational waters, affecting 21 states and territories. The other 14 already had higher standards.
“We were seeing a lot of problems this summer,” Chasis said of Long Island. “There was a brown tide that reappeared in Great South Bay. There were also something like 5,000 acres of shellfish areas closed along the north shore because of another toxic bloom.”
Once one of the nation’s leaders in hard clams, producing about 700,000 bushels a year, she said Long Island now produces fewer than 10,000 bushels.
Meanwhile, the population of shad, a commercial fish caught in the Hudson River’s 150 miles as an estuary of the Atlantic, has dropped to a fraction of what it was. Some scientists suspect shad are the victims of “bi-catch,” dying in the nets of ocean trawlers chasing other species.
New York’s beaches and seafood contribute more than $8.5 billion to Long Island’s economy and $5 billion in western New York’s Great Lakes region, environmental advocate Jeff Jones said. The timing of the upcoming report is jarring, he said, because Gov. David Paterson has proposed cutting Environmental Protection Fund money for the oceans and Great Lakes from $5 million to $2 million in the coming year.
The state says $36 billion is needed to upgrade sewage treatment plants statewide in the next 20 years.
State scientists monitoring Lake Erie and Lake Ontario said the biggest chemical issue is toxics—inorganic forms of toxins—affecting fish and wildlife. Major sources are inefficient water treatment and industrial and municipal wastewater treatment, sewer and storm water overflows, and contaminants in sediments left by 30 to 60 years of industrial discharge.
Increasing beach closings the last couple of years resulted from nuisance algae and nutrients from urban and agricultural runoff, said Donald Zelazny, the state conservation department’s Great Lakes programs coordinator. Some scientists theorize the nutrients are captured near land by invasive zebra and quagga mussels. Artificial water level control, especially on Lake Ontario, is another factor.
“We’re seeing a resurgence of an anoxic or dead zone,” Zelazny said of lakes Erie and Ontario, oxygen depletion that’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic as well. It was predominant in Lake Erie from the 1930s to 1960s, but increased phosphorous control had gotten rid of most of it. “Now it seems to be coming back,” he said.
On the Net:
New York coastal atlas: http://www.nyswaterfronts.com/maps—relief.asp
National beach closings report: http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/beaches/seasons/2007/
Nature Conservancy clam restoration: http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/newyork/science/art217
NASA Goddard Institute temperature data: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/2008/
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN