Will Jamaica Bay Restoration Project Save New York From Rising Seas?

But that’s not entirely true. Best known today for the bird migrations and coastal clean-ups he spearheads, Mr. Riepe firmly expects that 25 or 30 years from now, rising sea levels will render his home and many others who like it uninhabitable. He’s 82 and he doesn’t expect to be there. But for the good of those who will, he and his neighbors are embarking on a plan to restore the wetlands and build the islands in the bay that they hope will soften the blow of future storms. It will also return some of the natural beauty the bay was once known for.

Jamaica Bay is an estuary nearly the size of Manhattan, which bisects the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, and is by far the largest natural space in New York City. For Native American tribes like the Lenape, the bay was “an extremely important hunting and fishing ground,” according to Eric W. Sanderson, best known for the Mannahatta Project, which reconstructed Manhattan’s ecological past. He is now conducting a similar survey in the other counties.

Mr. Sanderson and a group of city officials recently inspected a restored swamp on the Rockaway Peninsula, an area formerly filled with rubble, concrete blocks and construction debris. Almost as if on cue, a gray heron glided noiselessly past the group, barely creating a ripple in the mirror-flat water. A small fenced lot on the waterfront was covered with the stalks of newly seeded marsh grasses planted by the New York City Parks Department.

Mr. Sanderson, senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, pointed to a tidal channel surmounted by a four-story apartment complex with a “Now Rented” sign.

“If we were here with the Lenape a few hundred years ago, they would have been in their dugout canoes in the Channel,” he said. “But they would never have built their wigwam right there on the edge of the beach because it’s dangerous. It floods, it is exposed to the winds.”

The restoration area and the canal that borders it sit incongruously between a busy street and a neighborhood of mostly new low-rise and multi-story homes, many of which were flooded during Sandy. The odd architectural mix and wild natural features make Rockaway unique. They also present unique challenges for city planners.

The city today has lost most of its protective sand dunes and nearly 80 percent of the coastal marshland it historically had. Without these natural barriers, Jamaica Bay residents are much more vulnerable to rising waters. Will Jamaica Bay Restoration Project Save New York From Rising Seas?

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