The Nature of New York - Water
With close to 1500 miles of coastline, the NYC region is clearly a land of water. Four of the five New York City boroughs are located on islands, with 13 smaller islands located throughout the New York harbor. More than 2200 bridges and numerous tunnels remind us that the city’s development has been intimately connected to the ocean; and to the Hudson, East and Bronx Rivers, Jamaica Bay and Hudson Estuary.
The NYC landscape continues to harbor considerable expanses of natural wetlands, including tidal wetlands and salt marshes, beach fronts and fresh water wetlands. Last but not least, the city’s daily consumption of 1400 million gallons of water would not be possible without its 2000 square miles of available watershed, located in upstate NY.
The Hudson river is the historical backbone of New York City, and for centuries was the economic life-support system for the region. From its source in the Adirondack Mountains to its mouth at the southern tip of Manhattan, it runs 315 miles and continues to offer a rich diversity of plant and animal species. Native Americans called the Hudson "the river that runs two ways”; strong ocean tides, pushing water up the river to the level of Troy at high tide, give the impression the river is flowing backwards.
The Hudson opens up to the sea in the vast NY-NJ estuary. With 650 miles of navigable waterfront, it is the largest port in the world. Its success as a commercial harbor has not been without considerable cost to the environment.
NY-NJ Harbor and Estuary
Surrounding the islands of New York City, wrapping around the long shoreline of Northern New Jersey, the Hudson River estuary can be considered the ecological heart of the NY metropolitan region. It is a large and complex system of bays and tidal rivers including the Hudson, Hackensack, Passaic, Rahway and Raritan rivers – all of which converge in the NY- NJ harbor estuary to meet the ocean. While these waters still support hundreds of species of fish, shellfish, wildlife and plants, the NY-NJ Baykeeper strives to help chart a course toward full ecological recovery of these potentially exceptional waters, notably by reseeding NY harbor’s historically abundant and water-cleansing oyster beds and - in accordance with the Public Trust Doctrine – by educating the general public to the knowledge that these waters constitute a public resource technically belonging to all.
Coastal ecosystems occupy as little as 8% of the global surface, yet account for 26% of the earth’s biological production. In NYC, remaining coastal wetlands – notably salt marshes - provide critical habitat to local and migratory birds, supply vital nourishment to adjacent ocean plankton and pelagic ecosystems, ultimately help to maintain fisheries and, in conjunction with the Hudson River and Estuary, provide a breeding ground for many inbound pelagic fish. In addition, coastal salt marsh wetlands protect inland development from storm surges and can act as water purifiers by natural filtration. Whereas NYC is historically a region of vast, primordial salt marsh wetlands, much of today’s coastline can no longer fulfill these ecological services, resulting from extensive land development in the coastal zone.
The NYC Watershed consists of 19 reservoirs and 3 controlled lakes, covering 2,000 square miles of land in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains (map). A system of aqueducts distributes 1.5 billion gallons of this unfiltered drinking water per day to more than 9 million people in New York City and parts of Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Ulster Counties. According to Riverkeeper, an advocacy group that monitors the watershed, this unique water supply system is under relentless attack from development and various forms of pollution.
One of the major threats to NYC’s aquatic environment is combined sewage overflow, whereby heavy rainfall causes untreated waste water and street runoff to overflow into NYC waterways, at an estimated rate of 40 billion gallons a year. This in turn can affect water quality by causing eutrophication. Other major pollutants detrimental to humans and the environment include mercury and the combined effect of acid rain and mercury.
Additional threats to NYC’s freshwater and marine ecosystems include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), between 209,000 and 1.3 million pounds of which are believed to be in the Hudson River. High levels of PCB's have adverse effects on humans and the environment. Fish and other aquatic creatures living in the Hudson ingest PCB's found in the water and along the river bottom. The chemical can cause cancer, bacterial infection, liver lesions, reproductive impairment and Genetic defects and affect the watershed and NYC’s supply of drinking water, ultimately affecting humans.
The NY academy of sciences is currently undertaking a multi-year study to identify and quantify the flows of specific contaminants into the NY/NJ Harbor from its air and watershed. Similar studies are being conducted by the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program. Similarly, the Hudson River Foundation has recently released a report on the health of the harbor ecosystem and NRDC has studied the general impact of US ports on their cities, including NY.