Friday, June 25, 2010

South Bay Symposium

On Thursday, a symposium sponsored by the Hudson River Environmental Society and organized by Scenic Hudson took place at Space 360 in Hudson. The symposium was entitled "The Ecology of Hudson South Bay: Understanding the Past, Looking to the Future." The presenters were from the NYS DEC Hudson River Estuary Program, the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve, Hudsonia, and the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies.

Gathered around the table were a group of people with disparate hopes and plans for the South Bay. Mayor Scalera was there, with City Attorney Cheryl Roberts. Common Council President Don Moore was there, along with Aldermen Ellen Thurston (Third Ward), Sarah Sterling (First Ward), and Geeta Cheddie (First Ward). George Super from the Greenport Planning Board was there. Kenneth Faroni, Director of Planning and Permits for O&G Industries was there, with Holcim attorney Donald Stever. Linda Mussmann, former chair of the Waterfront Advisory Steering Committee was there, and so was Bonnie Devine, the Department of State staff member who worked with the WASC to develop the 2009 draft LWRP. Participants also included Peter Paden and Ellen Jouret-Epstein from the Columbia Land Conservancy; Sam Pratt and Peter Jung from The Valley Alliance; all the members of a citizens' research group calling themselves the LWRP Task Force (Patrick Doyle, Chris Reed, Meg Carlon, Timothy O'Connor); Susan Falzon from Friends of Hudson; Michael O'Hara from Sustainable Hudson Valley, as well as several staff members from Scenic Hudson: Seth McKee, Jeff Anzevino, and Mark Wildonger. There was also a representative from Congressman Scott Murphy's office, who stayed for only part of the two-and-a-half hour meeting.

Bob Daniels, vice president of the Hudson River Environmental Society who moderated the symposium, began by defining the event as "a forum for people to share information" in order that "issues can be resolved."

The first to speak was Fran Dunwell, Hudson River Estuary Coordinator. She defined the goal of the Estuary Program as finding "win-win situations for the environment and the economy" and talked about appreciating the unique resources of the South Bay, identifying its future role, and devising new management strategies for that future role.

Dan Miller of the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve began his remarks by displaying this painting of the South Bay by Henry Ary, noting that there are lots of historic images of the South Bay, and cautioned that it is "very difficult to turn the clock back." He explained that in the 1850s the railroad had cut off bays all along the river, citing as another example Tivoli Bays. He talked about the activities of the Army Corps of Engineers, from Hudson northward, beginning in the early 1900s, which, in an effort to improve the shipping channel to the Erie Canal, had the effect of narrowing and deepening the river and altering 71 miles of shoreline. To document more recent changes in the South Bay, Miller showed two aerial images--from 1942 and 2005--which showed that tree growth has increased substantially in the past sixty years. There was a white spot in the 1943 picture, near 9G, which Miller suggested might be either "dredge spoil or fill." Many in the audience readily concluded that it was probably cement dumped there during the heyday of cement manufacturing in Hudson.

Miller provided this definition of ecological restoration: "the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that had been degraded, damaged, or destroyed." He explained that the first step in designing an ecological restoration project is identifying the "stressors" that must be addressed. For the South Bay, Miller identified the "causeway" as a "big stressor" and commented, "It's going to take a while to understand its impact on the bay." He said there is evidence that the "causeway is muting tidal effect" but explained that it is not clear what that means for the future of the bay.

Miller mentioned the Society for Ecological Restoration and its Ecological Restoration Primer, which includes a planning guide for restoration projects that assists in conceptualizing what is possible, and made the point that ecological restoration should improve the ability of an ecosystem "to do its thing."

Next to speak was Erik Kiviat of Hudsonia, Ltd., who noted that parts of the South Bay are very similar to the Meadowlands in New Jersey. He described the physical characteristics of the South Bay and identified some of the species of fauna that have been sighted there, including the rare smoky shrew. He suggested three studies were needed to help understand the South Bay: a moss survey, a bird survey, and a fish survey.

Kiviat also recognized the "causeway" as one of the stressors in the South Bay but said that, in thinking about the causeway, it was important to consider the way flora and fauna are using it now: plants grow on it; animals travel along it. He also mentioned a big dump in the South Bay--between two and four acres--which he said is probably an old municipal dump that was never covered. The presence of melted glass suggests that the dump had been burned repeatedly. He urged that this area too needs to be understood before moving forward.

Asserting that urban habitats like the South Bay are not the countryside, Kiviat defended phragmites, which many consider to be an indesirable invasive nonnative species. According to Kiviat, "most of what is said about phragmites is simply not true." He called phragmites a "consummate urban survivor" that supports many kinds of plants and animals, provides songbirds with food and refuge from predators, and anchors the soil against rising sea level. He speculated that the causeway too may have the beneficial effect of protecting the South Bay from rising sea level.

The final speaker, Stuart Findlay from the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies described the South Bay as a "wooded swamp," relatively rare in tidal wetlands. He returned to two of the topics discussed by Kiviat--phragmites and the causeway--to stress that, whatever one's opinion on these two subjects, it's important to know what the phragmites is doing before deciding what to do with it and to understand the impact of the causeway on habitat value.

Most of what Findlay had to say related to the railroad causeway that runs parallel to the river, which was a bit confusing for an audience focused on the abandoned railroad causeway that runs through the South Bay. The main message of his presentation: the railroad causeway along the river--in the South Bay and the North Bay--is working the way it's supposed to and is not impeding the tidal ebb and flow water between the river and the bays.

At the end of the meeting, Patrick Doyle reported that the LWRP Task Force had met with the Army Corp of Engineers and all that was needed for the ACE to conduct a study--similar to a Phase I environmental study--to see if there are contaminants in the South Bay was "a call from Scott Murphy's office." (Unfortunately, the representative from Scott Murphy's office had already left at that point.) Kiviat agreed that such a study "may be the most important thing that can be done" but expressed concern about the Army Corps of Engineers doing it. There was also some debate between LWRP Task Force member Timothy O'Connor and Kiviat about whether Target Ecosystem Characteristics, concepts based on the harbor estuary in New York City and New Jersey, were applicable to the South Bay or should be a model for a restoration strategy for the South Bay.

In the end, there was general agreement on at least two things: a fish survey to determine what fish are using what areas of the South Bay and where they are going should be a priority; and the group should continue meeting, with (as suggested by Sam Pratt) the inclusion of representatives of the DEC research unit, to talk further about the South Bay.


  1. Carole, Thank you for this report. I was really interested in what was being discussed. The 'causeway' is nothing more than a dam separating the basin and should be removed to help heal the whole. No mention was made of 3rd street which bisects the wetlands and what I imagine also affects the tidal flow.

  2. Seeing how the UN has declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, ever effort should be made to restore the damaged eco-system of the South Bay. How can ordinary citizens get involved?