In the three centuries since the Governor of New York ordered a sewer system to be constructed in Lower Manhattan, New York City has made considerable progress in protecting public health and improving the water quality of the harbor. Since the early 1900s, when the city of New York instituted one of the nation's first long-term water quality monitoring programs in New York Harbor, the city's efforts to improve the waters of New York Harbor have included constructing, maintaining, and upgrading the infrastructure for wastewater collection and treatment, pollution prevention and remediation, water quality monitoring, and programs to protect the natural resources of the estuary and restore disrupted natural drainage patterns to mitigate urban runoff problems.
Although construction and upgrades of municipal wastewater treatment facilities resulted in some water quality improvements beginning in the 1950s, the greatest strides in improving ecological conditions in the harbor can be attributed to new construction and upgrades of municipal wastewater plants in the Hudson-Raritan metropolitan region during the 1970s, largely stimulated by the effluent control requirements of the 1972 CWA. Based on assessments of long-term water quality monitoring data and other environmental indicators, the ecological and water quality conditions of New York Harbor are the best they have been since the early 1900s (NYCDEP, 1999).
Biological indicators of environmental improvement in New York Harbor include the reestablishment of breeding populations of waterfowl (e.g., peregrine falcons, os-preys, herons) in many areas of the estuary, the recovery of Hudson River shortnose sturgeon to record populations, the decline of PCBs in striped bass, and a relaxation of New York State advisories for human consumption of striped bass in parts of the Hudson River. Marine organisms that were long absent from the waters of the harbor because of poor water quality conditions are now thriving as a result of the cleanup of the harbor. The resurgence of pollution-intolerant benthic organisms in Lower New York Bay and the heavy reinfestation of submerged wooden pilings by marine borers throughout the Hudson-Raritan estuary are strong evidence of the improvement in the ecological condition of the harbor.
Water quality indicators of environmental improvement in the harbor that can be attributed to upgrades of wastewater treatment facilities include significant declines in total and fecal coliform bacteria, dramatic improvements in dissolved oxygen levels, and declines in ammonia-nitrogen and BOD5 in most areas of the Hudson-Raritan estuary. Controls on releases of heavy metals and toxic chemicals have resulted in a 50 to 90 percent reduction relative to peak levels of trace metals and chlorinated organic compounds associated with fine-grained sediments in the Hudson River. The 1972 federal ban on lead in gasoline has resulted in declines in lead in the sediments in New York Harbor and many other waterways (O'Shea and Brosnan, 1997).
Resource use indicators of environmental improvements in the harbor include the bacteria-related upgrading of the status of 68,000 acres of shellfish beds, including the lifting of restrictions on harvesting shellfish in 30,000 acres in Raritan Bay and off the Rockaways in the late 1980s. As a result of the dramatic declines in coliform bacterial levels, all New York City beaches, historically closed to swimming since the
1950s, have been open since 1992 and wet-weather swimming advisories have been lifted for all but three beaches (NYCDEP, 1999). These bacteria-related improvements in public and commercial uses of the harbor can be attributed to the continued construction and upgrading of the city's municipal water pollution control plants, the elimination of raw and illegal waste discharges, and the increased efficiency of the combined sewer system (Brosnan and O'Shea, 1996b; Brosnan and Heckler, 1996).
As a result of the clean-up efforts to date in the harbor, the public has enjoyed greatly increased opportunities for recreational uses such as swimming, boating, and fishing. The improvements in water quality also provide substantial benefits to the local economy through commercial fishing and other water-based revenue-generating activities. Although tremendous ecological improvements have resulted from water pollution control efforts implemented since the 1970s, a number of environmental problems remain to be solved for the Hudson-Raritan estuary. Some contemporary concerns and issues include, for example, contamination of sediments and restrictions on dredge spoil disposal, remaining fish advisories for human consumption, episodic low dissolved oxygen, the occurrence of nuisance algal blooms and effluent controls on nitrogen discharged to the estuary; and increasing nonpoint source runoff from overdevelopment within the drainage basin of the estuary (NYCDEP, 1999). The success of continued water pollution control efforts to remedy these concerns in the Hudson-Raritan estuary will require financial support from all levels of state, local, and federal government; enhanced public awareness about the resource value of the estuary; and strong public stakeholder support for regional coordination of environmental control programs throughout the entire Hudson-Raritan watershed.
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