"Of course I choose the hottest day of the year to bring you out here," joked Carolyn Vadino, spokesperson for the New York District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. I looked like a drowned, smashed-face Persian cat as I tramped in heavy thigh-high boots across the marshy sand of Elders Point.

It was 9 a.m., and the temperature in New York City was already heading for the red zone. The relatively cool breeze generated by zipping across Jamaica Bay in a motorboat quickly faded from memory. But, hottest day or no, we had to come out before planting season ended. Far more intrepid than any reporter, crews with Galvin Brothers, Great Neck, N.Y., pumped sand and planted the last of some 400,000 native plants on the morphing body of Elders Point East in hopes that they would grow enough to survive the winter.

Every cubic yard of dredged spoil is re-purposed.

The sand ("cleaner than beach sand," notes Corps biologist Melissa Alvarez) pouring out through a 3-mile-long 18-inch pipe snaking across the bay from a stockpile, came courtesy of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey's $1.6-billion dredging program. Another 300,000 plants will be placed next spring. They are the loving offspring of efforts by some half-dozen environmental agencies from New York and New Jersey. Replacing the invasive Huns called "Phragmites," these plants represent the great Green hope for the eroding ecosystem of Jamaica Bay. Click here to view map

Galvin Brothers' $13-million contract is one of the larger chunks of a $27-million overall mitigation and restoration program co-led by the CorpSs and the port authority. The contractor will pump 270,000 cu yd of sand (another 60,000 cu yd are now required because of 18 inches of subsidence) plant-modified 7-inch-deep native specimens and shore up Elders Point (consisting of two isles and 77 acres) with 7,500-ft worth of fiber/hemp coir logs. The project also represents a growing willingness among construction agencies to go above and beyond the normal environmental requirements.

Contractor is planting 700,000 seedlings in Jamaica Bay.

"In many respects, dredging was a simple operation up until about 10 years ago," notes Richard Larrabee, director of port commerce for the port authority. The port, while dredging all channels to 50-ft depths in anticipation of ever-growing amounts of cargo traffic, must offset some 450 tons of emissions a year. "We found opportunities not only to mitigate in accordance with law, but to go beyond," he says.

Every bit of the 50 million cu yd dredged from the channels will be reused, whether in restoring Elders Point, creating fishing reefs, or capping industrial sites, landfills and brownfield sites. As for wetlands, the $27-million program will restore 23 acres of tidal marsh, set aside 27 more for preservation and plant 1.5 million self-sustaining plants that nurture local wildlife. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 80 percent of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary's marshes have mysteriously eroded, at a rate of about 44 acres a year.

"We don't know why," says Steve Dorrler, port authority of waterways planning. But whatever the reason, the Corps and port authority are trying to reverse the damage even as they prepare the surrounding channels for mega-sized container ships.

In addition to Elders Point, wetlands restoration/mitigation is ongoing on Staten Island, at Joseph P. Medwick Park in Carteret, N.J., and at Woodbridge Creek in Woodbridge, N.J. Nothing is easy about mitigation; for example, plants must be set at a certain elevation for proper drainage, and they must be native to the region, notes Alvarez. Simply transporting the same species of marsh grass from another region of the country and plunking them down in Hudson Bay marshland won't work. Moreover, the planting area, composed of 5 x 50-inch cells of the 1.2-inch-dia plant cores, sports red flags to dissuade geese.

Finding adequate sources of these truly New York plants wasn't easy, either. "It's not like you can buy them from Home Depot," remarks Dorrler. Seeds had to be planted a year in advance. Between the four mitigation sites, even if Home Depot did carry a line of Spartina alterniflora or patens, Ivy frutescens or Distichlis spicata, they'd be sold out by now.

Long after the mitigation is complete, and for at least 10 years, Corps and port authority biologists will monitor the sites to see how well the plants and sand hold up and whether they are self-sustaining. In the meantime, the port will be busy replacing the engines of passenger ferries, tugs, cruise boats and other port equipment to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. "Just retrofitting one ferry has saved us 3,000 lbs of emissions every two weeks," says Dorrler of the $20-million effort. In working with owners of other vessels, "we will pay for the new engines and the owners pay for the dry dock and installation and labor," he says. So far 28 engines have been retrofitted, saving 400 tons of nitrogen oxide a year. Moreover, the port is looking at a speed reduction program wherein oceangoing vessels entering its facilities agree to voluntarily slow down.

Bill Nurthen, the port authority's general manager for program support, heads the "voluntary" efforts of the port to go above and beyond requirements. "We're working with tenants to re-orient terminal footprints, install electric gates that reduce wait times for trucks and electrify port cranes," he says. The port is also well under way with a $600-million construction program for ExpressRail, which takes trains directly to docks to pick up or unload cargo. "When it's fully complete, we will have the capability of lifting 1 million containers on rail per year," he says. "Every one is equal to 1.5 truck trips."

Vadino speaks only for the New York division of the Corps, but she asserts that as far as beneficial reuse is concerned, "this is the most ambitious program" within the Corps. And whether or not the extreme heat experienced on my site visit is a sign of global warming, the ambitious nature of the program couldn't be more timely.

(All images courtesy USACE)

Aileen Cho is Assoicate Editor for Tranportation for ENR