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In Staten Island, NYC’s first ‘mitigation bank’ restores 54 acres of wetlands

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A city pilot program has revitalized Saw Mill Creek’s degraded marshland

Newly-planted shrubs poke out of the sand-colored earth. In the background, a creek snakes through emerald marshland.
Newly revitalized wetlands at Saw Mill Creek on Staten Island’s west shore.
NYC Economic Development Cooperation

The city is wrapping up a 54-acre wetlands restoration on Staten Island’s west shore after years of dredging debris from Saw Mill Creek.

Located in Bloomfield, the creek served as an illegal dumping ground for decades. Tires, hunks of concrete, and abandoned boats and cars became common sights in the blighted marshland along Saw Mill Creek.

To change that, in 2017 the NYC Economic Development Cooperation (NYCEDC) and the Parks Department partnered on the Saw Mill Creek Pilot Wetland Mitigation Bank, which allows developers to buy credits in order to offset the environmental mitigation they are required to complete at other nearby construction projects. Altogether, the public-private approach will rehabilitate 69 acres of marsh. This week marks the last planting of the first 54-acre leg of restoration, and signals the success of a pilot approach that could eventually be used to revitalize polluted landscapes across the five boroughs.

“This program proves that innovative approaches to wetland restoration and coastal development are not only effective, but vital to our city’s resiliency efforts,” NYCEDC president and CEO James Patchett said in a statement.

Wetlands serve a crucial role in resiliency by absorbing flood waters and capture pollutants to improve water quality, as well as serving as “biological supermarkets” with diverse ecosystems that sustain neighboring wildlife. The Saw Mill Creek pilot is New York’s first mitigation bank to preserve such terrain, but there have been 1,000 similar projects across the U.S. that have helped rehabilitate more than 960,000 acres of wetlands.

An image on the left shows dilapidated, brown wetlands on October 15, 2016. The image on the right shows that same section of land but on July 13, 2019; the land is green and revitalized.
A before and after of restoration efforts at Saw Mill Creek.
NYC Economic Development Coporation

In Staten Island, the undertaking has removed more than 40,000 cubic yards of debris and contaminated soil—enough to pack about 1,000 dumpsters—from the damaged shoreline and freed up 24 acres of revitalized wetlands. These efforts are hugely expensive but are feasible through the mitigation bank, which allows project sponsors across several sites to buy credits and support the restoration of the larger project. For this restoration, public and private developers of waterfront properties in select parts of all five boroughs were eligible to participate.

Federal and state law already requires builders behind waterfront projects to undertake restoration work to mitigate any harm they’re causing to neighboring ecosystems. It can be difficult to find suitable sites for initatives to offset construction impacts in New York City, but the mitigation bank enables developers to contribute to one extensive project. Staten Island Borough President James Oddo sees the pilot as a boon for the borough.

“The beauty of this project is that it enhances our island’s wetlands, which can reduce flooding and protect our shorelines from storm surges, while also allowing for proper future development along our west shore,” Oddo said in a statement.

The mitigation bank also streamlines the restoration process since builders no longer have to go through lengthy reviews for individual efforts. Roland Lewis, president and CEO of the Waterfront Alliance, calls the program a “breakthrough win-win for the maritime industry and the environment.”

The second phase of the Saw Mill Creek restoration will address another 15 acres. When that effort starts is dependent on the funds secured through credit sales from the first leg of restoration work (12.93 bank credits were created), according to NYCEDC. The city is in the midst of contract negotiations for several credits and credit fractions.

Those interested in purchasing whole or fractions of credits from the pilot can do so through the Saw Mill Creek Wetland Mitigation Bank RFP until August 25, 2021.