The answer says as much about the changing nature of New York City's landscape as it does about the possible struggle between the Bloomberg Administration and the state over control of the reservoir, where a wetlands designation could impinge on city plans for a $26 million upgrade.
The reservoir could be ripe for wetlands designation today precisely because of its rapid transformation over the past 20 years, said DEC spokesman Thomas Panzone.
“In the years since the reservoir was decommissioned, the basins, or parts of the basins, have developed some wetland characteristics such as seasonally or permanently wet areas and wetland-dependent vegetation,” Panzone said in an email.
There are currently 21 designated wetlands in Queens consisting of a total of 260 acres, or less than one percent of the total land in the borough. The DEC defines a wetland as a transition area between uplands and aquatic habitats. While standing water is often a sign of a wetland, it doesn’t have to be present in order for a wetland to exist.
Wetlands are valuable in the sense they provide the community with a variety of services, including flood and storm control, as well as a productive wildlife habitat. The reservoir is currently home to over 100 species of birds, many of which may be in danger if the wetland were altered.
Panzone said the final decision of whether or not to label the area as a wetland will rest upon the basic characteristics of the reservoir's basins and whether or not they match the criteria set by the DEC for qualification as a wetland.
The DEC is continuing to gather information on the basins to determine whether or not it meets that criteria.
The city's $26 million upgrade would involve building a recreation area over a portion of the reservoir's third basin, a move that is unpopular with local residents and preservationists.
But Panzone said the city’s plan was not the reason for the DEC’s wetland designation investigation. “The DEC has received letters of concern about the Ridgewood Reservoir over the past couple years,” Panzone said. “This included a request to designate the area as a wetland.”
Panzone said a wetlands designation might not interfere with the city's plans, depending on what the city intends to do with the site.
“The Freshwater Wetlands Act and regulations are designed to ensure that activities within a 100-foot ‘adjacent area’ around a wetland do not result in harm to wetland functions and values,” Panzone said. “Public park-related activities can often be designed carefully enough to be compatible with these legal standards.”
He said that a specific timetable for a decision by the DEC has not been made.
“In the meantime, however,” he said, “the DEC has communicated to the Department of Parks and Recreations its interest in the area and the advisability of considering designs that will protect the natural resources in the area.”
The 50-acre Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn-Queens border was an active water source until 1959. It served as a backup reservoir for Queens and Brooklyn until it was decommissioned three decades later.