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New hope for climate protection on the Hudson – and beyond


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The chances for a climate-safe Hudson and similar protections for waterways across America rose to new heights with the recent enactment of the Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (“WRDA2020”), Congress’ boldest climate readiness legislation to date.

Riverkeeper and partner organizations the Waterfront Alliance, Rise to Resilience and Environmental Defense Fund lobbied furiously for WRDA2020, which will require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to update many of its most dangerously outdated coastal protection project guidelines. For example, under WRDA2020, the Army Corps must:

• Revise existing planning guidance documents and regulations to consider sea level rise and inland flooding for all future flood mitigation projects and to ensure that they are based on the best available, peer-reviewed science and data.

• Expand coastal protection studies like the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Study (“HATS”) to better address sea level rise and engage communities, particularly communities of color, Tribes, and low-income communities.

• Adopt new guidelines requiring future water resources development projects to maximize sustainable development, protect and restore the functions of natural systems, and affordably address the needs of economically disadvantaged communities.

Employ greater use of natural and nature-based projects for flood resilience by ensuring natural alternatives are fully evaluated by the Corps given equal footing with structural alternatives. And,

Contribute $307 million for 23 habitat restoration projects under the Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration Plan and Hudson River Habitat Restoration Plan.

WRDA2020 represents a sea change from the situation just a scant two years ago, when thousands of Riverkeeper members and activists spoke out against the Corps’ ruinous plans to build giant storm surge barriers across New York Harbor – a project that would have choked off tidal flow and the migration of fish and damaged the Hudson River Estuary forever while failing to address the threat posed to our coastal communities by climate-induced sea level rise.

In place of the Corps’ lose-lose options for in-water storm barriers, which so endangered the Hudson that it was named one of America’s most endangered rivers in 2019, Riverkeeper and our allies demanded comprehensive, science-based flood protection strategies that will safeguard communities and the environment – without sacrificing the health of the Hudson.

After over a year of forceful public advocacy and thousands of public comments, the Corps began to walk back the storm barriers option in late 2019; President Trump rejected it on cost, feasibility and environmental grounds soon thereafter.

While Riverkeeper was thrilled to see the Army Corps’ in-water storm barriers plan shelved in early 2020, the White House then went a step too far, discontinuing the underlying HATS study entirely rather than requiring it to focus on more thoughtful, comprehensive solutions to climate threats. We pushed back hard, as did local officials like NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, and embarked on a major lobbying campaign to reinvent and revitalize HATS, with the full and enthusiastic support of U.S. Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney, Adriano Espaillat and Nydia Velazquez and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

First came the Hudson River Climate Change Protection Act, introduced by Maloney, Velazquez and Espaillat and approved by the House in July, setting out the comprehensive framework for a reboot of the HATS study described above. This Hudson River-specific climate protection bill was then incorporated into WRDA2020, helping to shape the bill’s approach to similar coastal projects around the country, as well.

In this Congress, plenty of great bills like WRDA2020 have passed the House only to die in the Senate. Here, thanks to the deft negotiating skills of Senators Schumer and Gilibrand, nearly all of the key provisions we pushed for in the House version of WRDA2020 (which had been nowhere to be found in the original Senate version of the bill) made it into the final bill, which was then approved by overwhelming, bipartisan margins in both the House and the Senate. As Senator Schumer puts it, WRDA2020 will

“… cement our progress and commitment towards building resilience to climate change by securing $421 million for the Hudson-Raritan Estuary Comprehensive Restoration, expanding the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Study to better address sea-level rise, and engag[ing] with low-income and communities of color, all while ensuring that climate change and environmental justice and impacts are now required to be at the core of these critical projects. I thank all of the grassroots organizations, including Riverkeeper, Environmental Defense Fund, Waterfront Alliance, Rise to Resilience, and many more whose advocacy helped me bring WRDA across the finish line….”

In sum, WRDA2020 instantaneously eliminates a raft of serious and previously impenetrable barriers to smart, community-centered and ecologically-sound coastal resilience planning. Now, for the first time, we can build our coastal protection plans from the community outward, using a range of site-specific solutions designed to work synergistically, giving us an unprecedented new chance to protect our rivers and communities from climate disruption.

As 2020 grinds to a close, we can celebrate the improbable fact that an aggressive new law addressing the massive risks to coastal communities and ecosystems posed by climate change passed overwhelmingly in this Congress and was then signed by this president. As one ally elegantly put it, WRDA2020 is, simply, “a holiday miracle.” Given how infrequently miracles come around these days, Riverkeeper will do everything in its power to take full advantage of this one.

Read more: 2020 victories for the Hudson and your drinking water

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