Blogs > Ecology > Storm surge barrier plans for NY Harbor: The process is an outrage

Storm surge barrier plans for NY Harbor: The process is an outrage

A life-or-death decision for the Hudson River is being driven by a bureaucratic, opaque and undemocratic process – the New York – New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries (NYNJHAT) Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study.

The study is being undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to select a means of coastal storm protection, either by relying on the array of flood protection projects already in the works; building additional dunes and levees along vulnerable low lying shorelines; or pursuing the plans that Riverkeeper is dead-set against: building any number of massive, in-water barriers throughout New York Harbor that would restrict tidal flow of the Hudson River Estuary and change the river forever.

The Army Corps was tasked with this study after a 2015 report, inspired by Superstorm Sandy, identified New York Harbor and the Hudson River as a high-risk area for damage from hurricanes and other severe coastal storms.

Riverkeeper is trying to bring transparency to this discussion, in addition to voicing our deep concern on behalf of the river and harbor.

The Corps and its partners in the study – New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and New York City Office of Recovery & Resiliency – are doing almost nothing to inform the general public, apart from holding a token series of Army Corps meetings July 9-11 that were announced with only 13 days’ notice, and only to a limited list of stakeholders, not the general public.

Read our initial post about the plans under consideration >

File a comment once you have become informed >

Following is a plain-language explanation of the decision-making process that the Corps has laid out. In a word – based on all of our experience with environmental review – it’s an outrage.

Where does this process stand right now?

Having announced six possible scenarios – ranging from “no action” to building extensive protective shoreline dunes and levees, to building giant, in-water barriers – the Corps intends to narrow these options down to one or two by this fall (2018). The one or two “tentatively selected plan(s)” will be the subject of a “Draft Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement” this fall.

UPDATE, October 2018: The Corps will hold off until Spring 2020 before narrowing down the six current options. More: Army Corps yields to pressure for more time & transparency on NY Harbor storm surge barrier plans

The Army Corps has opened a public comment period, running now through November 5, to consider the “scope” of issues it should study in that preliminary environmental review.

The comment period initially had an August 20 deadline, and after Riverkeeper requested an extension and public pressure mounted, the Corps extended it to September 20. After further pressure and multiple municipal resolutions, the deadline was extended to November 5. The public is also calling for more public meetings. The project affects 2,150 square miles, 25 counties encompassing New York City and northern New Jersey, western Connecticut and both shores of the Hudson River up to Troy.

This period is a critical time for the public to speak. We’ve tried to make it easy. Add your voice >

How will the Corps narrow these 6 plans down to 1 or 2?

Without adequate environmental review and without your informed input. That’s how.

The Corps says it will only use a “cost-benefit” analysis, looking strictly at the economics – to see how much each alternative would cost to build vs. how much real estate and infrastructure it could protect.

The Corps makes clear: The value of the environment, the river and harbor ecosystem – what it terms “ecosystem service” – is simply not factored in.

The Corps will not conduct any new environmental studies to decide the merits of the six plans. It said it would only consider studies already performed. And the Corps says it will NOT share whatever studies it uses with the public.

So the Corps will be preparing a “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” on a selected plan or two without fully reviewing environmental impacts. How much sense does that make?

Why so fast?

Part of the reason is that the Corps must follow a specific set of rules (handed down by Congress) limiting the time and money it takes to decide on a storm surge protection project. The federal Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 imposes a 3-year time limit and $3 million cost cap on the study.

“Due to the scale and complexity of the study, the study team plans to pursue an exemption to these budget and schedule requirements,” the Corps has stated.

That’s common sense, and we have made the same request.

What then?

The “Draft EIS” released this fall would then undergo various layers of review within the Corps and by the public.

BUT, basic facts about the design (even facts like how high a barrier would be, and the number and size of the ship and tide gates) would not be known for years. Only the “conceptual” plan would undergo review during this “Tier 1” review.

As best we can determine from the documents provided by the Corps, the “Tier 2” phase – examining environmental impacts of the “Recommended Plan,” with actual, specific information about what would be built where – will happen in approximately 2022. But by then the final plan will have been selected and the future Hudson River may already be doomed.

This process is bizarre and outrageous, and we’ve never seen anything like it.

What exactly is wrong with this process?

We see this initial phase, the selection of one or two options from the six on the table, as a life-or-death choice for the Hudson River.

Any of the four options that include an in-water barrier would fundamentally and permanently harm the estuary. To make this choice without considering the value and benefits of the ecosystem or the ways in which the chosen option could adversely impact the environment is irresponsible and illogical.

Here’s what it comes down to: We are being asked to put the future of the Hudson River, and New York Harbor, and western Long Island Sound, and the Passaic River, and the Meadowlands, and the Raritan River, and Jamaica Bay, in the hands of an agency whose hands are tied by bureaucratic nonsense.

And that’s absolutely unacceptable.

Who gets to decide all this?

Once the Corps finalizes a “Recommended Plan,” it would pass it up the chain to the Chief of Engineers, the Office of Management and Budget and Congress, for approval and funding.

So is the Corps the final word? Are they in total control? NO.

Here’s a very important thing to know: At any point, any of the “non-federal sponsors” – meaning New York State and New Jersey – can stop the study. And NY and NJ may reject any construction alternative.

That means it is ultimately up to our state elected officials whether a smart plan goes forward – one that protects against storm surge AND sea level rise, leaving the river free and wild – or the harbor barrier plans, which will forever harm and strangle the harbor and river. Our state elected officials have the final say.

What does NYC think of all this?

Back in 2013, the New York City Economic Development Corporation concluded that in-water storm surge barriers were not the way to go:

“In theory, one way to achieve the City’s goals for its coastline may be the construction of massive protective infrastructure, such as harborwide storm surge barriers at the entrances to New York Harbor. As attractive as the concept of a single ‘silver bullet’ solution may be, though, a closer examination of this strategy strongly suggests that relying on such a solution would pose significant risks to the city that far outweigh its theoretical benefits.”
“A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” 2013 (emphasis added).

Daniel Zarilli of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency has voiced the same sentiment about these giant barrier projects:

“It creates the perception that there is one big thing we can do and we’ll all be safe,” said Zarrilli, who added that the project would cost $25 billion [the Corps says up to $50 billion] and have “zero impact on sea-level rise.”
NY Magazine, 2016

What about the states – New York and New Jersey?

Neither state, New York or New Jersey, posted public notices about the Corps’ public meetings. When we brought this up with New York State officials, they responded that 13 days “wasn’t enough time” for them to act. (Then maybe it wasn’t enough time for the public, either?)

Quotes in the press from state officials have been vague. Please, ask your state representatives where they stand. Inform them about the issue and your concerns.

The Army Corps says no plan will be approved unless it’s deemed “environmentally acceptable.” So why the concern?

That’s a false promise. The decisions being made now could set us on a course of catastrophic consequences for the river and harbor. It’s utterly unacceptable that the Corps is selecting a short list of final plans based only on its cost-benefit analysis, without factoring in the environment.

What would these projects cost, and who pays?

The Corps estimates the costs at $2 billion to $4 billion cost to build the shoreline-based projects (Alternative 5) and $30 billion to $50 billion for Alternative 2, which includes a 5-mile barrier from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to Breezy Point, Queens and another at the Throgs Neck bridge.

Barrier and ship gate maintenance is another cost that will likely total billions of dollars per year. That will be the responsibility of the states, not the feds.

What can I do?

Speak for the river! It can’t protect itself. Send your comment to the Army Corps by November 5. As part of your comment, make clear that you want environmental impacts to be studied for each plan BEFORE any are accepted or rejected. Here is a template for commenting.

Follow our updates by signing up for our emails and/or texting RIVER to 21333. You can also check our website Riverkeeper.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Storms are one thing. Why aren’t we talking about the bigger picture: Climate change and sea level rise?

The Corps’ mandate is too limited. The project is fatally flawed.

Why? Congress asked the Corps to deal ONLY with the risk of flooding that comes from storms, but not the flooding that will inevitably come from sea level rise. Only storms.

Members of the Corps study team said at the Poughkeepsie meeting that sea level rise and climate change were long term effects, but that the current study was meant to address only storm risk over the next few decades.

It’s up to all of us, with our elected representatives and government agencies, to look at the bigger picture and the long term.

Sea level rise projections are noted in the Corps’ study (Slide 11 of this presentation) – so any designs for new walls or barriers will have some increased height to accommodate sea level rise by 2100. But what about after 2100, when future storms overtop the barriers and make them obsolete? And remember, in-water barriers would have gates that must be open for ships to pass through, so that would do nothing to protect against regular, widespread flooding from higher sea levels over time.

So if we rely on in-water, harborwide barriers that protect only against storm surge we could end up spending $50 billion, strangle our river, and still fail to protect ourselves against future flooding from sea level rise. That’s just plain dumb. At some point, whether it’s 100 or 200 years from now, high tide every day will equal the water height we saw during Sandy.

The bottom line: Communities will still have to confront increased flooding due to sea level rise, whether or not any of the in-water barriers are built. Naturally, the billions spent on in-water barriers will reduce the pot of money available for needed shoreline-based flood-control measures.

If only the Feds had charged the Army Corps with protecting against BOTH storm surge AND sea level rise. Maybe then we’d have smart alternatives to choose from. But they didn’t. So it’s on us to make it right.

5 responses to “Storm surge barrier plans for NY Harbor: The process is an outrage”

  1. […] We had a beautiful afternoon together beside the Hudson River.  As always good food, good company and in addition a very interesting speaker from the River Keeper.  He informed us of the evaluation of several scenarios being planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers most of which could severely impact the river and its’ wildlife.  Here’s a link to the River Keeper’s site: https://www.riverkeeper.org/blogs/ecology/storm-surge-barrier-plans-ny-harbor-process/ […]

  2. […] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is now considering six different plans involving massive in-water barriers and/or land-based floodwalls, dunes and levees intended to […]

  3. […] The scale of this project is simply enormous, and so are the potential impacts – particularly from in-water barriers that would choke off the tidal flow of the Hudson River Estuary and the migration of fish. Given the potentially devastating effects, and the lack of any specifics whatsoever, the Corps’ initial timeline was an absolute outrage. […]

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