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To face flood risks, New York should lead the way

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Storm surge barriers are not the answer. Neither are ‘mops & buckets.’ Our state should seize an opportunity and lead the way toward rational solutions on sea level rise and storm surge.

UPDATE, Feb. 25: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study on storm surge protections has been suspended, with nothing left in its place. It’s more important than ever for New York State to step up and lead.

Our campaign against giant storm surge barriers in New York Harbor – and in favor of rational solutions on coastal flooding – gained new visibility in January. And not exactly the way we’d expect.

First came a New York Times story that thoroughly laid out the many problems with building colossal ocean gates across New York Harbor for as much as $119 billion. A national audience learned that such barriers are only designed to protect against storms; that they fail to protect communities against sea level rise; that they would trap contaminants, interfere with the tides and block the migrations of fish.

Then came President Trump’s tweet:

Jarringly, the President had some of his facts right. “Costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly” is not a bad way to sum up the notion of a 6-mile storm surge barrier from Breezy Point, N.Y., to Sandy Hook, N.J., or across the Verrazzano Narrows – two of the scenarios under consideration by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Mops & buckets?” Insulting. Hurtful. And so typical of Trump.

Clearly, we need leadership on this issue. We need to get moving on real solutions.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said it best, in the Twitter buzz that followed.

Real solutions include shoreline features – like berms, walls, dunes and levees that can be adapted over time and built in consultation with communities. Unlike storm barriers – which have gates that are open except in major storms – shoreline measures would address flooding from both storms and sea level rise. Wetland buffers and managed retreat from some low-lying areas will also be part of the picture. The solutions must be comprehensive, locally driven, science-based, and protective of both the river and the communities alongside it.

As Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay said: “Barriers are a shiny object, a silver-bullet fix luring us away from where we need to go. The danger of one big wall is that if it fails, we’re all in danger. We need layered solutions.”

Photo by Susan Watts / Office of NYC Comptroller

Comptroller Stringer wrote in a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers: “Offshore storm barriers simply cannot protect all of our coastal communities from the myriad challenges posed by climate change and are incompatible with a healthy, thriving New York Harbor.”

Communities and organizations up and down the Hudson are saying the same. And during a public comment period, 91 percent of comments raised concern over environmental damage from barriers.

The public wants solutions designed to address sea level rise, not just storms, as expressed in 84 percent of comments. We are continuing to demand that broader approach.

So what comes next? If the worst ideas are eliminated – namely, the disastrous Alternatives 2 and 3A – it will be a happy day for the Hudson. We can’t count on that. The President could change his stance in a tweet. [UPDATE: In an unusual move, the federal government halted the study while it was under way. The Corps says the project is “indefinitely postponed.”]

What we need is for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to lead: Take a stand, reject barriers, protect the Hudson, and set us on a better course.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos noted:

New York State is a partner in the Corps’ ongoing study. It can reject any of these plans at any time. Please join us in calling on the Governor and DEC to seize this opportunity to lead. New Yorkers can’t rely on the federal government to lead the way forward. We have to rely on our own public officials, and our own state environmental protections. Let’s get the Hudson off of the Endangered List and get on with the work.

As the NYT asked its reporter Anne Barnard: Why should New Yorkers care about a sea wall?

“Because this is about whether and how the city is going to survive, as we know it, for the next 100 years,” she said.

Yes – and whether our rivers will survive, as we know them, as well.

Storm surge barriers have proven to be a terrible idea. They cause harm to rivers and fail to protect against sea level rise. The time has come to talk about rational, shoreline solutions that protect our communities from both storms and sea level rise – and allow our rivers to flow free.

Learn more:

Yale Environment 360: Could Massive Storm Surge Barriers End the Hudson River’s Revival?

Curbed New York: Surveying the ‘existential threat’ posed by New York’s massive storm surge barrier

One response to “To face flood risks, New York should lead the way”

  1. […] more important than ever for Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York State, through the Department of Environmental Conservation a…, working together with communities to address the region’s resiliency, and protect all New […]

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