Posted on March 1, 2023
As sea levels rise and temperatures soar, New York City is facing increasingly difficult choices about how to address the effects of climate change. Along the waterfront, billions of dollars’ worth of sea walls, jetties and breakwaters are now being built to protect against future floods and storms, with much larger projects looming on the horizon.
In September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published a report detailing its $52 billion proposal to protect New York City with the largest system of waterfront barriers in the region — and one of the largest infrastructure projects in the city’s history. The tentatively selected plan, named Alternative 3B, is part of the NY & NJ Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study, or HATS, and it proposes building 12 enormous storm surge gates in New York and New Jersey waterways. It would also construct more than 41 miles of coastal barriers along the city’s shoreline, cutting through neighborhoods, parks and beaches.
Environmental groups have responded with alarm, and several are now publicly stating their opposition to the proposal. In a statement released on Thursday, 10 organizations that work with regional waterways came out in opposition to the Army Corps’ proposal. The groups, which are members of a collective called the NYC and NJ Urban Tributaries Working Group, are the stewards of several creeks and canals where the Army Corps has proposed to build storm surge and tidal gates.
The collective includes the Bronx River Alliance, Coney Island Beautification Project, Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Guardians of Flushing Bay, Hackensack Riverkeeper, Hutchinson River Restoration Project, Newtown Creek Alliance, Save the Sound, Coalition for Wetlands and Woodlands, and NY/NJ Baykeeper.
In a 14-page letter, the environmental groups outlined their concerns and recommendations, chiefly that the HATS study is too narrowly focused on storm surges and fails to address the risks posed by sea level rise. They state that “the proposed plan largely misses the mark at protecting our communities from many aspects of future storms and climate change.”
They also say Alternative 3B relies too heavily on storm surge gates built in local waterways. Their objections are that these structures would cause serious environmental damages by disrupting tidal flow, sediment and marine habitats, and that their construction could exacerbate problems from contamination and sewage overflows. Riverkeeper, another local environmental group, released a separate statement in which it also opposed the Army Corps’ plan for similar reasons.
Three of the waterways where storm surge gates have been proposed – the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek and the Hackensack River – are Superfund sites, federally designated areas considered to be among the most polluted bodies of water in the U.S. The Urban Tributaries Group raised concerns that building these gates would unearth toxic contamination — and damage work completed during the Superfund cleanup processes. It also posited that the barriers would interfere with ongoing city and state efforts to mitigate combined sewage overflows.
“Ultimately, we oppose Alternative 3B because of the Corps’ single-threat approach to tackling a multifaceted flooding issue in a highly complex urban environment,” said Rebecca Pryor, a spokesperson for Urban Tributaries and the executive director of the Guardians of Flushing Bay. “We fully 100% believe that there needs to be a solution to protect people, community and ecology from here on out, but that solution needs to be in close coordination with local plans and local agencies.”
This winter, the Army Corps is hosting a series of public meetings and presentations to inform the public about its proposal — and it has extended the period for the public to submit comments on the plan until March 7.
“We certainly want to hear from as many people as possible, so we get a really good, full picture,” said Bryce Wisemiller, the Army Corps’ project manager for the HATS study. “We welcome all comments. Anything anyone has to say on it… We read all comments with the same level of seriousness.”
Once the period for public feedback closes, the Army Corps will compile and rank all of the comments it receives in order of importance, and then convene an Agency Decision Milestone meeting in June. There, it will use the comments from the public, community groups and other stakeholders, as well as government agencies, to decide whether to advance Alternative 3B or to adopt a different strategy.
A Final Feasibility Report is currently scheduled to be published early next year, which would then inform a Chief of Engineers Report due out by June 15, 2024. That report would be presented as a final recommendation to Congress, which would ultimately decide whether to authorize construction.
Alternative 3B is currently envisioned as a 14-year construction project beginning in 2030, so any protections it might provide would not come online for another 21 years. By the 2050s, New York City is expected to face up to 2.5 feet of sea level rise, according to the New York City Panel on Climate Change. By the end of the century, the city may face up to 9.5 feet of sea level rise.
“It doesn’t paint a good picture for the future, if we don’t do anything, but that is the default decision, if we don’t come together,” said Wisemiller. “You are looking in the hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, and that’s only over the next 50 years. And that number will just go up beyond then, with further sea level rise. So something needs to be done.”
Missing environmental justice?
In addition to their concerns about storm surge gates, the Urban Tributaries Working Group highlights how the Army Corps’ proposal does not adequately protect the region’s environmental justice communities. It specifically points out that the plan omits coastal barriers for neighborhoods along the East River waterfront of the Bronx. The local tributaries there – the Bronx River, Westchester Creek and the Hutchinson River – flow past numerous environmental justice communities, which the Army Corps’ report defines as low-income, minority communities in close proximity to environmental pollutants.
In an earlier version of Alternative 3B, released as part of a 2019 Interim Report, the Army Corps proposed building storm surge gates across these three tributaries, attached to coastal protections on land. Those barriers were not included in the newest version released in September 2022 because they “were found to be not cost-effective,” meaning they were deemed too expensive for the level of protection that they would provide.
“We believe that these locations have been deprioritized and sacrificed. These communities cannot afford to wait additional decades to receive climate change protection,” said the Urban Tributaries Working Group. “In the face of increased impacts and reduced quality of life from climate change, our environmental justice communities should be a priority for protection, not left completely exposed and vulnerable.”
Based on the September 2022 proposal, the Bronx could actually face an increased risk of flooding caused by the barriers built in other boroughs. That’s because when a storm surge hits those barriers, the water still needs to flow somewhere else and could move toward unprotected areas. In the other four boroughs, multiple coastal barriers or storm surge gates have been proposed. The sole proposal in the Bronx, which has the highest poverty rate of any county in the state according to a 2022 report, involves building barriers along a portion of the Harlem River to mitigate flooding caused by water deflected by other storm surge barriers.
“It’s going to lead to communities who are being sacrificed to future storms,” said Pryor, about the uneven dispersal of barriers proposed for the region. “I think a question we are trying to ask is: Does anything actually have to be sacrificed?”
The Army Corps welcomes any and all feedback on their tentatively selected plan, as it moves toward selecting a plan to protect the region from future storms. The engineers working on the HATS study view this as a project that will shape the future of New York City for generations to come, according to Wisemiller.
“The problem is not going to go away,” said Wisemiller. “Hopefully we can do something. So long as it’s environmentally acceptable, economically justified, and non-federally supported, we are looking to advance it. Any solution is possible.”