To Protect New York City, Listen to the River

Now that plans for a storm surge barrier on the Hudson have been scrapped, it’s time to focus on natural solutions to sea level rise, say environmentalists.

Four centuries ago, an English navigator employed by the Dutch East India Company sailed his ship into a naturally protected bay. There, he saw a dynamic estuary. Rivers and tributaries coalesced into a landscape of swampy floodplains, tidal marshes, and oyster reefs framed by meadowlands and groves of hickory and maple. Beneath the waves swam sturgeon and striped bass; in the skies flew eagles and osprey.

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More than 20 million people live in the New York metropolitan area surrounding the mouth of the Hudson River. Sea level rise is expected to put the city’s manufactured shoreline and the people who live there at risk. Photo by dfsym / pixabay.

Henry Hudson was one of the first Europeans to visit what the Lenape, the Indigenous residents of this region, called Mannahatta. His arrival sparked the beginning of this landscape’s destruction.

“New York Harbor at one time was just pumping life out,” says John Lipscomb, a boat captain for the nonprofit Riverkeeper. “Now, virtually all of the shoreline has been remanufactured.”

Today, over 20 million people live in the New York metropolitan area surrounding the mouth of the Hudson River. The Port of New York and New Jersey is one of the busiest container ports in the country. Much of the shoreline has been urbanized. Oyster reefs have been overharvested or dredged. Tidal creeks have been leveed. Various fish species, including Atlantic sturgeon and the American eel, have declined.

But recently, many experts, managers, and residents have begun to reexamine how we occupy the banks of the Hudson and the New York Harbor, exploring whether the river can remain both a heavily trafficked waterway as well as a river on its own right — a home for both people and wildlife. What’s more, they are asking how, in the age of climate change and sea level rise, they can fortify the city while also preserving, and even restoring, the aquatic ecosystem. This is no small task: New York City could experience over four feet of sea level rise by the end of the century, putting much of the manufactured shoreline and the people who live there at risk.

In recent years, the federal government has targeted this threat to New York through a series of studies and infrastructure proposals conducted by the US Army Corps of Engineers. These studies were spurred in large part by Hurricane Sandy. In 2012, the superstorm spiraled up the East Coast, devastated parts of New York City and other urban areas in the region, caused tens of billions of dollars worth of property damage, and killed 71 people. Sandy served as a wakeup call for many authorities, who immediately began to discuss how to prepare for similar storms in the future.

Last year, the Army Corps studies culminated in a list of proposals to minimize the economic costs and risks associated with another Sandy via structural measures like levees and dikes. These proposals ranged from building smaller levees in Hudson River tributaries to constructing massive storm surge barriers. The largest of these structures would be a $118 billion, five-mile barrier across the mouth of New York Harbor — essentially a large seawall that would shield the city from storm surge. A gate would allow ships to pass in and out.

This idea isn’t unique to New York. The City of Boston has recently discussed it’s own version of a large storm surge barrier, while on the Texas Gulf Coast, a series of destructive hurricanes have propelled conversations over a large storm barrier in Galveston Bay called the Ike Dike, named after 2008’s Hurricane Ike.

But at the mouth of the Hudson, environmentalists have warned that such a solution could be fatally flawed. “It has never been about the Hudson,” says Lipscomb. “It’s simply about protecting New York City’s real estate from a Sandy-like flooding event.”

In other words, Lipscomb explains how these storm surge barriers ignore the real problem, which is that sea level rise — not only storm surge — may force us to reexamine our overdeveloped waterfronts. A storm surge barrier may protect the city from another superstorm soon after construction, but sea level rise over time could overtake such a wall, making it obsolete. Plus, on the Hudson, a massive barrier would endanger the river and the plants and animals that inhabit it. “The river can’t be sacrificed to protect New York City real estate and infrastructure,” says Lipscomb.

In statements, testimonies, and public meetings, Riverkeeper and other organizations have said that the barrier would act like a dam. Anadromous fish like sturgeon, eel, herring, and lamprey would be blocked from moving up or downstream. Silt and sediment from the watershed would build up at the barrier, along with sewage and contaminants, causing algae blooms and further harming the health of the estuary and existing marshes.

“If you put a barrier across the mouth of a river, it’s going to have some dramatic effects on the ecology of that region,” says Eileen Shader, director of river restoration at American Rivers. “The Corps wasn’t looking at the broader impacts that [these proposals] could have on river ecology.” Last April, American Rivers named the Hudson one of the country’s ten endangered rivers of 2019.

Ironically given his environmental record, President Donald Trump agreed with environmentalists on this point. In January, he mocked the New York seawall on Twitter, calling it a “costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly” idea. A few weeks later, Congress halted funding to the Army Corps study, bringing the storm surge barrier proposal to a sudden halt. “Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready,” Trump tweeted.

In effect, Congress’s decision saved the Hudson River from the ecological damages a storm surge barrier would have caused. The issue remains, however: By the end of the century, New York City may be facing Sandy-like flooding twice a day at high tide. Which means the city still needs a solution.

Now that the storm surge barrier is scrapped, at least for now, some are starting to push the conversation towards on-shore measures. The question is, aside from Trump’s proposal of mops and buckets, what can be done to adapt to sea level rise in a way that’s good for both the ecosystem and people, not just in New York City, but along urbanized coastlines across the country?

“We need a plan for sea level rise,” says Kate Boicourt, director of resilience at NYC-based Waterfront Alliance. “We need managers to steer good land-use decisions, and resources to support people that are facing a transition.”

Part of that plan is factoring natural resilience into the way industry and city planners develop shorelines. The Waterfront Alliance recently developed a set of guidelines called the Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines, or WEDG, to serve as a design certification system, like the US Green Building Council’s LEED program, but for shoreline property. Waterfront developers can earn certification by integrating waterfront access and wetland habitat into their design. For instance, a recently constructed cement-piping terminal in the Bronx gained WEDG verification for maintaining a third of its property as natural floodplain. In this way, Boicourt hopes that WEDG can serve as a metric for better land-use decisions, even where shorelines are being developed.

Other groups are looking to the original Mannahatta landscape for inspiration. The Billion Oyster Project has spent the last decade restoring oyster reefs in New York Harbor, driven by the possibility that a self-sustaining oyster population could once again service the local ecosystem by filtering water and sustaining habitat for shallow water fish and other species. On its way to planting a billion oysters, so far the project has successfully restored 30 million oysters with the help of volunteers and NYC-area students.

On Long Island, the Shinnecock Nation has been planting native grasses, placing boulders, and building natural breakwaters of sand and oyster shells to quell the advent of rising seas on their land. “It’s not the type of thing where you can work against nature. You work with it,” Shavonne Smith, director of the tribe’s environmental department, told the New York Times.

“We simply can’t afford to keep building our way to safety and trying to rely on major structures to prevent damage. Structures can fail, ” says Shader of American Rivers. “We need to look at the full suite of approaches and let communities try to determine what are the best investments.”

Of course, much of the shoreline of New York Harbor will never again resemble the landscape of marshes and meadows that Henry Hudson would have seen in 1609. “You can’t pick up and move oil refineries in New Jersey,” says Lipscomb. Some areas, he explains, may need to use structural measures like dikes and levees to counteract sea level rise. But others may need to start focusing on a strategic retreat from the floodplain. This option doesn’t present any easy answers, only difficult choices between buyouts or evictions in areas prone to flooding. Both options uproot waterfront communities, though only before sea level rise itself does.

Addressing sea level rise and improving coastal resilience in New York and elsewhere might ultimately require a change in perspective, or at least adopting a perspective often lacking in top-level discourse, which is that of rivers and ecosystems themselves.

As part of his job with Riverkeeper, Lipscomb often takes New York City reporters and officials out on his boat Ian Fletcher, to offer the river’s point-of-view of the city and show what’s at stake in an ecosystem already layered with development. “We are the river’s voice,” says Lipscomb. “It’s a relatively simple challenge: As we face another issue, we ask, ‘What would the river want us to say?’ And then it’s up to us to say it.” The fate of the city’s shoreline communities, both human and nonhuman, might still be in question, but perhaps the river has some answers.

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