Army Corps Updates Plan for Hudson River Storm Surge Barriers

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by Charlene Weigel – 

The Army Corps of Engineers is in the midst of a quiet feasibility study with immense implications for rivertowns residents. Congress asked the Corps for a solution to protect regional coasts from storm surge. The Corps proposed six alternatives that could have enormous impact on commercial shippers, recreational boaters, and the ecology and economy of the Hudson River and Atlantic coastlines. The Corps initially planned to close the comment period on August 20 and narrow six options to two with little outreach to 16 million affected coastal residents. The Corps has changed its process after outcry from environmental groups, elected officials and, increasingly, area residents.

Four of the six proposed options involve in-water gates, barriers and levees. Alternative Two, for example, is a five-mile barrier stretching from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Breezy Point, New York that could cost more than $50 billion to build and billions to maintain, much of which would likely be funded by state and local taxpayers. Congress’ narrow charge to the Corps means that no alternatives were designed to protect from the annual 2+ millimeter rise in sea level that is already occurring and will also destroy homes and property.  No environmental impact studies were done to inform public comment of the narrowing process.

After pressure from County Executive George Latimer, the County Board of Legislators, New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, Riverkeeper and other environmental groups and elected officials, the Corps added two Westchester public information sessions on October 3.  At these sessions, the Corps announced a modified process including a draft interim report scheduled for early 2019, followed by a “draft feasibility report” in Spring 2020 to narrow the options. The plan for public outreach and comment between these reports is unclear.

Attendees at the October 3rd meeting raised many questions. How often would the gates be closed? What will happen to communities “outside the wall?” Since the Atlantic sturgeon fishery in the Hudson is already closed, will there be any impact studies on this endangered, pre-historic species? How will in-water barriers impact concentration of pollution and environmental spills in the Hudson? Given rising sea level, how will authorities handle slippery slope pressure to close barriers during extremely high tides? There were no answers to these and many more questions that will arise in a project of this magnitude.

County Executive Latimer described the project as “a major public policy issue that must be driven through every one of our communities.” He asked that the Corps take into account the existing and planned infrastructure and shoreline resilience projects underway in many local communities, and that any project of this magnitude also protect residents from rising sea level. The Villages of Irvington and Tarrytown are among 17 Hudson Valley communities that have passed resolutions requesting increased study, communication and public involvement. These resolutions, calls from elected officials and environmental groups, and an increasingly informed public have changed the course of the Corps project.

Long before an era of climate change, storm surge and rising sea level, Mahican Native Americans had a name for the Hudson River. They called it Muhheahkkunnuck, the “River that Flows Both Ways.” The Mahicans recognized the unique nature of the Hudson estuary where the tidal flow can be observed for over 150 miles up to Troy, New York. Four of the six proposed options will have a potentially existential impact on the Hudson’s tidal flow while not addressing rising sea level. Rivertowns residents have a chance to voice their opinions about the impact of this project on the Hudson River and their lives. To record a comment before November 5th, visit https://www.riverkeeper.org/campaigns/river-ecology/storm-surge-barriers/.

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