Storm Surge Barriers on the Hudson Under Review

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by Charlene Weigel – 

Tarrytown resident Glenn Butler knew that the hurricane headed his way just before Halloween in 2012 was no trick and certainly no treat. Butler grounded his boat at the Washington Irving Boat Club, making sure the plug was in and the motor outdrive was up. He never imagined he had just readied her for a solo sail.

“I would have loved to see how she got out between eight-foot fences, made a hard-left turn and ended up on the ball field,” he said. Hurricane Sandy deposited less fortunate vessels on the Metro-North tracks and damaged local infrastructure, power supply, buildings and more.

The largest Atlantic hurricane on record, Sandy was a triple witch: a Nor’Easter hitting at high tide during the full moon. The historic storm surge awakened the general public to the vulnerability of the region’s coastline. Congress asked the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) for solutions to protect New York and New Jersey coasts from future storm surges. The Corps, along with non-federal sponsors, including the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, responded with six options. Some options involve barriers and levees, including Alternative Two, an in-water, harbor-wide barrier stretching from Sandy Hook, New Jersey to Breezy Point, New York. These alternatives could have an existential impact on the Hudson River and the Atlantic coast, yet few area residents are aware of the project.

Public comments were scheduled to close in August. Following protests about the lack of outreach, the comment period was extended to November 5, after which the Corps will choose one or two options for further study. No environmental impact studies or cost/benefit analyses have been done to guide this narrowing process.

The options range from “do nothing to shoreline strengthening measures” to “disconnected barriers and levees” to a “five-mile barrier linking Sandy Hook and Breezy Point.” Public documentation on the project consists of a one-page fact sheet and a link to the presentation slides (http://www.nan.usace.army.mil/Media/Fact-Sheets/Fact-Sheet-Article-View/Article/644997/fact-sheet-new-yorknew-jersey-harbor-tributaries-focus-area-feasibility-study/). Existing and assumed projects were not factored in. “The Corps has a $60 million project in Mamaroneck that we have been talking about for the past four years, and it is not even mentioned,” said County Legislator Catherine Parker. The public has no information on what protective solutions may already be in process or the degree to which other existing projects may be impacted.

Captain John Lipscomb of Riverkeeper asked the Corps for an example of an existing structure as a model for Alternative Two, the full harbor barrier. “They pointed to the Eastern Scheldt in Holland. We researched it,” said Lipscomb, “30% of it opens and 70% is fixed in the water.” Jen Benson, Riverkeeper Outreach Coordinator, quoted the World Fish Migration Foundation based in The Netherlands who said, “Don’t do what we did. We enclosed a once open estuary and killed it. Design with nature, not against it.”

Tracy Brown, Director of Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, said Congress asked the wrong question. According to Brown, the right question is how to protect against storm surge and rising sea levels. Brown points out that water levels equalize when barriers are open to allow commercial and other vessel transit. Barriers will not protect from sea level rise. Corps materials acknowledge sea levels will rise and that barrier solutions do not target that issue.

New York State Assemblyman Steven Otis worries about what will happen when the barriers close. His constituents, including Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Rye and others, are outside the wall. “Where will the water go?” he asked. “To the Sound Shore communities.”

The Westchester County Board of Legislators Committee on Environment, Health and Energy has called for an extended public comment period, more public hearings, and release of scientific and design information.

“This is the biggest engineering and environmental challenge we’ve faced in thousands of years,” said Legislator MaryJane Shimsky. “The idea that you decide this on the same time frame that you decide a mega-mall down the street is absolutely ridiculous.” The Corps estimated the feasibility study cost at $19.4 million of federal and non-federal funds (including state tax dollars). The fact sheet does not estimate costs or sources of funding for any option.

The Hudson is an estuary, a body of water where the sea muscles up, pushing the fresh water line north and south with the tide. Like other estuaries, it is an underwater wildlife refuge for striped bass, shad, blue crab and more. The Hudson is also an incubator for baby Atlantic sturgeons, their home for seven years before they graduate to the open sea. “The tide is the circulatory and respiratory system of the estuary,” said Lipscomb. Barrier options will restrict tidal flow on the Hudson, as did the Eastern Scheldt in The Netherlands. The tidal pulse will weaken with sewage concentration, turbid water and other unintended consequences.

Butler and 16 million other coastal residents know that storm surge can destroy property and lives, as can rising sea levels. George Latimer, Westchester County Executive, urged the Corps to hold additional hearings and provide more detail so Westchester residents can give informed feedback before any narrowing of options. Additional information and links to submit a comment can be found at https://www.riverkeeper.org/campaigns/river-ecology/storm-surge-barriers/.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and The Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to questions by press deadline. This story will be updated online if they respond.

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