NRDC Comments on NY Sea Level Rise Regulations

Credit: Source: Climate Central, Surging Seas Report

On Monday, the NRDC filed comments on proposed regulations by the State of New York, which establish science-based sea-level rise projections. The regulations were promulgated under the authority of the Community Risk and Resiliency Act (CCRA), which requires state agencies, like the Environmental Facilities Corporation, to ensure certain funding and permitting decisions consider the effects of climate change, including sea level rise. The proposed regulations will provide a common and official source of sea-level rise projections that state agencies and applicants for major permits are encouraged to consider when evaluating their climate risk. Per the CRRA, certain state programs and policies, ranging from the State Smart Growth Infrastructure Policy to the Water Pollution and Drinking Water Revolving Funds, must consider the effects of climate change, including sea level rise, when issuing permits, grants, and loans, or making other funding decisions. It is essential for climate risk to be factored into funding and permitting decisions to best ensure that state monies are spent wisely and that local communities are not left exposed.

New York's CRRA and proposed regulations for sea level rise, once integrated into other agencies decision making, will have a similar benefit as the federal flood protection standards put in place by President Obama this year. Like the federal flood protection standard, the CRRA requires state agencies to account for the effects of climate change when making certain funding and permitting decisions related to infrastructure. Both the CRRA and the federal flood protection standard require smarter and safer design and siting of government financed infrastructure. However, the CRRA takes a step further by requiring applicants for major permits to also consider the effects of climate change, not just state agencies. Adoption of sea level rise projections for use in permitting and funding decisions is prudent given the potential economic and social ramifications from failing to consider it impacts.

The projections outline the rate of sea level rise for the New York coastline and the tidal Hudson estuary through 2100. According to the projections, New York may have to contend with a sea level by the end of the century that is 6 feet higher than it is today. Clearly if this scenario occurs, sea level rise will have serious repercussions for the State of New York. According to Climate Central, 120 square miles of land are less than 6 feet above the high tide line in New York. Half a million New Yorkers; $101 billion in property value; and over 1,500 miles of road, 1,200 EPA-listed sites, and 100 public schools are at risk. As depicted on the Surging Seas map, billions of dollars' worth of property in lower Manhattan will be inundated. Water Street will be aptly named as it will literally be under water.

Hence, preparing for the effects of sea level rise is crucial. Resiliency and sustainable planning must be pursued. Coastal communities must consider approaches that accommodate sea level rise, including elevating structures, using natural and green infrastructure, and non-structural approaches like stricter land-use regulations. Natural infrastructure approaches, such as restoration of coastal wetlands, oyster reefs, and dunes, not only provide flood protection but also environmental and economic co-benefits. These approaches serve to stabilize shorelines by reducing erosion and absorbing storm surge and floodwaters, provide habitat for fish, filter pollution, and preserve public access to the shoreline.

However, in some particularly vulnerable areas, it may be more appropriate to relocate structures as sea levels rise. For economic and geographic reasons (i.e., the land will be inundated), relocation may be the only option to ensure publically funded or permitted infrastructure are no longer in harm's way. This is especially true of critical infrastructure, such as wastewater and hazardous waste treatment facilities. Under the CRRA, both of these types of facilties would have to account for the impacts of sea level rise in their siting and design. Relocation is not a signal of weakness, but smart planning that seeks to ensure structures last as long as intended.

We commend the State for acting to mitigate the impacts of climate change by developing sea level rise projections and call on New York to continue to implement the Community Risk and Resiliency Act (CCRA), under which the sea level rise projections were promulgated. The CRRA is intended to ensure that decisions regarding certain State permits and expenditures consider climate risk, including sea level rise. Thus, NYSDEC must develop guidance on how to best integrate sea level rise risks into planning, permitting, siting, and design processes for projects and activities occurring along the coast and the tidal Hudson Estuary. By doing so, New York can ensure that public funding is not provided to projects or programs that fail to consider climate change risks like sea level rise - failure to consider such risks has direct negative implications for the long-term success of any project.

New York has taken the crucial first step in proposing sea level rise projections that account for 6 feet of rise by the end of the century. Now New York must help and encourage state agencies to utilize these projections in their decision-making. Sea level rise is not a matter of if, but when, and New York in adopting the projections as proposed, would be setting a good example of how to prepare.

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