Proposed Storm Surge Barriers Do Not Address Sea Level Rise

Army Corps scoping meeting in Westchester County in early October
Credit: Rob Friedman

NRDC testified before the New York City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection yesterday in support of including sea level rise as a central consideration in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Storm Management Feasibility Study.

As we’ve previously written, the Army Corps’ study is intended to shield thousands of miles of New York and New Jersey’s coastline and riverfront from extreme weather. However, we have significant concerns with the Corps’ proposal to install giant offshore barriers, which could harm communities and the ecology of the Hudson River, New York-New Jersey Harbor, and Long Island Sound.

Yesterday’s hearing focused on a resolution put forward by City Councilman Costa Constantinides, which requests that the Army Corps refocus their analysis on addressing sea level rise. We joined over a dozen partner organizations and concerned citizens who testified in support of the resolution.


You can watch my full remarks by clicking “video” and fast-forwarding to the 3:08:00 mark.

To date, very little information has been provided about the five alternative projects proposed in the Army Corps’ Study—the publicly available information about the five alternatives is extremely general, and fails to state what type of offshore barriers could be used, the height of the proposed barriers, and what types of natural features and non-structural measures could be included in each alternative.

What we do know right now is that increased storm surge is not the only impact that will result from climate change—the New York City metropolitan area can also expect to experience sea level rise and tidal or “sunny day flooding,” the direct inundation of low-lying areas, and the expansion of floodplains due to rising sea levels and higher levels of precipitation. As proposed, the Army Corps’ alternatives address only a limited dimension of the region’s present and future vulnerabilities.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the worst-case-scenario sea level rise could be as high as 9.8 feet in the Northeastern United States by 2100. In comparison, the Corps alternatives assume a worst-case-scenario of just under seven feet of sea level rise, below NOAA’s worst-case-scenario by almost three feet. What happens when the proposed offshore storm surge barriers overtop due to sea level rise?

Furthermore, these barriers could wreak havoc on communities located outside of, and immediately adjacent to the barriers, which include New York City’s numerous low-income, environmental justice communities like Sunset Park, Hunts Point and East Elmhurst, where residents are already experiencing environmental burdens. It is insufficient to leave environmental justice considerations to chance. These considerations must be front and center, with impacted communities at the decision-making table from the beginning. Thus far, the Army Corps has failed to meaningfully engage these communities.

Additionally, offshore storm surge barriers could damage our waterways, changing the natural flow of water between the Hudson and East Rivers, Long Island Sound, Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, restrict the migratory runs of native fish, and cause sewage and contaminants to accumulate along our waterfronts.

Offshore storm surge barriers are not a long-term climate resilience solution—they are expensive, inflexible, harmful to the environment, and harmful to communities located close to, but outside of, the barriers. There are more affordable, more localized, more dynamic, and more effective climate resilience solutions, such as the construction of onshore dunes, floodwalls, levees, offshore breakwaters, wetlands, living shorelines, and reefs. These proposed solutions also address other climate change vulnerabilities, including sea level rise.

We appreciate the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection’s leadership on this issue and look forward to collaborating further to ensure that the Army Corps’ proposal addresses the full scope of climate risks and does not exacerbate harm to communities or the environment.

The Corps is still in the early scoping stage of this project, so now is the perfect time to get involved and voice your concerns about the construction of permanent barriers in the Long Island Sound, Hudson River, and New York-New Jersey Harbor.

Tell the Army Corps: Don’t harm the Hudson River, Long Island Sound, or New York-New Jersey Harbor!

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