By: Paul Gallay
By Paul Gallay
As we take greater steps to protect our coastlines from flooding, we need to make sure we don’t inflict further damage to our rivers or the environment. Instead, we need rational, adaptable solutions to this ever-increasing challenge. And we need to make sure community voices are heard — particularly those of the most vulnerable and least powerful.
The Water Resources Development Act of 2020 (WRDA 2020), Congress’s boldest climate legislation ever, charted a new path forward for a climate-safe future for the Hudson River.
Riverkeeper and its partner organizations the Waterfront Alliance, Environmental Defense Fund, and Rise to Resilience coalition lobbied for WRDA 2020, which will require the Army Corps of Engineers to update its dangerously outdated coastal protection project guidelines.
As Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York puts it, WRDA 2020 will “cement our progress and commitment towards building resilience to climate change, all while ensuring that climate change and environmental justice and impacts are now required to be at the core of these critical projects.”
Now, for the first time, we can build our coastal protection plans from the community outward, using a range of site-specific solutions designed to work synergistically, giving us an unprecedented new chance to protect our rivers and communities from climate disruption.
Just two years ago, thousands of Riverkeeper members and activists spoke out against the Army Corps’ plans to build giant storm surge barriers across New York Harbor. Such a project, with huge walls, gates, and artificial islands, would choke off tidal flow and the migration of fish and damage the Hudson River Estuary forever, while failing to address the threat posed to our coastal communities by climate-induced sea level rise.
The tidal ebb and flow is essential to the Hudson and to the creatures that rely on it as a spawning ground and nursery. The river evolved to have this exchange with the sea. Disrupting the exchange could end the river as we know it. Riverkeeper and our allies demanded comprehensive, science-based flood protection strategies that will safeguard communities and the environment — without sacrificing the health of the Hudson.
The New York area study is one of several large-scale feasibility studies by the Corps along the East Coast. Like others, it failed to weigh the environmental damage and focused too narrowly on flood risk posed by storm surge — and not the larger, urgent, and far-reaching certainty of sea level rise.
Real solutions include shoreline features like berms, walls, dunes, and levees that can be adapted over time and built in consultation with communities. Unlike storm barriers — which have gates that remain open except in major storms — shoreline measures address flooding from both storms and sea level rise. Wetland buffers and managed retreat from some low-lying areas will also be part of the picture. This layered approach can incorporate living shorelines, green infrastructure to store water, and more sustainable design standards for infrastructure and buildings.
We have the right priorities in place — on paper. Now, for the sake of our rivers, our coasts and our communities, we need to make sure the Corps will refashion its Hudson River study, and others like it, accordingly. We need to demand that our city and state governments become true partners in this larger scope of study. We need communities, scientists, planners — all of us — to be engaged.
WRDA 2020’s arrival late last year was deemed “a holiday miracle.” Given how infrequently miracles come around these days, Riverkeeper will do everything in its power to take full advantage of this one.