Can Storm Barriers Save New York City? One Critic Says No.
The Army Corps of Engineers has proposed building 12 separate storm surge gates across the mouths of canals and waterways of the city's harbor. But environmentalist Tracy Brown questions the soundness of the plan.
Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New York City and New Jersey. It triggered massive flooding that caused major loss of life, destroyed billions in property and imperiled critical infrastructure. Because of global warming, the New York metro area is now facing a future of more storms of this magnitude, with increasing frequency. With 520 miles of shoreline, the city will need to protect itself not only from these storms, but also from rising sea levels. A decade after Sandy, a comprehensive plan of defense has yet to be decided on.
Last September, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building 12 separate storm surge gates across the mouths of canals and waterways that sustain the New York Harbor estuary. Their plan also includes more than 40 miles of waterfront flood walls, barriers and elevated promenades that would dramatically reshape the shoreline.
While in favor of federal help, several local environmental groups have expressed opposition to the Corps’ plan. Governing recently spoke with Tracy Brown, president of Riverkeeper, an organization that advocates for clean water. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Governing: What is Riverkeeper’s response to the Army Corps’ preferred plan?
Tracy Brown: We definitely believe that there's an urgent need for resiliency and climate adaptation investment in the New York City metro area, and our region in general. And we are happy that there's federal attention on this need and a willingness to take action. But we feel that the mandate and the myopic focus of the Army Corps of Engineers, just looking at storm surge, is not sufficient to address the complexity of the flooding problems we face.
There's a real opportunity lost by spending $52 billion on infrastructure that will only address one of our sources of flooding. We would be getting something that won't meaningfully address coastal surge but will degrade our natural environment. So, we are really opposed to the proposed storm surge barriers.
Governing: What do you think they got wrong?
Tracy Brown: Where to invest dollars, and how the plan will perform over the life of the infrastructure, are both based on the wrong set of facts, in Riverkeeper’s opinion. The Army Corps is using the same cost-benefit analysis approach that they've been using for decades, which looks at property values and the impact of damage to property. And while we agree that that is important, you also need to value ecosystems and keep them alive and viable and functioning.
By just looking at pure property value, that approach inevitably results in the higher-value property being protected. And the lower-value property, where you often have communities of low-income people, and people with low mobility, get less protection. So it skews toward protecting assets of people who actually have a better chance to get out of harm's way, over people who don't have that same ability. That's a huge problem. It also benefits the built environment and infrastructure over the natural environment, which is also hugely problematic.
We also take issue with the way the Corps assesses the plan’s benefits, based on their sea-level rise projections. They are not in alignment with what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projecting or what New York City is projecting. The Corps is projecting a much lower sea-level rise rate. They also contend that the gates will only be closed when we have a 100-year storm. When you look at what happens in other communities that have gone ahead and built similar gates, they're closed much more often than they were designed to, because of pressure from residents.
The Corps is underestimating the cost of operation and maintenance. They are underestimating how much the gates are going to be used, and the cost of wear and tear. Their plan also underestimates the resulting devastation to ecosystems. These rivers and tributaries and estuaries are going to be blocked off. Sediment won't be able to move. Fish won't be able to move. The salinity balance is going to be affected, because the gates are going to be closed and opened more than what the Corps is assuming.
Governing: Has the Corps allowed sufficient time for the community to respond to its preferred plan?
Tracy Brown: They've pushed the deadline back twice. The last day for comments is now March 31. They were hearing from the public and local elected officials that it was unreasonable to expect people to digest an incredibly complicated plan in such a short time. This is the biggest, most expensive plan the Corps will ever do if this moves forward. It's just not enough time for people, especially lay people, to learn about it and put together any cogent response.
And the plan is incredibly vague. The Corps is calling it a conceptual plan. They say things like, “there will be nature-based solutions,” but none of its specified. No one knows what or where. They're leading with these gates. The premise of the study is, “We're going to try and block off tributaries in an archipelago.” New York City is an archipelago with 40 islands. You can't put a wall around an archipelago. So they're leading with, “We're going to block these tributaries with these 12 gates," and then all the other stuff is to be determined.
Governing: What is the current schedule for construction and completion?
Tracy Brown: Construction would start in 2030. And finish in 2044. They also are saying that they won't start construction in areas that currently have toxic contaminants. They say the cleanup has to happen first. We have two Superfund sites within the study area slated to be gated: Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek. The cleanup of those sites probably won't even be done by 2044. They certainly won't be done by 2030. So their timeline isn't really based in reality.
Governing: What do you see as the alternative to the Corps’ plan?
Tracy Brown: We need our local representatives to step forward and take leadership. Local agencies have the tools to address heavy rain events, sea-level rise, groundwater inundation and compound flooding, including storm surge. We need to talk about strategic retreat, and the need to stop building in floodplains and stop filling in wetlands. These are things that the Corps can't affect because the Corps is limited in what it can do.
And then they can leverage this federal resource to bring us something that is worth $52 billion, that the communities want and that will not be a stopgap for 50 years, but something that can be lasting.