The beaches are now open in New York City, and another hot summer is on the way. Millions of locals will soon be returning to the ocean to enjoy the city’s 520 miles of coastline. But looming in the background of this year’s beach season is a set of proposals that could completely reshape the waterfront for generations to come.
This past February, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) released an interim report for its NY & NJ Harbor & Tributaries Focus Area Feasibility Study. The report presents five different proposals for how to address sea level rise around New York City, including ideas for building storm surge gates across almost every body of water in the city, from Jamaica Bay to Throgs Neck. Each of these proposals would cost billions of dollars and would dramatically impact the coastline of the city, and one will soon be selected to move forward.
“A tentatively selected plan [is] expected later in 2019 or early 2020,” according to Michael Embrich, a spokesperson for the USACE. “Later milestones include a final report in 2021 and potentially having the chief’s report for congress by summer of 2022. Once that is completed and approved by the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Congress would have to appropriate funds to move forward on any potential construction project(s).”
The USACE’s storm surge barrier proposals encompass a wide variety of sizes and costs. The most expensive is Alternative 2, which proposes building a five-mile storm surge barrier between Breezy Point, Queens, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The interim report estimates this project, which Curbed investigated in 2018, would cost $118.8 billion and take 25 years to complete.
At the other end of the spectrum is Alternative 5, the least expensive proposal (aside from doing nothing at all). This proposal would not construct any barriers in the water, but would instead focus on a series of 14 shoreline-based measures, including levees and floodwalls along the coastlines of Long Island City, Astoria, East Harlem, and Manhattan’s lower west side. This proposal would cost an estimated $14.8 billion and take nine years to complete.
Falling somewhere in the middle are Alternatives 3B and 4, which would impact some of New York City’s smallest rivers and streams. Both of these proposals would take nine years to complete, and both include creating barriers in the water at the Hutchinson River, Westchester Creek, Bronx River, Flushing River, Newtown Creek, and Gowanus Canal. Alternative 3B is estimated to cost $43 billion, while Alternative 4 is estimated to cost $32 billion.
For the community organizations who have spent decades trying preserve and protect these smaller rivers and creeks, Alternative 3B and Alternative 4 have been a cause for alarm. These groups question how these storm surge barriers would impact the ecology and flow of their waterways, and how they might exacerbate the problems they are already facing with sewage overflows, stormwater flooding, and sea level rise.
Unfortunately, the USACE is not able to provide detailed answers to these questions at this stage in the process, or to provide more information about the environmental impact of these proposals. “We are still very early in the study phases. It could be found that all or none of the proposals are environmentally acceptable or economically feasible,” said Embrich in response to a list of more than 100 questions about Alternative 3B and 4. “Features like barriers are purely examples now, locations and design features are subject to change. An environmental assessment is being completed now, we will know more about potential environmental impacts when it is completed and released later this year.”
For the community groups working to protect these rivers, that’s not enough. “We are deeply concerned about all of the proposed alternatives, because of the process,” says Michelle Luebke, the director of environmental stewardship for the Bronx River Alliance. “The environmental impacts that all the surge barriers and coastline infrastructure would create … are not being considered until after the alternative is selected. This process is deeply flawed.”
On the Hutchinson River, which flows between Pelham Bay Park and Co-op City in the Bronx, the USACE has proposed creating the Pelham Barrier, a 10,000-foot structure that would cost $318 million and take four years to complete. The renderings for this barrier, which is included in four of the USACE’s five proposals, show an 850-foot gate located just south of the Pelham Bridge, and approximately 8,300 feet of floodwalls and levees that would stretch deep into the forests and marshlands of Pelham Bay Park.
During a hike along the Hutchinson River in 2018, it became clear that any barrier here would pose an existential threat to the river’s ecology, tidal flow, and marshes. Located to the north of the Pelham Bridge is the Thomas Pell Wildlife Sanctuary, a 371-acre refuge that includes one of the largest remaining salt marsh habitats in New York City. According the USACE report, the Pelham Barrier could permanently impact the “estuarine and freshwater forested/shrub wetlands in Pelham Bay Park.”
The potential environmental impacts of the Pelham Barrier have been a cause for great concern at the Hutchinson River Restoration Project (HRRP), an organization that has been working to protect and restore the waterway since 1967. “At this point and time, we are feeling pretty negatively about [the USACE proposal],” says Eleanor Rae, the president and founder of the HRRP. “They are talking about a 20-foot wall, and they are talking about millions and millions of dollars. We have to say: Is this money well spent?”
“Our big concern is if you put a up barrier, and you close it off and open it, it’s got to affect the wildlife,” says Rae. “Where the river ends by Eastchester Bay, that whole area is really brackish. That’s what they live in, all the fish and wildlife and birds, and that’s where they have lived for thousands of years. And if you change that, what are you doing? That’s my big question to the Army Corps of Engineers, and really, they don’t know, is what it comes down to. I just don’t care to have this [barrier] as an experiment for those who are living there, by which I am talking about the animals and the fish and the birds.”
Rae is also disturbed by the fact that the USACE report misidentified the location of the Pell Wildlife Sanctuary, erroneously describing it as being located on the Bronx River. “To put it mildly, we were not too happy about that,” Rae says. “The Pell Sanctuary is the second largest in the city of New York, and they didn’t even know where it was. They are suggesting this, and they don’t even know what they are talking about.”
On Flushing Creek, which flows north from Flushing Meadows-Corona Park into the Flushing Bay in Queens, the USACE has proposed creating a 15,000-foot barrier, which would cost $200 million and take three years to complete. Renderings show a 260-foot storm surge gate at the mouth of the creek, to the west of the Whitestone Expressway, and 14,183 feet of floodwalls, levees, seawalls, flood gates, and elevated promenades stretched out along the coastline of College Point and Willets Point.
Flushing Creek has one of the most complicated flows of any waterway in New York City, as documented by Curbed in 2014, and flooding has long been an issue along its banks. The creek regularly overflows its route through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, inundating paths and ballfields. It also contributes to the perpetual street flooding in Willets Point, and has flooded the Van Wyck Expressway, which crosses over its waters on a low overpass. During rainstorms, millions of gallons of raw sewage are regularly dumped into the creek and Flushing Bay as a result of the city’s Combined Overflow Sewage (CSO) system.
One of the main concerns raised about the USACE’s barriers is that instead of alleviating flooding problems, they could actually increase flood damage. “Putting gates in areas that are so heavily polluted, and shutting off those small waterways—what would that mean during big rain events?” asks Rebecca Pryor, the program coordinator for the Guardians of Flushing Bay, an organization that has been advocating for a cleaner Flushing Creek since 2015. “There are so many concerns with inland flooding caused by the gates, and the fact that they will be potentially trapping in large amounts of sewage.”
Part of the problem is that as sea levels rise, the storm surge gates may need to be closed more frequently, causing more rainwater and raw sewage to back up behind them. “It will get left closed more often than we really know,” says Pryor, who believes that the USACE report fails to account for the risks of sea level rise in the New York region. “The predictive sea level rise [in the USACE report] is actually lower than the amount predicted by the New York Panel on Climate Change.”
In a report published this March, the panel predicted between 1.25 to 9.5 ft of sea level rise in New York City by 2100. By contrast, the USACE report predicts a much lower range, “from an increase of +0.7 feet for the low scenario up to five feet for the high scenario through 2100.” All of the USACE’s proposed barriers are being designed based on this lower prediction, which could mean that they could quickly become ineffective. A similar outcome occurred this year in New Orleans, when the USACE’s $14 billion system of levees and floodwalls was declared inadequate only 11 months after its completion, in part because sea levels had risen faster than expected.
On the Bronx River, the USACE has proposed creating a 300-foot storm surge gate and 25,774 feet of shoreline barriers that would stretch across several neighborhoods. This barrier would cost $150 million and would take three years to complete. For the Bronx River Alliance, which has been working to restore the river since 2001, the idea of a barrier in the water here raises many concerns.
The Bronx River, which Curbed canoed down in 2016, is one of the crown jewels of the NYC Parks system, cutting a green path through the heart of the Bronx. But as with all the city’s waterways, flooding and pollution are a serious problem. “It floods frequently. There are sections of the Bronx River Parkway that get shut down every time it rains, because the river is jumping its banks,” says Luebke. “Now, we are talking about putting barriers up that can be closed, which means we are going to be literally closing off this cesspool of sewage and trash and not allowing it to escape.”
“We don’t know what that’s going to do to the water quality, thus we don’t know what that’s going to do to the resident inhabitants, or the migratory fish and bird species,” said Luebke, who favors a greener approach that would incorporate resilient measures like oyster reefs and salt marsh restorations. “Now is the time to come together and figure out a solution to not wall off our city, but to make the water part of the city in a sustainable way.”
On Westchester Creek, which Curbed explored in 2016, the USACE has proposed a 340-foot storm surge gate located to the south of the Bruckner Boulevard bridge. This estimated cost for this gate is $170 million, and it would take three years to complete. The gate is part of the same proposed 25,774-foot shoreline barrier system that would also cross the nearby Bronx River.
Much of Westchester Creek’s original flow has been buried underground, and what remains above ground is largely an industrialized tidal inlet, which faces similar problems of sewage overflows, stormwater flooding, and decades of pollution. “Westchester Creek would have the same issues as the Bronx River if the barriers were closed,” says Luebke.
On the Newtown Creek, the USACE has proposed creating an 18,000-foot barrier which would cost $170 million and take three years to complete. The renderings show a 250-foot storm surge gate at the mouth of the creek, and 17,554 feet of levees and floodwalls along the coasts of Greenpoint and Long Island City. These coastal defenses would cut across the waterfronts of dozens of newly built residential towers, including the recently completed green spaces at Hunters Point South and Greenpoint Landing.
One of the major challenges to building a storm surge gate on the Newtown Creek—aside from the ubiquitous problems of sewage overflows, stormwater flooding, and decades of pollution—is the ongoing EPA Superfund cleanup. In its report, the USACE states that “prior to implementing any project feature within Newtown Creek, remediation of the hazardous and toxic substances must be completed.” It is unknown when the Superfund process, which began in 2010, will be complete, and thus impossible to know when a storm surge barrier could be built.
For those who have studied the history of the Newtown Creek, a storm surge barrier in its waters does not seem like an effective solution. “By the time the surge gets here, it’s already too late,” says Mitch Waxman, the historian of the Newtown Creek Alliance, a group that has been working to restore the creek since 2002. “I would argue that once the surge gets past the Verrazzano Bridge, it’s already too late. We need to be thinking bigger.”
Like many waterfront advocates, Waxman is in favor of a response that includes more green infrastructure and natural measures. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to create oceanside topography that breaks up wave action, and that could eat up the energy of a storm surge, than it would be to build giant mechanisms which we are going to have to maintain and replace?” he says. “Unfortunately, we are taking a very American tack with this, which is building a machine to do something which nature would do better.”
At the Gowanus Canal, the USACE has proposed creating a 5,000-foot barrier that would cost $85 million and take two years to complete. The current renderings for this barrier include a 130 foot storm surge gate located just south of the Hamilton Avenue Bridge, and more than 4,000 feet of barriers built on land, along Hamilton Avenue underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
One of the major challenges of building a storm surge gate here, as on the Newtown Creek, would be coordinating with the ongoing EPA Superfund cleanup of the canal. The Gowanus, which is one of the most toxic bodies of water in the United States, is currently being dredged and capped as part of the EPA cleanup, and the USACE has noted in their report that they would need to further evaluate “the risk to breaching the cap of toxic materials,” before building a permanent storm surge gate in the canal.
For the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, which has been working to restore the ecology of the waterway since 2006, the USACE proposal is incomplete and ill-considered. “Bottom line: I think it’s stupid,” says Andrea Parker, the executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, when asked about the proposed barrier. “I don’t think there is actually a way to vertically protect the whole East Coast, so New York City in particular should be leading the charge in figuring out how to adapt to sea level rise, and this proposal is not doing that.”
The concerns raised by Parker are similar to those raised on other waterways: the barrier’s potential impact on the canal’s tidal flow, the unknown amount of ecological damage it could cause, and the danger of toxic flooding behind the barrier when it is closed during rainstorms. “We already have street flooding every time it rains even a quarter of an inch,” says Parker. “There is no way to lift the whole neighborhood, or to build a levee around the neighborhood, because we are in a bowl anyway, and the groundwater is going to be rising with the sea level rise.”
Instead of walls and barriers, Parker would prefer to see a strategy of resilient climate adaptation implemented along the Gowanus Canal, including raising buildings above the floodplain, and engineering spongy landscapes that could blunt the impact of flooding. “We are in a salt marsh and it’s always going to be a salt marsh. The water is always going to be here,” says Parker. “Long-term, the neighborhood is going to need to adapt to flooding. The neighborhood in 50 years is going to have a very different relationship with the water. Hopefully it will be clean water, but it’s not just going to be in the canal.”
The USACE storm surge gate proposals represent a pivotal moment for the future of New York City—and for those who know the waterfront best, the consensus appears to be that these proposals are inherently faulty. “The fatal flaw of the entire Corps study is that they are not proposing designs that would work for both sea level rise and storm surge flooding, and for that reason the entire study is fatally flawed,” says John Lipscomb, the vice president for advocacy at Riverkeeper, an organization which has been working to protect the Hudson River watershed since 1966.
“Either those communities are going to flood as sea level rises, or they are going to close the gates and the degree of contamination is just going to go up and up and up. And all our efforts at restoration are going to be made meaningless,” says Lipscomb. “To me, the only thing that is going to work for storm surge and sea level rise are a combination of shoreline protections, like floodwalls and levees and dikes, combined with strategic retreat. You can’t protect everything.”
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.