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A cure far worse than the disease

April 17, 2019 10:03 pm

Many people who’ve lived in the Twin Counties for a long time know the Hudson River is an ailing waterway, but we didn’t know how bad it was until we learned that the Hudson is the nation’s second-most endangered river, according to a report by American River, an organization that ranks rivers threatened by critical decisions about conservation and infrastructure.

It’s in a highly critical condition this year, mostly because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to install storm surge barriers along the Hudson to prevent catastrophic flooding, such as the type that heavily damaged New Jersey, New York City, Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley during Hurricane Sandy.

The idea of keeping flood waters at bay looks good on paper, but local environmental experts who know a thing or two about the Hudson say barriers pose a greater ecological threat.

“Harming this iconic river with massive flood barriers doesn’t make sense when we should be identifying better, more cost-effective options to protect people and property, as well as river health,” said Eileen Shader of American Rivers. “We are already feeling the impacts of climate change in the Northeast, including storm surge and sea level rise, and it’s only going to get worse.”

The barriers will prevent the natural passage of fish and wildlife along the river and cause a build-up of contaminants, leading to algae blooms, according to John Lipscomb, vice president of advocacy for Riverkeeper and a veteran patrol boat captain.

“For the Hudson, the stakes in this decision cannot be overstated,” Lipscomb said. “These storm barriers pose a truly existential threat to the Hudson. We cannot — must not — allow these barriers to be built. The twice-daily tides are the essential respiration and the heartbeat of this living ecosystem. The mouth of the river must remain open and unrestricted, as it has been for millennia.”

The Hudson River is a vitally important waterway, crucial to our ecology, culture and economy. For decades, the river has been the victim of contamination by deadly chemical waste, blind and undirected economic development and, most recently, toxic PCB pollution by General Electric.

And now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose plan seems aimed at protecting New York City without regard to communities in Greene and Columbia counties, want to install storm surge barriers. These could strangle the Hudson’s delicate ecosystem and the communities living in it. The Army Corps must ensure that any solution prevents coastal flooding from both storms and sea level rise without damaging the river. As it now stands, the proposed cure is far worse than the disease.

Flooding in the Chelsea and Financial Districts of Manhattan from Hurricane Sandy occurred in late October of 2012. On October 29th a giant flood barrier at the mouth of the Hudson would have had absolutely no constructive effect as Sandy's waters came down through the Sound and the East River causing billions in damage. Damage surged into Brooklyn as well inland into East Williamsburg. During Katrina, levies actually complicated flooding by acting like a dam up river with no place to go.

Our Hudson poses a similar problem in models where Hurricane scale flooding might stall directly in the Hudson valley gather behind points where storm surge flood barriers might be proposed for construction. Better to work with Nature than to try to out muscle it. We don't stand a chance using sheer force up against the forces of Nature. Wetlands and buffer zones are the key, not over-construction and poorly conceived development dependent upon the taxpayers ultimately footing the bill for developers' folly.