Prioritizing communities and nature in the nation’s largest Army Corps project in New York-New Jersey Harbor

A plan for the largest transformation of New York City’s and northern New Jersey’s waterfront since the Robert Moses era has been proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). It’s called the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Study and it was introduced to the public to address flooding and storms like Hurricane Sandy. At stake is the future of more than 84 miles of waterfront and waterways in the metropolitan region and an area that supports 16 million people.  

New York City

New York and New Jersey residents must determine if this $52 billion dollar plan aligns with the future they want. Addressing flood risks is a step in the right direction, but as it stands today, the current proposal does not reflect the priorities of many communities and environmental organizations. With the impacts of climate change already in motion, we simply cannot afford to get this wrong. 

Since the plan’s inception, EDF has advocated, alongside partners from frontline communities and environmental organizations, for an approach that is multi-hazard, community-centered and prioritizes nature-based solutions. Our team has worked closely with the Rise to Resilience coalition, members of Congress and the study sponsors to expand the study’s authorization as well as the USACE’s ability to more comprehensively address flooding in coastal storm risk management studies through the Water Resources Development Act. 

Moving forward, we are continuing to collaborate with partners and the study sponsors to advocate for an improved plan that focuses on four key priorities:  

1. Put frontline communities first  

If we want a flood plan that protects local communities, we must put the priorities of those residents first. That means listening to the perspective of individuals from Coney Island, Soundview, Jersey City, Newark, Rockaway, Harlem, Mott Haven, Graniteville and Elizabeth to name a few, and developing solutions together. 

We don’t want to miss an opportunity to actualize what many communities have expressed in their comments and local plans: livable, affordable, resilient, equitable and healthy communities. We also need to make sure that the environmental risks facing minority communities are addressed, such as those in the southeast Bronx area, who have been completely left out of the study scope.  

2. Address multiple flood hazards by using the best available climate science  

Right now, the USACE plans to primarily invest in infrastructure to combat storm surge. However, this isn’t the only flood hazard communities are facing. Many neighborhoods are impacted regularly by extreme rainfall, and others face being permanently under water by the end of the century due to sea level rise.  

For this reason, EDF worked with partners and members of Congress to incorporate language into the Water Resources Development Acts of 2020 and 2022. This ensures the USACE has the authority to address multiple flood hazards by using the best available climate science.  

Before we invest billions of dollars in mitigation efforts, it’s important to consider how we can effectively combat all types of flood hazards – like storm surge, tidal and rain-based flooding to make the wisest and most resilient investments. 

3. Incorporate nature-based approaches and advance environmental justice  

Tackling our growing flood risk demands us to think simultaneously at the watershed scale and block by block. We need to adapt homes and infrastructure, integrate natural and green infrastructure, and increase affordable housing in low-risk communities while preventing displacement driven by gentrification. 

Installing seawalls, surge barriers and levees might be faster and easier, but truly resilient communities cannot be achieved without maximizing the use of nature-based approaches, prioritizing environmental justice and ensuring that those who are impacted the most by climate change are included in the solutions. That is why EDF and partners are calling for the USACE to conduct additional analyses to ensure that we understand the costs and benefits to the overall well-being of communities in the region.   

4. Develop a phased and adaptive approach and wait on surge gates   

Reducing climate risks means adapting over time to a changing future. That means we must ensure the region’s flood plan is similarly adaptive.  

Given the long timeline for construction, high costs and project complexity, we are calling for the USACE to develop a plan that puts environmental justice communities, critical infrastructure and long-term, nature-based approaches first and fast-tracks solutions in communities with the highest need.  

Projects with higher uncertainty, such as associated with the proposed surge gates, have additional research needed to fully understand their benefits, the environmental and social impacts and associated costs. For this reason, we recommend additional analyses and refinements before the use of surge gates is considered.  Read more about the science of surge barriers here.

Through our work with many advocacy groups, we’ve been able to build support for these changes amongst the non-federal sponsors (the States of New York and New Jersey and City of New York, who share the cost of the ultimate project with the federal government) and collectively were successful in advocating for them to request these priorities of the USACE in the completion of the plan.  

Today, we continue to advocate for a better plan – whether that means returning to the drawing board or expeditiously improving the proposal. We need the leaders of New Jersey, New York State, New York City and the USACE to center communities affected by climate impacts, combat all flood hazards, prioritize approaches that promote environmental justice and maximize natural solutions. 

Thankfully, as codified in the Water Resources Development Act and several executive policy directives, the USACE has the tools and authority to address benefits and risks comprehensively, consult with communities and prioritize equitable and nature-based approaches. Now is the time to do the extra work – join us in advocating for a plan that ensures a safe, healthy and resilient future for all of New York-New Jersey Harbor.  

See EDF’s full comments on the study here.  

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