Home Opinion Suffolk Closeup Army Corps should follow New York’s embrace of ‘living shoreline’ approach

Army Corps should follow New York’s embrace of ‘living shoreline’ approach

It’s a remarkable document produced by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: “Living Shoreline Techniques in the Marine District of New York.” It lays out an approach to the coast that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should heed. It “emphasizes natural and nature-based solution to erosion control that will protect New Yorkers and the environment.”

The Corps of Engineers has long been committed to taking on Mother Nature in battle—building sea walls, stone jetties called groins out into the water, and otherwise “armoring” the coastline with “hard” structures.

But, as the DEC quotes its commissioner, Basil Seggos, as saying in a statement last month accompanying the plan: “The recent severity of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and the destruction left in their wake underscores the critical importance of New York’s Living Shorelines Guidance. Natural defenses offer some of the best protection from coastal storms and incorporating nature-based solutions into the state’s coastal resiliency planning and construction projects protects our communities. Using natural solutions is part of Governor Cuomo’s vision for more resilient coastlines better prepared to withstand the impacts of severe storms and to protect New Yorkers.”

The DEC statement then goes on to declare the state’s “guidance encourages the appropriate use of natural shoreline protection measures in place of hardened or man-made approaches to coastal erosion controls.”

What a contrast to, for example, what the Corps of Engineers has been up to in recent years in Montauk—placing sandbags at a multi-million cost on the beach, sandbags that have been ravaged in storms and will need regular maintenance at yet further taxpayer expense.

And the Corps is still pushing its Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point project—to dump massive amounts of sand along 83 miles of Suffolk County’s south shore at, now, a cost of $1.16 billion. This plan was first hatched when I first got into journalism on Long Island, back in 1962. Then its price tag was a small fraction of $1.16 billion, and got combined with Robert Moses’ scheme to build a four-lane highway the 35-mile length of Fire Island. Fortunately, he was stopped and a Fire Island National Seashore was created in 1964 and the magical communities and wondrous nature of Fire Island not paved over.

But the Corps of Engineers, with some moderation, continues on with its plan—more than 50 years later.

The DEC document is available online here. “Purpose and Scope” opens its 47 pages. “The purpose of this guidance,” it says, “is to: (A) encourage appropriate use of living shorelines in place of hardened approaches for erosion control, because living shorelines offer greater habitat and ecological value than hardened shorelines and revetments, (B) to encourage, where appropriate, modification of existing shoreline erosion control structures into living shorelines, and (C) to promote a consistent approach for permit application evaluations for living shoreline techniques.”

“This guidance is intended for a wide audience, state permitting staff, design professionals, and property owners,” it goes on. In Suffolk, county government, town board and town trustees have a special responsibility to read through the plan and follow its guidance.

“There is a preference for the shoreline to remain in its nature state as much as is possible,” it says. “Living shoreline projects that mimic the natural environment are preferred over hybrid options that utilize structural components. Projects should try and emulate the natural coastal process of the areas before options with structural components are considered.”

Leaders of environmental organizations are thrilled with the approach.

Stuart Gruskin, chief conservation officer at The Nature Conservancy in New York, says “we commend” the DEC “for promoting natural solutions to better protect New Yorkers and our state’s valuable shorelines. Living shorelines provide natural storm buffers, like wetlands and marshes, which absorb floodwaters, protect our shores, and help address the cause of climate change by storing excess carbon.”

“Living shorelines are a key to protect New York marine life, homes and businesses in the face of expected climate change induced sea level rise and stronger storms,” says Joel Scata, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl