Rising Sea Levels Have City and State at Odds

By Julie Shapiro on January 3, 2011 6:30pm | Updated on January 4, 2011 7:20am

The island of Manhattan, shown in 2004, is one of the most vulnerable areas in the state for flooding.
The island of Manhattan, shown in 2004, is one of the most vulnerable areas in the state for flooding.
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AP Photo/Kathy Willens

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

LOWER MANHATTAN — The state just released a long-anticipated report on how to combat rising sea levels — New York Harbor is expected to rise 2 to 5 inches within the next 20 years — but the city isn’t on board.

Adam Freed, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, is worried that the state’s recommendations will restrict development in the city, which could hurt the region’s economy.

The state Sea Level Rise Task Force wants to add extra regulatory hurdles for development projects in potential flood zones and encourage local governments to move critical infrastructure elsewhere.

Those proposals and others the state is recommending "have the potential to add substantial costs and time to development projects and infrastructure investments," Freed said in a Dec. 14 letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is spearheading the sea level plan.

"Implementing these measures without a thorough understanding of the cost and time implications or the scope of their reach is premature," Freed added.

Two weeks after receiving Freed’s comments on the draft report, the state released a final version Dec. 31 that still includes the measures Freed opposed.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation said other members of the Sea Level Rise Task Force thought the new regulations were important, so the state did not want to remove them.

The Sea Level Rise Task Force’s report is just a recommendation, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo would have to take action to implement it.

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report, which is several years in the making, covers New York State as a whole, but it also mentions New York City as one of the most at-risk areas for flooding.

The sea level in New York Harbor has risen over 15 inches in the past 150 years and is expected to rise another 2 to 5 inches within the next 20 years, according to the report.

Water levels rose to just below the walkways in the Battery Park City Marina during a rainstorm in March 2010.
Water levels rose to just below the walkways in the Battery Park City Marina during a rainstorm in March 2010.
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DNAinfo/Josh Williams

More than 215,000 New York City residents live in an area that has a 1 percent chance of flooding each year, according to federal standards.

New York City is well aware of the potential dangers and is considering installing storm surge barriers to protect the city’s 570 miles of coastline. Since the city’s sensitive infrastructure, like subway tunnels and sewer systems, cannot be moved to higher ground, it makes sense to protect them with physical barriers, Freed said in his Dec. 14 letter.

The state, though, said storm surge barriers may be too expensive and should be avoided unless further study proves them necessary.

Disagreements aside, both the state and city agree that sea level rise is not a problem that can be ignored.

"The likelihood that powerful storms will hit New York State’s coastline is very high, as is the associated threat to human life and coastal infrastructure," the state’s report says.

"The public and its governments must be invested in meeting the challenge of sea level rise. The challenge is real, and sea level rise will progress regardless of New York’s response."

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