Wall of Oysters Will Help Staten Island Weather Future Storms

By Nicholas Rizzi on August 15, 2014 7:42am 

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 The project to install "living breakwaters" to help lessen the height of waves in Tiottenville was awarded $60 million by the federal government in June.
Staten Island's 'Living Breakwaters' Project
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TOTTENVILLE — When Hurricane Sandy crashed into New York City's shores nearly two years ago it sent 16-foot waves surging through the southernmost streets of Tottenville.

The high-waters severely eroded the coastline, flooded homes, toppled structures and claimed the lives of a man and his daughter.

Now planners are hoping to avoid future devastation by creating an off-shore wall of oysters.

"They don't act as a flood wall that completely stops the water," said Gena Wirth of SCAPE/Landscape Architecture, the project's lead designers.

"They reduce water velocity, they reduce erosion of the shoreline and they reduce the height and intensity of the waves."

The team, which includes groups from as far away as Israel, developed the "Living Breakwaters" that will install a series of concrete reefs off the shores of Staten Island.

It was recently one of three projects in the city to be awarded money from "Rebuild by Design," a federal competition to support areas destroyed by Sandy. "Living Breakwaters" got $60 million for a pilot program in the Raritan Bay.

With the funds, the group plans to build several of the concrete breakwaters from Conference House Park to the hardest hit areas of Tottenville. They also looked at other areas along the shoreline to install them in the future if the project is successful, Wirth said.

The reefs will not only break the waves and lessen their height, but also help restore some ecological aspects of the area and potentially lower the flood plane of the neighborhood, the designers hope.

"Actually by attenuating the waves the project could potentially reduce the flood plane in that area," said Pippa Brashear, public realm designer for engineering team Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the teams working on the project.

"That could bring that down by two feet, that could make the difference of a floor of your house being in and out of the insurance zone."

The walls could also potentially support marine life in the bay, something the designers kept in mind when working on the project, Wirth said.

Living Breakwaters
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SCAPE/Landscape Architecture

The plans include space in the breakwaters for juvenile fish to hide from predators and to integrate oysters back into the bay, which was once home to a large farming area for the mollusks.

Oysters will strengthen the breakwaters, help break the waves and also improve the water quality, because the bivalves act as a filtration system for oceans, ingesting water and keeping toxins inside, Wirth said.

"They're a keystone species, they create all these little holes [in the breakwaters] for other organisms to live in and live around," Wirth said.

To quell fears that residents may try to harvest the oysters and eat them — potentially making them sick from the water inside — the plan also calls for a potential "oyster cam" to monitor the shellfish in Tottenville.

"Anyone can log on and kind of check out the oyster cam," Wirth said. "There will be a camera out there that would help make sure that people aren't harvesting the oysters to eat them."

Staten Island used to be home to a huge oyster farming community, especially in Tottenville which was known as the "Town that Oysters Built," Wirth said. It still boasts a large number of clammers who survive off the fish found off the shores of the borough.

Wirth said they made sure to meet with local clammers, who seemed excited about the project, along with numerous meetings with civic groups, community boards and local politicians.

The group is currently waiting for the government to transfer the funds to the state, which Wirth said they hope to get by the end of the summer.

The project then still needs to go through regulatory measures with the city and state and construction could start anywhere between two to four years from now.

The group hopes it will serve as a case study for habitat development.

"There's a lot of people interested in doing this kind of work, but there are not very many examples," Wirth said.

"This project has the potential to be a case study for habitat restoration and waste reduction for the entire eastern seaboard."

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