Testimony of New York State Senator
Thomas K. Duane and New York State Assembly Member Richard N. Gottfried before the New York City Council Committees on Waterfronts and Environmental Protection Regarding Climate Change Impacts and Mitigation Measures in New York City

December 16, 2011

We are Thomas K. Duane, representing New York State's 29th Senate District, which includes Manhattan's Hudson River waterfront from Vestry to West 70th Street and its East River waterfront from 14th to 30th Streets; and Richard N. Gottfried, representing New York State's 75th Assembly District, which includes Manhattan's Hudson River waterfront from West 14th to 59th Streets. We wish to thank the New York City Council Committees on Waterfronts and Environmental Protection for the opportunity to present testimony at this Oversight Hearing on Climate Change Impacts and Mitigation Measures in New York City.

Last December, we submitted comments to the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force ("the Task Force") on its draft report addressing the impending sea level rise, how it will affect coastal communities throughout New York State, and ways to protect coastal ecosystems, natural habitats and communities in the face of flooding. We were pleased that the Task Force heeded our and other recommendations and amended its final report ("the Report") to recognize the exceptional measures that may be necessary to protect New York City's coastal infrastructure and communities. The Task Force's findings and recommendations are of upmost importance to us and many of our constituents since significant portions of our districts lie just above sea level and are therefore at risk from rising sea levels and storm surges.

The Report notes that New York has seen increases in sea levels for at least a century and is known to be vulnerable to tropical storms, hurricanes and Nor'easters which produce storm surges. It further describes the devastating combined effects of these phenomena, which will continue to be exacerbated by global warming, including, among others, contamination of freshwater drinking supplies, elimination of ecosystems, disruption of transportation and communication networks, destruction of residential and commercial developments, and loss of shoreline, beaches, barrier islands and other geographical features.

In its recommendations for ameliorating and/or preventing the effects of flooding from sea level rise and storm surges, the Report sensibly focuses on reinforcement of natural systems, proper urban planning and community empowerment, structural and non-structural protective measures and even relocation of inappropriate development, which are relatively low cost and limit destruction of human and natural systems. Such worthy, common-sense solutions are appropriate for many parts of New York State, but, as the Report notes, are not sufficient for much of New York City. Manhattan and waterfront Brooklyn and Queens in particular not only face a different and compounded set of effects from rising sea levels, but also their established human and infrastructure density and hard shorelines require unique preventive solutions.

When the Report addresses New York City's unique challenges, it notes that shoreline protective structures – man-made structures such as jetties, bulkheads, dikes, rip rap and seawalls designed to lessen or eliminate the erosive effect of waves on property or infrastructure – may be necessary to save crucial infrastructure and communities. Alternative ways to protect Manhattan and waterfront Brooklyn and Queens from mass flooding caused by seal level rise and storm surges are extraordinarily limited. The high density human population, infrastructure and enormous monetary and cultural value of existing buildings make adaptation to or mitigation of flooding impossible. Indeed, some experts and many residents of our districts see storm-surge barriers, which are obstructions at the mouth of a tidal watercourse with adjustable gates that close during flood events or surges, as possibly the only real means to avoid catastrophic damage from such flooding. As such, the Task Force recommends that feasibility and sustainability of such barriers be assessed.

We realize that the potential installation of storm-surge barriers will raise a host of ecological, financial, social justice and other concerns, and these should be investigated thoroughly by the appropriate city, state and federal agencies, but that should not preclude their examination. Indeed, the City's experience this past August when Hurricane Irene bore down our shores only underscores the urgent need for these measures to be implemented.

The Sea Level Rise Task Force did an admirable job in compiling the Report's findings and recommendations, and I urge the New York City Council to heed those recommendations as it evaluates mitigation measures the City should take to prepare for climate change.

We thank the City Council's Committees on Waterfronts and Environmental Protection for holding today's hearing on this important topic. We also wish to give special thanks to our constituent and former Manhattan Community Board 4 member Robert Trentlyon for his steadfast attention to the growing climate change threat and the need to protect our vulnerable waterfronts.

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