Feds Cut Funding on Studies to Protect NJ Coastal Areas from Storm Surge

Jon Hurdle | February 27, 2020 | Energy & Environment
Army Corps gives no reason for cut after Trump says it would be ‘foolish’ to build massive barrier between Sandy Hook and Point Breeze, NY
Credit: Jerry Coli via Pixabay
The withdrawal of federal funding for two storm-studies on the Jersey Shore drew an attack from Catherine McCabe, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed yesterday that it has lost federal funding for two studies on ways to prevent rising seas and bigger storms from devastating the New York/New Jersey harbor area and New Jersey’s back bays.

For the last six years, the Army Corps has been considering ways of protecting coastal areas of the two states from the sea-borne effects of climate change that killed dozens of people and caused billions of dollars in property damage during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

A year ago, the Army Corps produced an interim report laying out five options for holding back storm surge at vulnerable points in the region. By far the most ambitious proposal was an enormous Outer Harbor Barrier between Sandy Hook, NJ, and Breezy Point, NY, more than six miles long and 46 feet high, costing an estimated $118 billion and taking 25 years to build.

Installing the giant project would bring net benefits of $57 billion after the construction cost was subtracted, the Army Corps calculated.

On Wednesday, the Army Corps did not give a reason for the suspension of funding, but the move came about a month after President Donald Trump called the idea “foolish.”

In a Tweet on Jan. 18, Trump said: “A massive 200 Billion Dollar Sea Wall, built around New York to protect it from rare storms, is a costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway. It will also look terrible. Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!”

Michael Embrich, a spokesman for the Army Corps, said: “We get a budget every year from the Office of Management and Budget down in DC, and the funding for that study was not in the budget.” He declined to say why the funding was cut.

‘Deeply disappointed’

The withdrawal drew an attack from Catherine McCabe, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has been contributing to the cost of the studies.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Corps’ critical work on the New York/New Jersey Harbor and Tributaries Coastal Storm Risk Management Focus Area Feasibility Study and the New Jersey Back Bays Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study have suddenly been suspended,” McCabe said in a statement.

In an apparent reference to some of the multibillion-dollar options the Army Corps presented, McCabe said not all were realistic, but that some of the smaller proposals would have helped protect New Jersey’s coastal residents.

“While not all of the projects studied may have been pragmatic, what is lost by this suspension is protection for many vulnerable New Jersey communities that would undoubtedly benefit from the smaller, more strategic and cost-effective projects that were also included within these studies,” she said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said Trump is wrong to reject climate change, but Tittel also attacked storm-surge barriers as the wrong way to respond to sea-level rise.

“We need to look at buyouts and elevations instead of spending the money on manmade structures like sea walls which will cause more beach erosion, raise the level of the storm surges, and send the water around or above the sea walls that gets to the dunes, causing more flooding and pollution in other places,” Tittel said in a statement.

According to Rutgers Climate Institute, the Jersey Shore is likely to see a rise in sea levels of 0.5 to 1.1 feet between 2000 and 2030, and 0.9 to 2.1 feet by 2050. If the growth of greenhouse gas emissions continues unchecked globally, the Shore is likely to see a rise of up to 6.3 feet by the end of the century, the institute said in a 2019 report.

Coastal threats remain

Lisa Auermuller, a researcher with the institute, said the federal funding generated public discussion on how to defend New Jersey’s back bays between the barrier islands and the mainland, and its withdrawal doesn’t mean the problem goes away.

“Taking away the funding for this study does not take away the serious threats that these areas face with increased coastal hazards,” she said. “Although there was a variety of stakeholder perspectives on the potential solutions, the project did bring attention to a coastal area that has significant resilience challenges — the back bays.”

In a report on its back bays study last March, the Army Corps said storm-surge barriers were a viable option in some places including Manasquan Inlet and Absecon Inlet, but were unsuitable in other places where they would cause environmental damage or where their cost would outweigh their benefit.

Even if a decision were made to build any of the structures, it would take about a decade before construction began, the Army Corps said at the time.

On the Hudson River, the Army Corps’ option of building a storm-surge barrier led American Rivers, a national nonprofit, to name the river its second-most endangered in 2019. The group said a barrier would have “catastrophic” consequences, including stopping the fish migration and disturbing the river’s ecology.