Flagged by Franklin McDonald, from yesterday’s NY Times
Obviously the issues discussed in this opinion piece are not limited to the US coastline and the US Army Corps of Engineers. The MOST important point for small islands is that the coastline is much more important to small islands than it is to large islands or continents.
EARLIER this month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a $207 million plan to dredge millions of tons of sand off the south shore of Long Island and spread it along the beaches and dunes. The Army Corps of Engineers, which will direct the federally financed project, says it will stabilize Fire Island and reduce the storm surge hazard for the mainland.
In fact, the project will do neither. It is a colossal waste of money and another consequence of the nation’s failure to develop a coherent plan to address the risks from storms faced by states along the eastern seaboard and gulf coast.
That failure was underscored in a report last month by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which evaluated efforts by the Army Corps and other federal agencies to reduce those risks. The take-away from the National Research Council was alarming: There is no national plan to manage the coast. No plan for storm-damage reduction. No plan for how best to allocate federal funds. And no plan for how to respond to coastal hazards and rising sea levels over the long run.
This leaves governments reactive rather than proactive. Most money is provided only after a disaster occurs, and is to be used in the areas affected by that one storm. In some cases, government officials and politicians want to be seen doing something, anything, to protect valuable coastal properties. Unfortunately, science and reality have been ignored in the plan to rebuild storm-damaged beaches and dunes along 19 miles of Long Island’s South Shore, including Fire Island National Seashore.
Scientists from the United States Geological Survey have been studying the evolution of Fire Island for more than a decade. They have examined how the sediment moves, where it comes from, how the island’s shoreline changes and the way ocean waters move in front of and behind the island during storms. The results of these studies have been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals.
In its evaluation of the Army Corps’ draft Fire Island plan, the Geological Survey pointed out that the project’s justification and benefits were seriously flawed. The project will not reduce storm surge or storm hazards for properties across from Fire Island on the mainland, even though a significant portion of the cost justification for rebuilding the beaches and dunes came from protecting private property and infrastructure on the mainland. Why else would you spend so much to pump all that sand on the island?
The Army Corps’ environmental assessment made a broad assumption that Fire Island had been “damaged” by Hurricane Sandy and required repair and stabilization. But significant work over the years by coastal scientists at the Geological Survey has laid out a very clear picture of the long-term evolution of the island. Fire Island is a barrier island that does not require this project to “stabilize” it. The island and the national seashore have been relatively stable since colonial times.
Significant post-storm recovery of the island’s beaches has already occurred since Sandy. Natural reformation of the sand dunes will take longer, but nature is already repairing the island. Free of charge.
Fire Island is blessed with significant near-shore sand that has maintained shoreline stability over the years. This is the very sand that the Corps plans to dredge to build artificial dunes. The impacts of changing the natural flow of this sediment to the beach are unknown, but surprises are possible.
Dredge-and-fill projects like this are not environmentally benign. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the plan, in the short term, would hurt fish and wildlife and their supporting ecosystems, and would have long-term consequences on habitat and the island itself.
Of particular concern to some scientists and environmentalists is the habitat for piping plovers. These birds are listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service as threatened nationally and endangered within the State of New York. Storms like Hurricane Sandy actually create fabulous habitat for these birds in the storm deposits that sweep across Fire Island. But the proposed dune building will interrupt the development of that habitat.
Fire Island National Seashore is a perfect example of a place where storm impacts should be viewed as a natural event. Storms are an important part of barrier island sustainability. The waters that wash over the island also pile sand on top of the barrier, adding to the overall elevation of the island itself. The Corps’ proposed dunes will block that process.
It is hard to understand why this project was allowed to move forward without a more detailed investigation in the form of an environmental impact statement. The Corps relied on old science or no science to build a case for the benefits. The scientific criticism provided by other agencies was overwhelming but went largely unaddressed. Instead, the Corps will bury a national seashore, a state park and a county park in sand under the illusion that some properties in low-lying areas on the mainland might gain a small bit of protection.
This is the new post-Sandy model. We now favor political expediency over science, and action over a thoughtful evaluation of its long-term consequences.