When we talk about ways to protect cities and other coastal communities from storm surges, the idea of restoring or creating wetlands is coming up more and more often these days. Bolstering this kind of "green infrastructure" was one of the topline recommendations in the draft report of the NYS 2100 commission, created by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to chart a future path for storm preparedness in the state.
Wetlands can create an important buffering zone, although there is plenty of debate on just how much. Engineers have long relied on studies that show 2.7 miles of wetlands reduce storm surge by one foot, but that rate can vary by a factor of three. One thing Sandy made clear: building soft, green infrastructure that can withstand a historic surge is a challenge in its own right.
The New York Times reported over the weekend about a manufactured wetland in the Bronx that was as devastated by Sandy as many pieces of hard infrastructure. The Oak Point site on the upper East River was the work of developer Steve Smith, who collaborated with the State Department of Environmental Conservation to build wetlands there in exchange for the right to develop adjacent acreage for a food distribution warehouse.
The Oak Point site, where rumor has it mobsters used to dump bodies, has been eyed more recently as the location for a power plant (which Smith wanted to build) and a jail (which Smith opposed). The wetland, a $1.5 million project that was completed just three months before the storm hit, was part of Smith’s new, environmentally friendly vision for Oak Point, which includes a wholesale farmer’s market with a rooftop greenhouse.
But Sandy completely wiped away the work Smith had done to date, leaving only debris and destruction, according to the Times:
Kelly Risotto, whose Land Use Ecological Services designed the habitat, said that in addition to the sheer size of the storm, a reason the plantings were washed away was probably that they had not yet taken root — the marsh grasses were already submerged as the storm approached. Ms. Risotto said her company, based in Medford on Long Island, would replant in the spring.
A spokeswoman for the Environmental Conservation Department said it was still evaluating plans for the wetlands.
Said Mr. Smith, “It would be insanity to rebuild it exactly as we did.”
The Oak Point story is a reminder that just because soft infrastructure is "natural" doesn’t mean that it isn’t subject to the same stresses as more conventional "gray" infrastructure. And it doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be time-consuming and expensive to build. Creating resilient wetlands, especially in an environment as degraded by pollution and construction as New York, is going to require coordinated effort and expertise. That shouldn’t stop us, though. As the NYS 2100 draft report says in its concluding recommendations:
New York can only become more resilient to natural threats by re-integrating environmental functions into the built landscape, enhancing natural protections at the water’s edge, and deploying sophisticated engineering to mimic environmental functions to the greatest degree possible. Environment and land use improvements are New York’s first line of resilience to climate change over the coming years and decades.
Top image: A man walks towards the beach, over freshly created sand dunes, after the previously ones were washed away by the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy, in Sea Bright, New Jersey, November 15, 2012. (Reuters/Chip East)