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Building on Resiliency

Winter 2014 Issue

Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and other extreme weather events have triggered deeper thinking about ways to be resilient. A key approach that New York is pursuing through an array of programs is sometimes referred to as the "multiple-barrier" approach. Multiple layers of resilient systems can "add up" to provide much higher levels of overall protection; it also makes sense from the vantage point of not putting all of your eggs in one basket. We are also finding that some proposed resiliency solutions have multiple co-benefits.

Let me share an example. Long Island's south shore is clearly vulnerable to storm damage. Many projects are completed and more are being designed to restore dunes and other coastal protections, purchase or elevate homes, improve "natural infrastructure" and rebuild public infrastructure along the coast with increased resiliency. As part of this effort, an interesting connection has been made: high levels of nutrient nitrogen in water surrounding Long Island are degrading and damaging the marshlands that provide a significant level of wave and tidal surge attenuation during storms. The NYSDEC has published reports discussing this problem and recommending solutions.

We know that excess nitrogen fuels an array of algae blooms - harming swimming, fishing and boating, and the tourist economy. The hard clam industry that once thrived on the south shore of Long Island is mostly gone. The extent of ecologically important eel grass beds is dramatically diminished. I could go on.

To preserve and restore marshlands and to improve water quality we need to reduce nitrogen pollution. Indeed, NYSDEC now views reducing nitrogen pollution in Long Island as a fundamental element of efforts to promote coastal resiliency. Without reducing nitrogen pollution we will lose the existing marshlands, and many efforts to expand marshes or otherwise restore protective natural marshland infrastructure are likely to fail.

In the Western Bays of Nassau County, most of the excess nitrogen comes from sewage effluent, specifically the Bay Park Wastewater Treatment Plant. To protect the Western Bays and their extensive marshlands, New York has supported the creation of a discharge pipe from the Bay Park facility well out into the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean can assimilate the nitrogen far better than the shallow, warmer back-bay. New York is also supporting the installation of a mid-stage level of nitrogen treatment at the Bay Park facility. Interestingly, this is a resiliency proposal, one that New York hopes to accomplish with $700 million in FEMA Public Assistance dollars.

In Suffolk County, the main source of nitrogen pollution is the 360,000 structures that employ septic systems or cesspools that are not designed to remove nitrogen. A key proposal is to jump start efforts to extend sewers in four "hot-spot" coastal areas and to upgrade nitrogen treatment in various septic systems. Suffolk County has shown great leadership in this regard. Yes, this is a critically important water quality issue. But here too, New York is proposing to use a significant allotment of federal resiliency funds to address nitrogen pollution to increase resiliency.

In the face of climate change, we all need to think harder and see the connections.

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