Keeping the waters at bay

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City’s waterfront being compromised by Trump administration’s environmental policies, conference attendees say


  • Floodwaters surged into the Manhattan entrance to the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Future storm events were frequent topics at the Waterfront Alliance’s Waterfront Conference last week. Photo: Jay Fine, via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Looking west from flooded Pier 95, at West 55th Street, on Oct. 30, 2012, the day after the storm surge hit New York City. Photo: Jim.henderson, via Wikimedia Commons.

New York City has more than 500 miles of coastline, leading some to refer to the expansive network of waterways as the city’s sixth borough. Protecting and taking full advantage of this resource was the focus at the Waterfront Alliance’s annual Waterfront Conference Wednesday, May 10. The daylong gathering, aboard the Hornblower Infinity on the Hudson River and attended by more than 500 people, convened experts and stakeholders on panels that explored maritime job opportunities, climate change and the harvesting of offshore energy sources.

While there was plenty of talk about specific steps that could be taken to mitigate the effects of rising sea level and to improve the city’s resilience, a broader tone of anxiety reigned, attributable, the panelists said, to the Trump administration’s approach to environmental policy.

Marcia Bystryn, the president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, called President Donald Trump’s view about climate change “a real problem” but suggested that Congress could help thwart some of the administration’s more radical environmental policy changes. “You might not agree with [U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island] on many things, but he is passionate about cleaning up Long Island Sound ... because his constituents care about cleaning up Long Island Sound,” she said, alluding to the second-term Suffolk County Republican.

In her keynote address, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn neighborhoods inundated during Hurricane Sandy, was more circumspect. She said any accomplishments that have been made to preserve and protect the city’s waterways are being undone by the Trump administration. “I am profoundly troubled that many of [Trump’s] environmental policies will turn back the clock on the progress we have made,” she said. “This president has proposed cutting the EPA budget by 30 percent, something that could impair projects like Superfund, which is helping clean up the Gowanus Canal.” Velazquez will soon reintroduce her Waterfront of Tomorrow Act, which would fund studies by the Army Corps of Engineers on protection the metropolitan region’s coast.

Newark, N.J., Mayor Ras Baraka said there was a contradiction with regard to Trump’s promises to invest in infrastructure while at the same time he is asking for cuts to the budgets of two federal agencies that support infrastructure: the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who also addressed the conference, touted the recently launched citywide ferry service, reinforcing the water-focused message, but said more care and investment was needed. The city, he said, “became great because we were given this beautiful resource to cherish and then somehow it fell out of vogue.”

The mayor’s recently proposed budget includes $100 million to finish the greenway encircling Manhattan. “Each successive generation has to do more,” de Blasio said. “We have to get it right. We have to return to our roots.”

Catherine Hughes, a former chair of downtown’s Community Board 1, who is deeply involved in resiliency efforts in Lower Manhattan, attended the conference for the first time. She was especially struck by an update on C40 — a coalition of 90 cities worldwide, including New York, whose leaderships have committed to addressing climate change — and wind power. “Right now there is a huge need to fill that gap as you’re replacing fossil fuels, as we’re going off of the carbon-intensive diet, with windmills,” she said following the conference. “It’s very exciting to hear about this offshore wind project moving ahead.”

As a resident of downtown who weathered and helped clean up after Hurricane Sandy, Hughes is concerned for her neighborhood. She pointed out that it was featured in the upcoming documentary “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” which she took as a sign that New York City is at the forefront of the issue.

“People said the 9/11 Memorial could never flood due to sea-level rise,” she said, recounting part of the documentary. “Fast forward. Then you see all of Lower Manhattan and the Battery Tunnel flooding.”

Unless there is significant progress, several of the panelists suggested, it almost certainly won’t be the last time.

Madeleine Thompson can be reached at

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