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New Yorkers learn the troubles posed by sea level rise flow far beyond Manhattan

NEW YORK -- New York state is beginning to take the threat of sea level rise attributed to climate change seriously as a new government prepares to settle in next year.

Starting Monday, state officials in Albany will gather with members of the public to discuss a recently released 93-page report that recommends major changes to development planning and conservation along coastlines from the tip of Long Island all way up the Hudson River Valley.

Any reforms to come from the process, starting next week, would affect about 62 percent of New York state's population, the proportion estimated to reside now in areas that could be hard hit as rising land and ocean temperatures raise average sea levels around the globe.

"We've had an enormous variety of partners involved in this project," said Kristen Marcell, special projects coordinator at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. "We do have to take leadership from the new government, but I think there's a lot of support in the state agencies for these recommendations and making sure that we're heading in the right direction."

Among other changes, report authors say some rural infrastructure should be relocated away from coastlines, while new and existing buildings in the densely packed New York City metropolitan region should be reconfigured to allow for periodic flooding and sea intrusion. Planners also need to quickly come up with solutions to guard underground infrastructure, especially the flood-prone New York City subway and underground utility cables and pipes.

Those and other recommendations put forth to the governor and state Legislature are the work of the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force, a body established by the Legislature in 2007 and charged with assessing the overall threat climate change poses to New York coasts and what to do about it. The task force, led mostly by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) put forth 14 specific recommended changes, mostly calling for revisions to state statutes and executive orders that would tighten environmental review and also make coastal development more costly in an effort to discourage building in sensitive areas.

Making coastal development less attractive

"Governments can make development in coastal areas less attractive by requiring development projects to internalize the risks of sea level rise and storms in coastal development planning and decision making," the task force argues.

It suggests making coastal development more burdensome through more stringent building codes, siting requirements, and forcing real estate title holders to fully disclose insurance risks associated with storm surges or damage from seawater intrusion.

The task force also recommends that city, county and state governments seriously consider abandoning whole areas of the coast altogether, to allow vegetation to gradually migrate away from the shoreline and give nature a chance to build more natural barriers to rising seas, hurricanes and severe storms known to hit the Northeast frequently.

Decreasing the vulnerability of coastlines could be achieved by expanding the size of state parks or protected areas. Officials should also consider relocating some coastal infrastructure to higher ground while converting currently inhabited areas into nature zones, the task force says. The report cautions, however, that building relocations should probably be confined to more rural areas, and that doing so in New York City and Long Island suburbs would be too expensive or virtually impossible.

To start off, the task force recommends that the state take a full inventory of all schools, hospitals, police and fire stations, and key transportation links that could become threatened if sea level rise forecasts bear out. Regulators should then get a sense of what it would cost to relocate these structures and how best to do so.

A host of laws need rewriting

New structures that must be built along the coast should be elevated, they say, to allow periodic floodwaters to sweep in without causing damage to a building itself.

The draft report to be discussed over the coming months "is an important first step in developing a statewide framework to address the risks posed by sea level rise and coastal storms," said Adam Freed, who serves as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's deputy sustainability director.

City and state records show that the level of New York Harbor has risen by approximately 15 inches in the past 150 years. Gauges in the harbor have recorded the high tide mark rising by about 4 to 6 inches since 1960.

Citing international scientific estimates, the task force says the region can expect a further 2- to 5-inch rise in average sea level by as early as 2020. With the most pessimistic observers predicting the sea rising by a few feet by the end of the century, state officials and environmentalists are worried that some sensitive habitats and islands lining the region could be lost entirely, exposing the city and state to the full brunt of strong storms.

Among its 14 recommendations, the panel suggests specific changes to a host of laws now on the books, including state legislation governing wetlands protections, hazardous waste handling and shoreline erosion prevention.

Emphasis on 'soft engineering'

For instance, the task force suggests adding specific text to the state's Tidal Wetlands Act stating: "It is declared to be the public policy of the state to preserve and protect tidal wetlands and to prevent their despoliation and destruction, giving due consideration to the occurrence of sea level rise that will result in wetlands loss and migration, and to the reasonable economic and social development of the state."

And taking a cue from recent initiatives in New York City, the task force is calling on the state to undertake a complete review of zoning laws and building codes, including even fire and health codes, directing the development of New York's waterfront for decades out. Such changes would ideally "require consideration of sea level rise impacts in comprehensive plans for coastal communities," the 17-member task force says.

The group also calls for so-called "soft engineering" solutions to trump hard infrastructure projects like sea walls or tide gates. Worried that such major projects would be too expensive or that they may become overwhelmed by storms and the encroaching sea, they instead call for investments in expanding the size of salt marshes and barrier islands that may offer greater, longer-lasting protection at a much lower cost.

It is unknown how the incoming Legislature and Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo (D) plan to move forward with the findings and recommendations. The meeting to be held Monday at DEC headquarters in Albany is meant primarily as an opportunity to explain the particulars of the plan in greater detail and give the public a chance to offer their comments and suggestions. Comments will be gathered until Dec. 12 in time for officials to revise the report and submit a final draft to state lawmakers on Jan. 1.

"This also folds into the larger climate action planning process," said Marcell. "This is kind of going into more detail on what sort of impacts are going to have the largest potential costs to New York state. That process is a much longer process."

Real change is unlikely to come soon. A similar New York City team assigned to review building codes in order to enhance the city's energy efficiency and cut greenhouse gas pollution took over a year to complete its work, and implementation of its plan is expected to occur gradually over the next decade.

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