Our Forum on Coastal Resiliency on Long Island

December 13, 2019

On Monday, December 9th, the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF) and Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) hosted an educational forum on coastal resiliency strategies. Our panel of experts discussed the benefits and challenges of implementing nature-based coastal management projects on Long Island. The panelists included Alison Branco from The Nature Conservancy, Kathleen Fallon from New York Sea Grant, Alexa Fournier from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Marian Russo from the Village of Patchogue, and Michael DeGiglio from Cameron Engineering. The panel discussion was moderated by Larry Swanson from SoMAS. The program featured special guest speaker Jack Schnirman, Nassau County Comptroller, who introduced the Resiliency Progress Tracker for Nassau County. 

The forum highlighted living shorelines as a nature-based solution to creating resilient coasts on Long Island. Living shorelines use natural items such as rock, vegetation, mollusks, and various natural structures to buffer storm surges. Living shoreline components are sometimes used in combination of “hardened” structures, such as bulkheads and concrete sea walls. Hardened structures alone can impede ecological processes near the shore, affecting marine wildlife and the progression of wetlands. Living shorelines transform overtime and create viable habitats for wildlife, while protecting coastal communities. 

The topic of coastal resiliency is very timely for the communities of Long Island. Over seven years ago, Superstorm Sandy demonstrated the damage a powerful storm could do to Long Island’s infrastructure and communities. In consideration of sea level rise, there is great urgency for coastal municipalities on Long Island to begin coastal resiliency initiatives. Our moderator, Larry Swanson from SoMAS, made this very clear in his opening remarks, sharing examples of what the counties of Long Island are already doing to increase resiliency outside of living shoreline projects. 

Our panel discussion began with emphasizing the importance of preserving natural spaces and coastal lands to increase resiliency from storm surges and sea level rise. Alison Branco from The Nature Conservancy explained that wetlands and marshes along the shoreline reduce wave height and energy, and therefore reduce the potential of waves to do damage. Branco also explained that wetlands naturally migrate and respond to sea level rise, usually moving inland. The issue then, is the presence of property and infrastructure. She recommends that if it’s possible and reasonable, to retreat from the coast and allow these natural habitats to adapt. 

Kathleen Fallon from New York Sea Grant expanded on the various shore types of Long Island and the types of natural shoreline strategies best suited for each type of coastal environment. For Long Island’s bays and tidal wetlands, which act as buffers to storm sturges, it’s best to implement wetland restoration and living shorelines to provide stabilization and risk reduction to communities. The natural structure of the wetlands will increase the ecological benefit to these habitats, as well. Sandy beaches, including barrier islands that protect the island from large waves, are very dynamic in that sand is constantly moving on, off, and along the shore. Bluffs face erosion due primarily to groundwater, runoff, and wave action. Both bluffs and sandy beaches can become more resilient with added vegetation, which bind sediments together and actually help to grow dunes and bluffs. 

When discussing living shorelines, it’s important to put this fairly new strategy into perspective and compare it to the traditional hardened strategies. Alison Branco explains that one strategy is not necessarily better than the other by default. The goals of a specific project, whether to reduce the risk of flooding from storms or from sea level rise, and the physics of the project area, will help determine the appropriate approaches to increasing resiliency. In addition, she had some recommendations for decision makers, including creating more robust programs to help people move away from flood zones if they’re at risk, putting up walls during storms which come down after the storm has passed, and rethinking zoning in order to protect and prevent the development of the natural shorelines that are still intact.

For those considering implementing living shorelines, DEC has created a Living Shorelines Guidelines document. Alexa Fournier, from DEC, shared an overview of the document, which serves as a resource for property owners and design professionals on permitting requirements and considerations. Before beginning a project, DEC requires a permit. Fournier advised that applicants first reach out and speak to people from different programs on the island, like the Peconic Estuary Program and NY Sea Grant to discuss some preliminary ideas. For municipalities, it’s recommended to look for grant opportunities to fund the project. During the application process, she recommends face-to-face meetings with DEC officials. 

Living shoreline projects are often complex and require professional environmental engineers and landscape architects to design a plan and implement it. Michael DeGiglio from Cameron Engineering shared what professionals take into consideration when planning coastal management projects for a given location, including erosion rates and wave energy. He shared that because living shoreline permits are relatively new and the process is not always straightforward, permitting will take longer than for traditional projects like seawalls and bulkheads. 

Marian Russo from the Village of Patchogue shared her experience with the living shoreline project that’s underway in her community. Russo shared the cost of some of the components for the project, including $200,000 for design and $1 million for construction. Her advice to other municipalities that are considering doing a living shoreline is to secure funding for the project by applying for grants that will cover the high costs for planning, implementation, and maintenance.

Kathleen Fallon wrapped up our panel discussion with options residents and homeowners can take for increasing resiliency. She clarified that there is always some risk when living on the waterfront, but there are ways to reduce one’s risk for flooding:

  • Do nothing if erosion is minimal and the property has natural protective features
  • Conserve the sand dunes and wetlands in between the property and shoreline by preventing destruction of habitats or planting coastal species
  • Raising the property to allow water to move under
  • Relocating out of the flood area altogether 

Each option is outlined in this NY Sea Grant document about flood risk reduction. 

You can watch the full program on our Youtube channel. Stay tuned for NYLCVEF’s continued work on resiliency.

Thank you to our sponsor, ROUX, and to Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences for hosting this event. 

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