Hudson River Makeover

Sep 20, 2023

New York’s Hudson River is getting a makeover. You can see it while strolling along Yonkers’ new esplanade, waiting for the ferry in Cold Harbor, or picnicking in Haverstraw Bay Park. What was once a hardened, mostly industrial shoreline is getting a “softer,” more natural look—and becoming more resilient in the process—thanks to the Hudson River Sustainable Shorelines Project.

Launched by the Hudson River Reserve with the support of the NERRS Science Collaborative, this collaboration of regulators, engineers, and scientists, and communities is preparing the Hudson River region for the impacts of climate change by promoting nature-based, shoreline management designs.

“We’re focused on creating shoreline spaces that are stable against erosion while providing other benefits,” says Lindsay Charlop, Collaboration and Estuary Training Program Coordinator at the Hudson River Reserve. “We encourage methods that mimic nature and provide a place for wetlands to go as water levels rise. These shorelines also provide habitat for wildlife.” 

To demonstrate the effectiveness of the nature-based approach, the Project established a network of test sites that span the estuary, from New York City to Albany. Since the first site was installed at Habirshaw Park in Yonkers in 2003, they implemented a monitoring program that tracks the effectiveness of each project and develops case studies and best management practices from what they observe. Over two decades, this knowledge has led to new regulatory processes for the state and three miles of restored Hudson River shoreline using nature based techniques.

“We can say with confidence that these sustainable practices make sense for many shoreline areas on the Hudson,” says Charlop.

“For decades the Department of State has been working with applicants to restore hardened shorelines to a more natural state which allows for increased floodplain function, stream bank adaptation, and barrier island/wetland migration,” says Matthew Maraglio, coastal specialist at the New York State Department of State Office of Planning, Development & Community Infrastructure. “When incorporated into a shoreline project, natural or nature-based features create a community asset as they better connect people to the water, creating new life and a beautiful vista to observe wildlife. Our Sustainable Shorelines partners at the NYSDEC and the NERR have been instrumental in helping provide on-site success stories and useful guidance to the public and landowners on how to benefit from this treatment.

Nowhere is this interest more evident than in Yonkers, a community that is transitioning from its industrial roots to mixed use and residential developments. The City of Yonkers highlighted the value of the Hudson River and the Habirshaw shoreline in the Alexander Street Master Plan (2007 Alexander Street Master Plan | City of Yonkers, NY (yonkersny.gov)). When NYSDEC Marine Habitat staff was reviewing the redevelopment plans for the BICC (British International Cables Corporation) site in Yonkers in 2012, “it provided an opportunity to redesign and rethink,“ says Heather Gierloff, Reserve manager. 

“At the time, the Sustainable Shorelines project was ramping up, and it was the perfect opportunity to introduce these ideas to a city with a long history of industry and shoreline hardening,” says Gierloff. “What better place to show the practices work and can stand the test of time?”

In addition to reducing erosion, nature-based shorelines are easier to manage than the hard infrastructure they replaced. Rip rap and vegetation—the materials these designs typically use—are easier and cheaper to rework, a welcome benefit to communities and landowners working within tight budgets.

“We saved money, worked less, and did something more natural at the same time,” says Mike DiMola, Rockland County Park Operations Manager on Haverstraw Bay Park, one of the sustainable shoreline project sites.

Consideration of nature-based features has become part of the New York permit application process; every applicant has had to explore such designs in their application process.

“When a permit application is submitted for a hardened, vertical seawall, I ask the applicant why a sloped shoreline is not feasible and if they’ve evaluated alternatives like a nature-based design,” says Angela Schimizzi, Marine Habitat Biologist at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “That opens a dialogue with them that can potentially shift their final proposal to be more in line with our Sustainable Shorelines program.”

With the future bringing more storms, wave energy, erosion, and sea level rise, “many people in our region may think or hope sustainable shorelines will prevent flooding,” says Charlop, “but these are not flood barriers; rather they help shorelines adapt.”

The proof of their ability to do that is in the pudding, or in this case, the storm. “During Hurricane Sandy, our demonstration site at Esopus Meadows Preserve was completely inundated,” says Charlop. “The storm left woody debris behind and removed a couple of plants, but the shoreline wasn’t ripped up. The shoreline was intact.”

From its homebase on the Hudson, the impact of the Sustainable Shorelines Project is being felt by other communities, shoreline managers, and regulators in the Northeast, on the Great Lakes, and throughout the NERR System.

“The idea is cascading,” says Gierloff, who wants the project and the Reserve to be a resource for New York and other states. “We’re going to continue to adapt how we communicate what we learn to make sure we are reaching the right people,” she says. “We’re currently geared towards engineers and we want to expand to private landowners.”

Above all, Gierloff would like to celebrate the slow and steady progress they have made over the years. “We had nothing in Yonkers, but now we have something,” she reflects. Some of the sustainable shorelines are done, some are in-progress, and some have just begun. “We’ll have a whole shoreline eventually,” she says.

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