U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand along with Congressman Dan Donovan today urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) to quickly come to an agreement over each agency’s land ownership rights in-and-surrounding the flood-preventing Bluebelt project on Staten Island. Schumer, Gillibrand and Donovan said federal indecision could put the project in peril, and said that both federal agencies must immediately craft an agreement to define the role each agency will play in advancing the Bluebelt project. Schumer, Gillibrand and Donovan have long supported the Bluebelt project- vital part of the City’s comprehensive resiliency efforts- and recently secured $32 million in federal USDA Sandy-Relief funds to advance it. However, the lawmakers explained that the project is in danger of stalling because the USDA and the Army Corps are disagreeing on how to move forward with conservation easements at the site.
“Bureaucratic turf battles between federal agencies that ought to be on the same team must not be allowed to delay or derail the vital, flood-averting Staten Island Bluebelt project. That is why we are urging the Army Corps and USDA – two fine agencies with complimentary missions – to get on the same page ASAP when it comes to land easements and all other matters concerning the Bluebelt project. Staten Islanders need and deserve the vital flood protections that accompany the innovative Bluebelt project and we need a prompt agreement between USDA and Army Corps to keep this vital effort on track,” said Senator Schumer.
“The devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy was a wakeup call for the immense need to protect our communities, to build resilience, and to invest in infrastructure that makes all New Yorkers more secure,” said Senator Gillibrand, a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. “The Bluebelt project is necessary to preserve our infrastructure and rebuild our floodplains here on Staten Island. I am confident the Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers will work in coordination to fulfill their mission to serve residents in the community who need them most as we continue rebuilding together.”
Congressman Donovan said, “This isn’t complicated: collaboration leads to results, bureaucratic squabbling leads to failure and delays. The two agencies need to put aside their differences and deliver for the people they serve.”
The Bluebelt provides a stormwater management system for one-third of Staten Island. Hurricane Sandy highlighted the low-lying nature of these neighborhoods, which continue to see flooding impacts due to rain. Given this, the program serves as a key component of the City’s comprehensive resiliency efforts. The Bluebelt program preserves natural drainage corridors such as streams and ponds, and optimizes them to help control and filter stormwater.
During the first phase of the project, two new wetlands will be built along with a new, west branch of New Creek. This includes a new 4.7 acre freshwater wetland between Nugent Avenue and Freeborn Street, and another .7 acre freshwater wetland between Freeborn Street and Olympia Boulevard. These wetlands will slow the stormwater down after it empties from the sewer system and detain it, allowing it to be naturally filtered. The water will then slowly flow over weirs and into the new west branch of New Creek. The stream will be built to a width of 32 feet and will run southeast through City-owned property that, in later phases of the project, will be developed into freshwater wetlands. Culverts will also be built to allow the stream to pass under existing streets. Moving from upstream to downstream, the new water management system will include culverts under Freeborn Street, Olympia Boulevard, and Graham Boulevard, before meeting the main channel of New Creek near Slater Boulevard. Eventually, the system empties into lower New York Harbor. Much of this property is now covered with Phragmites, or common reed grass, which is prone to brush fires. By removing the Phragmites and adding more diverse wetland plantings, the threat of brush fires will be reduced and the area will likely attract more wildlife. The work will include the installation of 31,550 herbaceous plants, including wildflowers, 1,572 woody shrubs and 195 trees.
Despite the fact that funding has been secured for this project, the New Creek Bluebelt is currently at a standstill because of an ongoing dispute between the USDA and the Army Corps. The agencies have not yet found a resolution regarding the conservation easement needs at the two New Creek Bluebelt sites. In a letter to the agencies, the federal lawmakers today said that a decision that clearly defines each of the agencies’ jurisdictions in the area must be reached immediately. Schumer, Gillibrand and Donovan said that the agencies must work in tandem together so that the project can move forward on schedule.
Schumer and Gillibrand fought to include $180 million for EWP projects—like the Bluebelt—in the Sandy Supplemental. The program aims to restore and build floodplains, which store water, helping to protect lands downstream from future flood damage. Restoring these ecosystems ensures they are resilient to future storms. NRCS obtains easements and restores the area to natural conditions, which enhances fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, flood water retention and ground water recharge.
A copy of their letter is below:
Dear Secretary Vilsack and Lieutenant General Todd T. Semonite:
We write to urge the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to quickly find resolution to the ongoing disagreement over each of your agencies conservation easement needs at the two New Creek Bluebelt sites on Staten Island in New York City, NY. It is our understanding that both agencies want to use the land as vital flood control in the event of future storm events. It is imperative that both the USDA and USACE work with the City of New York to find creative solutions to advance the environmentally friendly Bluebelt program, which has played a critical role in the community’s recovery post Superstorm Sandy. Additionally, it is our belief that USDA and USACE have the obligation to find a solution to complete the Bluebelt project in order to meet the objectives set out by the Administration’s Memorandum for Executive Departments and Agencies on Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making.
As you know, the City of New York was awarded $32 million dollars of the USDA Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program funding as part of the Superstorm Sandy Supplemental. This money was intended to go towards green infrastructure projects in the Superstorm Sandy impacted region to improve community resiliency. The Bluebelt program on Staten Island has served as a model program for how green infrastructure can be used to provide needed storm water drainage while also providing community and environmental benefits. USDA has played an important role in the Bluebelt program, having funded previous projects.
We understand that unique challenges occur anytime two federal agencies are working on neighboring infrastructure projects, such as the New Creek Bluebelt project and the South Shore of Staten Island Coastal Storm Risk Management project. We urge your agencies to quickly move to settle the ongoing issue over competing conservations easements at the New Creek Bluebelt sites. It is our strong belief that an agreement must be reached that will clearly define each of your agencies jurisdictions in the area and create certainty that each agency’s investment works in tandem together to achieve mutual goals. It is critical that USDA is provided assurance from the USACE that its easement rights on Staten Island will be honored.
Again we urge your agencies to work with the City of New York to advance the New Creek Bluebelt project. It is our belief that this project can serve nationally as a model for how USDA and the USACE can work together to build more resilient communities through green infrastructure. We thank you for your attention to this most important project to the community of Staten Island, which has suffered so much in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer
U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Congressman Dan Donovan