by Karl Coplan

The New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force draft report to the legislature is out. The report considers the impacts of sea level rise on various aspects of government planning and regulation, including infrastructure, land use, community protection, and ecosystem protection. The draft report makes recommendations about how to incorporate sea level rise assumptions into government decisionmaking. A copy of the task force report is available here. Public comments are due December 12; the final report is due to the legislature on January 1, 2011.

The task force concludes that sea level rise of seven to twelve inches is likely in the downstate coastal areas by 2050, increasing to twelve to twenty-three inches by 2100. If significant polar ice melt occurs, these numbers would increase to twelve to twenty-nine inches by 2050, and whopping forty-one to fifty-five inches by 2100.

The task force recognizes that these levels of sea level rise will wreak havoc on New York’s infrastructure and communities, including that globally-significant coastal community centered on an island in the Hudson River that gives the State its name. Infrastructure at risk includes transportation facilities (New York City’s subway system is already prone to flooding) as well as the myriad of power plants, wastewater treatment facilities, and other infrastructure built on shoreline locations.

The task forces recommendations include a variety of legislative and administrative measures to encourage protection of existing facilities and communities and building sea level rise concerns into the planning for new facilities and development. For example, the task force recommends changes to the State Environmental Quality Review Act regulations to treat proposed actions within an expanded Coastal Risk Management Zone as “Type I” actions that presumptively require a full Environmental Impact Statement, and also recommends amendments to the Real Property Law to require specific disclosure of sea level rise risks in the sale of properties within the risk zone. Other regulatory recommendations would require the DEC to take sea level rise into account in permitting and remedial decisions for solid and hazardous waste sites.

Incorporating all-but-certain sea level rise into government planning and decisionmaking is an important first step that should have been taken a decade ago, at least. Some of us are shocked to learn that DEC currently does not seem to take sea level rise into account when planning for remedial actions for hazardous waste sites within the 100-year flood plain. But anything that moves some of the costs of global climate devastation forward to the current generation will help move our political culture towards prevention rather than the default policy of post-hoc adaptation and “mitigation.” Give the industries that helped make sea level rise happen a dollar stake in paying for it, and perhaps some of these future costs will be internalized into current thinking.

Oh, and by the way, one of the Task Force’s most important recommendations is one that New York State cannot accomplish: FEMA has to be required to amend it’s 100 year flood maps to take the reality of sea level rise into account, since the federal flood insurance program in effect makes these maps the mandatory (and pretty much exclusive) planning tool for coastal development.