During the annual State of the State address, NY Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proposed a new program for habitat restoration and flood reduction in New York State funded in part by a $3 billion bond. The proposal combines two key pieces of RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan: developing statewide funding sources for climate change adaptation, and reintegrating our communities with nature.
“We must begin restoring the natural balance we disrupted,” said the Governor. “Mother Nature had a plan, she had resiliency built in. We are the ones who destroyed it.”
The Bond Act would provide an innovative new mechanism to pay for large-scale resiliency projects that the State is otherwise unprepared to finance. This echoes the eighth recommendation of the Fourth Plan, institute climate adaptation trust funds. As we wrote in 2017, “The need to adapt and protect our communities against climate change is an ongoing challenge, but the funding mechanisms we have today do not allow communities to plan for the long term.”
The bulk of funding from the Bond Act would go towards natural restoration projects: reclaiming natural floodplains, restoring wetlands, preserving open space, revitalizing wildlife habitats, and much more. The Fourth Plan called for these actions in a slew of recommendations that advise bringing nature into our communities. These recommendations emphasize ending contaminated sewer overflows, restoring the region’s harbors and estuaries, and cooling communities by recalibrating the relationship between the built and natural environments.
Many of the Governor’s stated priorities follow these recommendations nearly to the letter. To prepare for climate change, Governor Cuomo faced a choice between prioritizing green infrastructure (wetlands, floodplains, forests) or grey infrastructure (surge barriers, water treatment plants). We’ll ultimately need both, but the Governor made the right choice to prioritize nature-based solutions.
A new Conservation Corridors Program would be responsible for restoring up to 10,000 acres of freshwater wetlands and 10,000 miles of stream habitats. For best practices on this ambitious undertaking, we encourage this Program to consult our 2018 report The New Shoreline: Integrating Community and Ecological Resilience around Tidal Wetlands. “Wetlands by nature are adaptive,” wrote RPA’s Ellis Calvin and Rob Freudenberg, the report’s authors. “With enough time and space, they can move or migrate to avoid being drowned by higher seas. But unfortunately in many places, sea levels seem to be rising at a faster rate than wetlands can adapt.”
Through this report, RPA modeled the movement of wetlands throughout the tri-state region, convened several working groups to examine existing practices for preserving them, then offered policy and planning recommendations to help wetlands adapt. Once state officials begin to fulfill this 10,000 acre commitment, The New Shoreline could be a critical resource.
This proposal is ambitious and desperately needed. For all its value, however, the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act has one fundamental (though not fatal) shortcoming: the funding is not permanent. When our Fourth Plan called for statewide adaptation trust funds, we were proposing a solution at a scale to match the problem. The impacts of climate change will likely continue unabated for at least the next century. We need a permanent source of funding for resiliency.
For now, though, we’ll celebrate this victory alongside the many other organizations who’ve been advocating for resilience funding like Rebuild By Design. Next, we’ll help pass the Bond Act, which must be approved by both houses of the State legislature and by voters via a ballot initiative in November. (Voters have passed similar programs in Miami, Houston and San Francisco.) Then, RPA will continue to advocate for the fulfillment of our Fourth Plan recommendations so that New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and the tri-state region collectively are equipped with the funding and governance structures needed to rise to the challenge of climate change.