Federal Infrastructure Bill Could Benefit New York Harbor

Federal funding for coastal resilience could help restore the oyster reefs that once protected New York shoreline. In New York Harbor, the Billion Oyster Project is working with students to restore oyster reefs that are natural storm barriers.

NEW YORK — A bill pending in Congress could help a project to restore a natural barrier to storm damage in New York. The Moving Forward Act would create a five-year program to repair existing infrastructure, fund new projects and create millions of jobs needed to restore the economy. It also includes $3 billion for coastal and Great Lakes restoration.

In New York Harbor, the Billion Oyster Project is working with students to restore oyster reefs that are natural storm barriers. They also serve as marine-life habitat and help keep the water clean. According to Pete Malinowski, the organization’s executive director, that federal funding could help create a pipeline to good-paying careers.

“The students that we work with are more likely to go into STEM fields, and specifically to marine fields,” he said, “and that’s not something that young people growing up in New York City typically have access to, just from a lack of awareness.”

The Moving Forward Act is expected to come up for a vote in the House today. New York Harbor once had more than 200,000 acres of oyster reefs, but they were wiped out by over-harvesting. Malinowski said the role of the reefs as barriers to storm surges can be read in the layers of sediment driven onshore by storm waves.

“Those records stop, if you go back about 400 years, to when there were oyster reefs in the harbor,” he said, “so that before they were removed, oyster reefs would break waves and prevent damaging waves from coming onto the land.”

He said climate change is raising sea levels and increasing the frequency and strength of storms, making natural barriers to storm damage increasingly important.

Since its beginning in 2014, the Billion Oyster Project has restored reefs at 13 sites with 30 million live oysters across the five boroughs of New York City. Malinowski said there’s still a long way to go to full restoration — and federal aid would be a big help.

“When we think about coastal resiliency or restoring nature, we think about places outside of urban areas,” he said. “We think there’s a real opportunity to do more coastal resiliency work and engagement with the natural environment in urban settings.”

On June 22, 44 environmental organizations sent a letter asking Congress to invest in coastal restoration to protect coastlines, restore ecosystems and create jobs.

The text of HR 2 is online at rules.house.gov, more information about the Billion Oyster Project is at billionoysterproject.org and the letter to Congress is at cdn.americanprogress.org.

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