Rising up to prepare for sea level rise

March 22, 2013 by Nancy Schneider

Situated among the trees and mountains along the scenic Hudson River, Kingston, New York seems far away from the salty blue waves of the Atlantic.  Yet, just 100 miles inland from the World Trade Center, at the southern tip of Manhattan where New York meets the Atlantic, the Tidal Waterfront Flooding Task Force of the Kingston Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) has begun to plan a strategy to manage the inevitable effects of a rising sea. This volunteer advisory board, residents, community advocates, city officials, grassroots organizations, and State experts met with Catalysis Adaptation Partners to determine the impacts of storm surges and Sea Level Rise (SRL) on this historic town, the former capital of New York State.

The group first met with Mayor Shayne Gallo and the community at City Hall on December 6, 2012 to discuss the challenges the city faces from waterfront flooding and sea level rise in the Rondout, a historic downtown district.  After Hurricane Sandy, it became evident that it was time to proactively address flooding challenges, including those related to SLR.


Sea level rise is caused by several factors such as higher water temperatures causing thermal expansion, melting ice caps, glaciers and ice sheets, and the slow sinking of the land surface in coastal regions of New York State. Effects are compounded by increases in extreme precipitation and strong storms associated with climate change.  The Hudson River's flat elevation, only a gain of five feet in over 150 miles, allows the tidal energy to travel north to Troy, New York. 

According to the New York State of Environmental Conservation, the Mid-Hudson Valley and Capital Region can expect one to nine inches of SLR between now and about 2020, and up to 50 inches by the end of the century. Predictions for Kingston range from an elevated flood height of 6 feet now to 8.2 feet by 2060.

For towns like Kingston, which were developed as a river transport community in the 1700s and dependent on low-lying river access, rising water levels prove to be a challenge.  On the same day as the March CAC meeting, a normal rainstorm caused East Strand Street, a through street, to be closed due to impassable water levels. Workshop attendees even had to move their cars to avoid flooding. In addition to being flooded, roads and other infrastructure such as railroads and sewage lines were also damaged in the weeks and months that followed.

The Rondout-West Strand Historic District borders the Rondout Creek. The creek empties into the Hudson through a large, protected tidal area, which also was the terminus of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, built to haul coal at one time from Pennsylvania to New York City. The Rondout features a historic district, a waterfront park and two museum - all threatened to be under water if this area, as well as many other areas along the Hudson River, if adaptation measures are not taken. 

SLR also threatens wetlands, wildlife, and even native rare plants such as the Winged Monkey Flower.  Reduction in wetlands reduce protection against storms and erosion resulting in increased damage and flooding, and degrading water quality.

The recent CAC meeting convened many different stakeholders in the community to address the challenges of waterfront flooding and SLR with an “outcome of a locally-specific, broadly supported actionable set of recommended goals and actions that lead toward the protection of infrastructure, property, conservation of coastal natural resources and ongoing public access to the Hudson River Estuary.”

A workable plan was developed to:

  1. Identify and assess risks to community assets,
  2. Determine vulnerability of assets,
  3. Prioritize vulnerabilities and opportunities,
  4. Develop adaptation vision and select strategies,
  5. Identify implementation tools to achieve vision and strategies, and
  6. Develop an adaptation roadmap.

Aside from doing nothing, which will prove costly, the three actions available to any community faced with SLR or flooding due to Human-Induced Climate Alterations (HICA) are:

  • Fortify,
  • Accommodate,
  • Relocate.

Questions stakeholders must ask themselves include, “Should we fortify to keep the water out? Should we accommodate to allow the water in? Should we relocate?”  The level of Vulnerability, Exposure, Hazard and Risk can determine choice of action.

The COAST software (COastal Adaptation to Sea Level Rise Tool), created by Catalysis Adaptation Partners, predicts damage from varying amounts of SLR and storms of various intensities, and evaluates relative benefits and costs of response strategies. Using COAST, maps are created outlining areas of Extreme, High and Moderate Risk, and then helps determine costs associated with chosen strategies.

Oftentimes, global data is not useful for local decisions. Catalysis focuses on observed, local data from tide gauges and storm damage combined with the experiences of the community with which they are working.  The software and application are flexible; providing cost-benefit analysis for many adaptation actions to protect a variety of vulnerable assets, staged over time. This combining of multiple future scenarios provides stakeholders an opportunity to select their expectation of future conditions, visualize damages under action versus no-action scenarios, and then chosen scenarios are priced out. Calculations can be based on actual value, lost tax revenue, or replacement value. In Kingston, the stakeholders chose the city’s tax assessed value.

COAST assessed the vulnerability of the historic Rondout, as well as more detail by parcel.  For instance, a restaurant at the Rondout circle will incur $158,000 worth of damage with 2.2 ft of water.  The wastewater treatment plant is one of the more complicated assets with expected damage of $8.7 million from a single storm to $22.2 million by 2060.  The cumulative expected damage to the value of all buildings and improvements from all storms from 2013 to 2100 is $88 million. 

Investment in the best decisions whether to fortify, accommodate or relocate will save the city millions. But most importantly, Catalysis and the COAST software empower local stakeholders with a sense of possibility, and allow them to shape the future of their city.  Local citizens are able to put dollar numbers to their choices and identify their comfort with risks implied by different actions to protect the assets that they decide are most important to them.

Solutions developed by local stakeholders create buy-in that is established early in the process, enabling local leaders to save time and money on adaptation strategies. “Stakeholders determine the values”, said Sam Merrill, developer of COAST, “They drive the model.”

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “A hundred years after we are gone and forgotten, those who never heard of us will be living with the results of our actions.” Members of the Kingston Waterfront Flooding Task Force may well be remembered as having the foresight to save this historic town.

About the Author - Nancy Schneider

Nancy Schneider, MBA, MA, is a sustainability consultant with EarthPeople. Nancy is trained in GRI reporting through the Global Reporting Initiative and in Lifecycle Assessment through the Harvard Extension School. Her expertise covers the full spectrum of sustainability, including advisory, strategy, implementation, and stakeholder engagement.

Add comment


Security code
Refresh