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Army Corps of Engineers Visits the South Bay, 4/27/10

Two representative's of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from the New York District recently came to the City of Hudson to meet with local citizens and officials. The meeting took place at the Basilica Industria on Tuesday, April 27 from Noon to 1:30PM.

The meeting was a local site visit, part of the preparation of a report by the Army Corps requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A major flood event, which took place in April 2007, led to a federal disaster declaration for 14 counties in eastern New York, including Columbia County.

That event (referred to in FoH's statement to the Common Council at the January 20 LWRP public hearing) triggered a federally-funded "reconnaissance level study." The "multi-watershed" report will "identify problems as well as opportunities, potential solutions, potential authorizations and potential cost-sharing partners for individual studies, projects and programs, which may include actions for non-Federal entities."

Our connection to the Corps established itself in the course of research undertaken by Friends of Hudson and the LWRP Task Force for the written comments on the Hudson LWRP/DGEIS. To learn more about the South Bay's designation as a high priority restoration site, Patrick Doyle had contacted in February the Corps' Karen Ashton, a civil engineer and project planner with experience in wetland restoration.

As a direct result of that contact, the South Bay is to be included in the reconnaissance study to be completed by the end of the summer. Before the April 27 meeting, the LWRP Task Force had already furnished the Corps with pertinent documents, including original maps and photographs used in our public LWRP School presentation on March 6 and as appendices for written comments submitted on March 15.

The Corps' representatives were there to meet citizens and officials knowledgeable in the South Bay. Meg Carlon, a biologist by training, gave an overview of the current physical state of the South Bay. Others provided background on the local political and economic dimensions of the South Bay issue.

Most of the discussion explored various hypotheticals where the Corps might participate in a program of restoration. The role of the Corps is currently limited to the its authorization under FEMA. The observations and recommendations contained in their study will therefore be of great local interest and potential significance.

"What Is Your Vision?"

The meeting was sobering because it was a reminder of the givens, or structural
constraints, in any redesign/restoration of the South Bay. One existing condition that is well known, but mostly sidestepped, is the ownership issue. The Army Corps, and for that matter any government agency, is limited in what it can do on privately owned land. Short of gross environmental negligence or outright purchase by a more sympathetic entity, the most direct path to South Bay restoration involves some process of direct negotiation with the owners.

A second "given" which has only recently risen in importance, thanks in large part to the work of the LWRP Task Force, is the toxicity issue. The Army Corps does not deal with toxic cleanup. As a brownfield, many areas of the South Bay have to be suspected of containing toxic substances that will first need to be identified before they can be removed. Once again, we are confronted with the need for study of what the conditions actually are in the water and on the ground.

The toxicity question appears to have been overlooked in the negotiations with Holcim to turn over waterfront property to the City. In retrospect, those earlier conversations
might have focused on a more basic question: how to make Holcim property more generally accessible, particularly for the purpose of studying it in order to develop a long-range strategy for its improvement.

The most interesting exchange came from a question posed by Jason Shea of the Army Corps: "What is your vision for the South Bay?" If there was a certain initial hesitation, it may have been because of the hole in the draft LWRP where a clear answer should be. Despite its shortcomings, the LWRP is the most important vehicle we have for community consensus.

Patrick affirmed the importance of restoring the South Bay to be a more integral part of the Hudson River while increasing our local capacity for ecological resilience in the face of future extreme weather events. Meg said that any future change in the South Bay should involve a forward step along the path of restoration. The most inspiring idea, as refreshing as it was unexpected, was offered by Don Moore: to make the South Bay into an ecological park. We as a community have mostly lacked such pithy, declarative sentences to answer Jason Shea's disarming question.

At the end of the meeting, Karen Ashton remarked on the Army Corps' evolving mission: "We used to build dams, now we take them down." It is clear that more such conversations will be needed, and relationships developed from them that can grow over time. We will have to widen the circle to include eventually all the major stakeholders and potential partners, at all levels of organization, public and private.

The meeting with the Army Corps provided the basic formula in embryonic form.

April 27, 2010 Participants

Karen Ashton, NY District Planning Division. Army Corps of Engineers;
Jason Shea, NY District Economics and Policy Section, Army Corps of Engineers

Benedict McCaffrey, Hudson Office, U.S. Representative Scott Murphy
Don Moore, President, Hudson Common Council

LWRP Task Force members Meg Carlon, Patrick Doyle, Michael O'Hara and Christopher Reed

Mark Wildonger, Scenic Hudson

Catherine Smith

Steve Nack of the Columbia County Soil and Conservation District was unable to attend.