Urban estuaries, like the Hudson Raritan Estuary in New York and New Jersey, are characterized by dense development, legacy contaminants, competing uses, and high costs. These realities provide important context for how the US Army Corps of Engineers designs and executes aquatic infrastructure plans in these heavily altered urban ecosystems. The Corps’s projects fall under three distinct mission areas in its legal mandate: (1) harbor and navigation channel improvements to support marine transportation; (2) flood and storm surge infrastructure to protect property, economic activity, and communities in areas at risk; and (3) restoration of aquatic habitat conditions for species of national concern.
Under its aquatic ecosystem restoration mission, the New York District of the US Army Corps of Engineers worked with a group of partners in state and local government, the private sector, and philanthropy to identify 12 target ecological conditions and hundreds of potential Hudson Raritan Estuary environmental improvement projects. These are included in a Comprehensive Restoration Plan. Needless to say, undertaking all these projects would exceed available budgets, so the Corps is in the process of developing scoring systems to rank the projects for which it will seek funding. In that development process, Corps planners are investigating how to more fully report on and consider the full range of benefits generated by these aquatic ecosystem restoration projects. For example, flood risk reduction, recreation, or water quality improvement benefits could be considered for project ranking as part of the aquatic habitat mission. In addition, environmental improvements in urban settings might be achieved under the Army Corps’s marine transportation and flood infrastructure mission areas, through the beneficial use of material dredged for harbor improvement, and inclusion of natural and nature-based features (“green infrastructure”) as part of an urban flood and stormwater risk management strategy.
The Hudson River Foundation asked RFF Senior Fellows James Boyd and Leonard Shabman to identify practical ways to capture a broader range of ecosystem services benefits within each mission area, recognizing that Army Corps’s parameters for study duration and funding available are likely to constrain the analyses and possible solutions. The results are included in their report, Environmental Projects in Urban Areas: Analysis to Support Project Planning and Budgeting for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Boyd and Shabman prepared their report with active engagement from the Corps’s New York District Office, as well as other private and public stakeholders deeply invested in the health of the Hudson and Raritan rivers and estuaries. In May 2019, Boyd and Shabman presented their results at a workshop hosted by the Hudson River Foundation and its partners in the New York–New Jersey Harbor & Estuary Program. In addition to the Army Corps of Engineers New York District, representatives from other federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the business community participated to understand how to review the findings and implications for future estuary restoration projects.
In all three mission areas, Boyd and Shabman found that the Army Corps’s ability to consider a full range of ecosystem goods and services in its planning and budgeting is constrained by the scope of each mission area. They also noted a possible bias against projects in urban areas within the Corps’s decisionmaking criteria. The potential bias arises because some of the ecosystem service benefits not considered are most valuable in urban areas, due to urban areas’ high population density.
What does the report offer in practical terms? First, there are opportunities to report on a range of benefits provided by environmental improvement projects, and these expanded reports could be consistent with current Corps analytical practices. Expanding the range of reported benefits could alter the mix of projects ultimately approved and funded, particularly in urban areas. Second, the report describes how ecosystem benefit indicators can be developed inexpensively and readily integrated into existing planning and budgeting systems without the need for full-blown monetary benefit analysis.
While the research by Boyd and Shabman focused on US Army Corps of Engineers decisionmaking, it offers lessons for other agencies—from the US Environmental Protection Agency, to the Department of the Interior, to the US Department of Agriculture—whose investments could be informed by broader, practical analyses of ecosystem services and the benefits of green infrastructure.
This work adds to Boyd and Shabman’s long-term involvement with resource agencies on the evaluation and management of complex environmental planning and investment decisions. For example, they have explored regulatory and budgetary review processes for the following: