An Opportunity for Historic Investment in Urban Restoration throughout the Region.

The NY-NJ Watershed Protection Act

Our beloved NY-NJ Harbor Estuary has been through the wringer. Our waterways are plagued by legacy industrial contamination, Superfund galore, overdevelopment in vulnerable, flood prone areas, and outdated water infrastructure that dumps 24 billion gallons of raw sewage into our rivers and bays each year. We face the added challenge of more intense coastal storms and sea level rise flooding. Hurricane Ida serves as one of many wake up calls. Ida left unprecedented damage and produced record rainfall, taking the lives of 30 New Jerseyans. It has never been more urgent to accelerate efforts to help communities and ecosystems manage more frequent flooding events and the increasingly devastating impacts of the climate crisis. 

We’re working hard to address these challenges by advocating and litigating to clean up polluted waterways, fighting for public access, and restoring our coastlines. The good news is that a game-changing federal bi-partisan bill has been introduced in both the Senate and the House thanks to Senators Booker, Menendez, Gillibrand, Schumer, and Representative Tonko. The NY-NJ Watershed Protection Act (H.R.4677/S.3484) will dedicate millions of dollars to urban restoration projects to combat these challenges. 

The Act would create a non-regulatory grant program to coordinate and leverage regional partnerships and local knowledge to protect and restore natural resources. Projects that are funded will improve water quality, wildlife habitat, increase public access, contribute to a thriving outdoor economy, and improve the quality of life for the millions of people living within the watershed. Additionally, the legislation recognizes and prioritizes the need for restoration funds to be delivered to frontline communities experiencing environmental injustice.

It’s critical that the federal dollars made available from this bill are equitably accessible and distributed. We need to make sure organizations of all sizes have equitable access to apply for the funding the bill would create, regardless of the matching funds they bring to the table. 

A House Natural Resources Committee hearing was held back in January and committee members are working on updating bill language. In the meantime, Baykeeper and close partners are stressing the importance dedicated funding will have to the dozens of communities within the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary, including New Jersey’s four most populated cities, which also happen to be waterfront communities and environmental justice communities – Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Elizabeth. 

Places like the lower Passaic River, NJ Meadowlands, and Arthur Kill have been inaccessible to locals due to physical obstructions or pollution deeming the water unsafe to fish or swim in. Federal funding for areas of our watershed that have been abused and historically left behind is paramount. Baykeeper has been working close to three decades to ensure public access to our urban waterways and we need to acknowledge and bridge the equality gap for people who have not been able to safely access their local water body. 

Projects like living shorelines designed to slow down wave energy and improved public access to urban waterfronts, like boat ramps and trails are ready to start – they just need the funding. 

This isn’t the first time a bill like this has been introduced. Other major watersheds in the country are benefiting from carbon copies of the NY-NJ Watershed Protection Act and benefitting from significant federal investments, including the Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay, and the Great Lakes. It’s time our region gets its fair share. 

There’s no debate about it. Our climate is rapidly intensifying as a result of human activity, resulting in devastating floods for our waterways.The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2021 “code red” report serves as a warning for policy makers all over the world that we are nearing irreversible tipping points. We’re thankful to the bill sponsors for prioritizing the urban core of the NY-NJ Watershed and introducing the Act. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with the dedicated bill sponsors and their staff along with partners in NJ and NY to make this bill a reality. Investing in our incredible NY-NJ Harbor Estuary is vital to protecting our economic and environmental future. 

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