New York’s waterways are a hot topic these days: from architectural responses to sea level rise in the Museum of Modern Art’s provocative Rising Currents exhibition to the recent release of Vision 2020, a far-reaching “framework for the future of our waterfront, waterways and water.” The fact that this ambitious plan articulates strategies for all three broadens the traditional urban planning focus on the coastline by viewing “the waterfront and waterways as a single interconnected network” whose uses can be optimized for goals that include, among others, expanding public access to recreation and transportation, supporting the working waterfront and increasing climate resilience.
Given this emphasis on increasing the use of New York City’s water, who makes sure everything is working the way it should? Mike Marrella, Project Director of the Comprehensive Waterfront Plan of the Department of City Planning, commented last Friday at a Pratt Institute lecture on the sustainable waterfront that most New Yorkers might not even be aware of the role the Coast Guard plays in our urban waterways. Marrella conveyed that the Coast Guard was an important partner in the development of the waterfront plan and that service demands on the Coast Guard will multiply as recreational and other water-based use expands in the New York area — growth that will be challenged by recent budgetary constraints.
Sector New York’s waterway responsibility includes the New York Harbor and extends north up the Hudson to Troy, NY. The sector manages all the traffic of the Port of New York and New Jersey (the third largest US port), where servicewomen and men monitor the movement of sensitive materials and petroleum product in the nation, and plays an instrumental role in monitoring water pollution, such as the 1978 discovery of the massive Exxon oil spill in Newtown Creek. Just over one percent of the US Coast Guard works in Sector New York, making it the the nation’s largest operational command.
To find out more, we spoke with Commander Linda Sturgis, Chief of the Prevention Department (and one of the station’s most senior officers), and Lieutenant Commander Ed Munoz, Chief of Waterways Management, to talk about the Coast Guard’s role in the day-to-day life of New York. As it turns out, they do a lot. The Coast Guard’s job is to “protect the maritime economy and the environment, defend our maritime borders, and save those in peril.” At first, this may not strike us as a particularly urban set of duties. But in a city of islands and water such as ours, the Coast Guard stewards of one of our most important urban assets. Thus, hearing directly from some of the men and women who make the waterways safe, secure and working — for all users — is an important part of our ongoing efforts to shine a light on the individuals and agencies working to maintain and improve urban life and landscape.
What is the Coast Guard Sector New York and what is your mission?
Coast Guard Sector New York oversees all Coast Guard activities in the New York and New Jersey Port area, including the Hudson River. We have about 1,000 personnel, nine Coast Guard cutters, three small boat stations and two Aids-to-Navigation teams. Coast Guard Sector New York covers a wide area — the approach to New York Harbor, the New York / New Jersey Port area, the Hudson River up to Albany and the Port of Albany up to Troy.
Our mission is to ensure the safety and security of life and property at sea in managing all eleven Coast Guard missions, which encompass various facets of waterborne safety and waterborne security. Our missions include search and rescue, port and waterway security, waterfront facilities security, commercial vessel inspections, maritime accident investigations and waterways management to ensure the health of the marine transportation system.
We work with many stakeholders, including the City of New York, the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and the US Army Corps of Engineers, to analyze and protect the waterways for all users, commercial and recreational. We aren’t partial to one side or the other – we side with the safety and security of the waterway.
How do you go about managing the waterways?
Waterways management’s mission is to ensure the effective movement of goods throughout the port with safety and security in mind. Its an all-encompassing mission, so we deal with marine events, icebreaking, maintaining navigation systems which help the vessels come in and out of the port, construction, marinas, and managing places where vessels can anchor.
We also have two Aids to Navigation teams that report to our office, to make sure all the aids to navigation that line the channels of the New York Harbor, the Hudson River and the approaches are in the right location to ensure proper traffic patterns for shipping are being followed.
What’s a typical day like at Coast Guard Sector New York?
We are located on Staten Island, and have a very vibrant command duty watch, command center and vessel traffic center. Our offices are located in historic Fort Wadsworth, strategically located at essentially the entrance of New York Harbor. On any given day, we will respond to search and rescue calls — we have three small boat stations that will respond to persons in distress. We do maritime law enforcement boarding for drug interdiction and undocumented migrant interdiction, and we do commercial ship inspections on both foreign and US-flag ships to verify safety and that critical lifesaving measures are in place.
Is that something you do for every ship?
Yes, if it’s a US flag vessel that carries cargo or passengers-for-hire, we inspect at least annually. Foreign flag ships also are examined at least annually by the US Coast Guard. We do what we call ‘port waterway coastal security boardings,’ where we patrol critical infrastructure here in the Port of New York and New Jersey for security, and we board deep-draft vessels (those large ships, like bulk carriers, big container ships and oil tankers you see anchored off of New York Harbor) out at sea before coming into port.
From a security perspective, we do security zone enforcement — there’s a permanent security zone around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and we enforce any breach of that zone. We also enforce waterway security zones around planned national security events. We manage approximately 700 marine events and large activities, including waterfront security for the UN General Assembly (when we have over 130 heads of state and the President of the United States come to New York right along the river at the UN).
We also do commercial waterfront facility inspections to ensure that they’re in compliance with safety and security regulations and pollution prevention.
Is that any facility along the waterfront?
Only if the facility has a commercial vessel that comes to it, such as the oil terminals or the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. We have 180 waterfront facilities in our area and we’re ready 24/7 to respond to pollution or threats of pollution.
We also do icebreaking, so in the winter months, when the Hudson River is frozen, we have Coast Guard cutters that will break up ice to free up shipping lanes for commercial vessels to transport home heating fuel to Upstate New York and New England.
What was your role in Vision 2020?
We were invited by the City, as they developed the plan, to be one of the advisory agencies. We attended several of the public meetings and inter-agency meetings that went through the development of goals. Different drafts were distributed to all the ports. We commented on the document, added our take, and suggested certain things to be included in the plan.
Do the City agencies involved in the plan have an appreciation for what the Coast Guard Sector New York does?
I think by the end of the process they did. They even went aboard some commercial tugs and barges operating in the Port of New York to see the land-side from the water to better understand some issues.
What is your role in emergency preparedness?
We’re not the only agency involved in emergency preparedness. We use an integrated approach to manage on-water emergencies and work closely with every agency that has some tie to the water, such as the Office of Emergency Management and the Police and Fire Departments.
If there is a mass evacuation, we would closely coordinate our response. If there’s a physical obstruction in the federal waterway, the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers are the lead federal agencies in charge of restoring the marine transportation system.
The first time the city prepared a long-range vision for the city’s entire shoreline was in 1992, which rethought the water’s edge as a place not just for commerce and industry but also as a place for people to live and play. Did that change in priorities affect the ways the Coast Guard protects and serves the waterfront and the waterways at all?
I am not familiar with the specific details of the plan from 1992. Even before 1992, the Coast Guard’s mission has been to ensure that the marine transportation system remains viable and safe for all users.
Vision 2020 is such an ambitious document expanding multiple uses. How does the Coast Guard go about managing this balance? Do you welcome the diversification of use or do you feel it gets in the way?
Working with all stakeholders, the Coast Guard must analyze any proposed change to current traffic patterns and waterway use to minimize navigation hazards and exposure of both commercial and recreational vessels to increased risk as a result of increased user volume.
Our main goal, as with any proposed plan to increase the volume of the use of the waterway (be it commercial or recreational traffic), is to work as a key agency with all stakeholders — be it the recreational boating community, the kayaking community, the tug and barge community, the deep-trap vessel community. We work in direct partnership with the US Army Corps of Engineers and other key stakeholders to ensure that the waterways remain safe and secure for everyone’s use. We consider all traffic patterns, all usage areas, commercial vessel users and recreational users.
Additional reporting and graphics by Alicia Rouault.