More than 700 acres of North Fork farmland are in danger of flooding after Superstorm Sandy damaged 4.5 miles of levees, but now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed the levees eligible for emergency repair funding.
U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand announced Tuesday that although coastal levees were initially excluded from $180 million in emergency watershed protection funding that was part of the federal Hurricane Sandy relief bill, the USDA has now agreed to provide the funding for Cutchogue and Orient levees.
The funding was designated for freshwater protection, but the senators successfully urged the USDA to grant Suffolk County a waiver to protect saltwater bays, according to a statement from Schumer's office.
Five Cutchogue and Orient farms will benefit: Salt Air, Latham, Driftwood, Terry and Wickham Fruit.
Tom Wickham told CBS New York in March that about a third of his farm had been covered in saltwater during last year's storm, and Salt Air's Prudence Heston noted that she and other farmers were keeping an eye on what Japanese farmers were doing to deal with their farms after a devastating tsunami touched down in 2011.
The estimated cost to repair the North Fork levees is currently estimated at $1.7 million, according to Schumer's office. The federal funding will cover 75 percent of the repair costs.
Schumer and Gillibrand noted that if the levees were not repaired, the farms could be repeatedly flooded by saltwater and, as a result, go out of business. The levees suffered breaches in several spots during the October 2012 storm, according to Schumer's office.
In addition to protecting the farms from flooding, the levees also protect Peconic Bay from agricultural runoff, which contributes to high algae levels and brown and red tide, which are threats to marine life.
“These levees are critical protective features and without them, over 700 acres of farmland will be left vulnerable to future storms, possibly further destroying the land and the homes along this stretch,” Schumer said. “These farms have been part of Long Island for over 200 years and it would be a shame for one storm to force them out of business. I’m glad we could break the log jam and get this Sandy aid flowing to these necessary projects. ”
New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton said, "Without assistance to fix these levees, the farmers who have been producing on this land for more than 100 years would have to take this land out of production and Long Island would have lost even more of its valuable farmland. With the growing season fast approaching, this news comes at the right time."
Gillibrand said, “In this time of great need, the USDA made the right call in allowing our Long Island farms to apply for federal funds. Providing critical repairs to Long Island levees will enable our farmers and businesses to rebuild and help safeguard future lives and farmland.”
The levees repairs and funding are still subject to further steps and review, but it is almost a certainty that the money will be granted, Schumer office noted.