By Mari-Beth DeLucia
As I write this column, many of us in the Delaware River region are experiencing a situation that everyone prefers did not exist. We are in the middle of the second major flood event in two weeks, the first from Irene and now the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. At times like this, it is understandable how we may not be thinking about the positive benefits rivers bring to our local economy.
I live in Port Jervis. Every summer I witness the influx of tourists as they pass through our tiny city en route to various destinations in the Upper Delaware. For the most part, these visitors come to canoe, fish, camp or engage in other recreational activities along the Delaware River and/or many of its fine tributaries. These spectacular rivers are this area’s greatest natural resource, and as a region we need to become better at recognizing and quantifying their positive economic impact.
In my role as The Nature Conservancy’s Delaware River Project Director in New York, I consider myself lucky to work alongside the river. My office is in a cabin located on the conservancy’s Neversink River Preserve. The preserve consists of hundreds of acres of prime Neversink River floodplains, many of which are underwater right now—and that is a good thing. I also know, however, that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of floodplain in the Upper Delaware region that are not underwater right now, but should be. These lands were historically bermed off from the river—usually through agricultural activity—or altered in some fashion that restricts the river from access to its floodplain. Today, many of these disconnected floodplains are on conserved lands, county parks, federal and state lands that are fallow or in low-value agriculture use. These places provide us with an incredible opportunity in the basin to engage in floodplain restoration at a scale that can make a real difference in flood stage reduction. During moderate to major floods, these lands should be underwater to reduce flood impacts and protect downstream communities.
Reconnecting these floodplains will require more than planting trees along the riverbanks. Unnaturally high riverbanks, which are often lined with trees, will need to be removed or at least breeched in a manner that allows the river to “fix” itself in time. Floodplain restoration, however, is only part of what needs to be done. As this last round of flooding reminds us, we need to address infrastructure problems as well. Too often, undersized bridges or culverts exacerbate flooding. There are areas that repeatedly flood, and we need to ask the difficult question as to how many times as a society we allow the rebuilding of these structures.
In hard economic times, tackling these problems is not easy; however, the recent devastation we witnessed tells us that we must address them. I believe unifying organizations such as the Delaware River Basin Commission or Common Waters can bring communities together to do just that. Working at a regional scale, these groups can bring resources from various agencies and non-governmental organizations together. If successful, I envision a place where floods happen, but they do not devastate communities.
To learn more about the work of The Nature Conservancy, visit www.nature.org/newyork .
[Mari-Beth DeLucia is The Nature Conservancy’s Delaware River Project Director in New York.]