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Crain's New York Business - Restoring waterways is crucial


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By José Serrano and John F. Calvelli

The tristate area is only beginning to recover from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy. As we assess the damage and how we prepare for a future storm, it is worth noting that work by local communities, government and nonprofit groups to restore and stabilize the city's local waterways may well be part of the answer.

Nowhere is this better typified than in the tremendous strides that have been taken to restore the Bronx River. Neglected for much of the 20th century, it is now a national model for reclaiming urban rivers, thanks to a joint effort of the federal government, the Bronx Zoo and dedicated local groups.

The river named for local merchant Jonas Bronck in the 17th century supported such a density of beavers that Europeans flocked to the area to acquire their pelts. New York City enshrined this symbol of its economic growth in its official seal. But while the beaver's image was preserved, the animal itself disappeared as the city grew.

With the arrival of factories and freight rail during the industrial era, Bronx residents were separated from this onetime oasis. As autos and associated highways further divided the borough, the river became a typically devalued urban water resource--pollution-choked, devoid of life, with no visible future. By the 1970s, the South Bronx had the lowest per capita green space in all of New York City and a disproportionately large number of industrial plants. Local activists began efforts to clean up the river as a way to combat the polluted and concrete-covered environment, but they were stymied by a lack of resources.

Funding finally began to flow in the late 1990s via a unique partnership between federal and local governments, local citizens and nonprofits. The environmental cleanup results speak for themselves: many acres of river habitat restored or preserved, 7,000 students instructed, 1,500 educators trained, the reintroduction of the once-native alewife fish, and the removal of tons of trash.

Some 3,000 people canoe on the river annually today. Thousands of others come to enjoy the new riverside parks, bike paths and green spaces. Yet as the city comes to grips with the devastation brought by Sandy, there are other benefits to a well-managed local waterway system that we are only beginning to appreciate.

The restoration of the floodplains in the lower Bronx River and the reconstruction of riparian habitat along the rest of the river helped to blunt the impact of the storm in nearby neighborhoods.

Oyster restoration work by groups like Rocking the Boat protects--and could further protect--urban shores from storm impacts by solidifying our natural infrastructure. Oyster beds can slow powerful waves and, working with marshes, sand bars and other features of the coastal landscape, provide greater stability and defense to shorelines.

We saw that during the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, wetland and mangrove systems provided protection both to coastal communities and local fisheries. Likewise, coastal wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico served as a critical buffer again the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina.

Wetland restoration projects in the Bronx, Jamaica Bay and Jersey City seem to have survived Sandy with minimal damage. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC wisely commits upwards of 1.5 billion dollars in the next two decades to natural, or "green," infrastructure.

Coastal ecosystem restoration offers multiple additional benefits, from supporting commercial fisheries dependent upon healthy coastal ecology to addressing climate change as marsh sediments and vegetation fix atmospheric carbon.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a longtime supporter of initiatives to restore the Bronx River, could lead the way now by studying and reporting on the specific benefits that accrue to areas that reinforce their natural infrastructure to protect against extreme weather.

In the meantime, the Bronx River cleanup provides a national model for a new federal Urban Waters initiative designed to stimulate local economies, create jobs and protect Americans' health by revitalizing waterways in underserved areas. The return of two beavers suggests that restoration is now taking on a life of its own.

Securing local habitat for wildlife and the enjoyment of the public is essential work. But Sandy's devastating surge reminds us that this work could now be more critical than ever in protecting our city from the storms that many climate experts now predict will hit our shores with growing frequency.

Rep. José Serrano represents the Bronx in the U.S. Congress, and directed more than $30 million in federal funds to the Bronx River cleanup. John F. Calvelli is executive vice president for public affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which managed the grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that supported Bronx River restoration and education efforts.

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