Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Climate Change in the Raritan Headwaters: Columbia University Students Speak

South Branch Raritan, Long Valley, Saturday
This evening, 10 students from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs spoke at Bedminster's Clarence Dillon Public Library on climate change in the Raritan headwaters. They serve as a consulting team for Raritan Headwaters Association Four months of studies identified climate change adaptation strategies for the watershed, citing flood, drought and pollution as climate change threats and proposing three strategies in response.
Wetlands restoration projects foreseen will involve areas from small scale to five acres at a cost of about $2000.00 per acre, the money raised by grants and donations. A few months' time during the warm seasons will be put to use, although about five years of raising the funds are projected. Wetlands store about a million gallons of water per acre. It's easy to imagine that these natural sponges help absorb the impact of flooding. Through calculations too complicated to have been elaborated upon during the talk--although further information will be made publically available--about $3500.00 per acre will be saved. Wetlands also serve groundwater recharge--important for ameliorating droughts. They filter pollutants which especially invade the rivers and tributaries when roadways and lawns are washed relatively clean by storm waters.
Enhancing the riparian buffer zone--the sectors along streams and rivers from banks to 200 feet back--is the second strategy, with hopes to restore 24 acres in five years, again drawing funds from grants and donations at a cost of $530.00 per acre. Twenty Four acres may not seem like many, given the vastness of 470 square miles of the Upper Raritan Watershed, but environmental efforts begin small and gather adherents in a process that gains persuasive power over time. Healthy riparian buffers slow storm water that results in flooded streams, decreasing property damage as well as filtering pollutants.

Storm water management is the third strategy. Rain gardens designed of plants that especially imbibe rainwater filter out lawn fertilizers and other pollutants, an idea that asks for community response. Another method, rainwater harvesting, involves aesthetically pleasing wooden 55 gallon barrels, the water collected used for watering gardens and lawns. It's estimated that 60% of America's water use goes to lawns, a fact I'm sure California doesn't like. Permeable pavement allows water to trickle through and recharge aquifers, rather than running against curbs and into storm drains. And it's inexpensive at about 50 cents a square foot, worth $5.00 a square foot in savings.

One of the students said that although specific data for the watershed per se is scare, "You can look back on our data and see why we're thinking what we're thinking." Grant money will be needed for these efforts to grain traction, and the academic community is of course well connected. Nevertheless, regarding specific facts on the ground, much will surely be learned in the process to help future efforts. I think of how often I hear in the news references to wetlands. The same student commented that almost no data on wetlands exists prior to 1995, which astonished me, yet didn't really surprise. At one and the same time, this situation comments on how ignorant we've been such a short time ago, and yet how quickly the importance of "swamps" has been recognized not only by experts, but has been absorbed by the public.

At present, we still exist in a state of climate change denial, and yet over the past year--despite two super-cold winters--I've felt a shift through which recognition of the fact is gaining more acceptance at an accelerating rate, and I don't think this is just my personal illusion, though I have no statistics off the cuff to support the notion.

Bill Kibler, Raritan Headwaters Association director of policy, summed the work with Columbia in a way that speaks very broadly, "Today is not the end of the conversation for us, it's the beginning of the conversation."      

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