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Facing the floods

September 29, 2011

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.