The 13-state Northeast Megaregion is blessed with an abundance of water resources. Rivers, lakes, bays, and ocean shorelines provide economic benefits, recreational opportunities, and drinking water. Continued urban development, however, has impaired uses in many local watersheds. Waterfront communities are bracing for the sea level rise and increases in riverine and coastal flooding associated with climate change.
Over the next 40 years, billions of dollars will be invested in clean water and flood control projects. With proper planning, these projects can help achieve multiple landscape-scale conservation goals. Many landscape conservation initiatives have developed comprehensive programs that rely on ecosystem services to deliver water quality, flood protection, and a range of additional benefits.
Impaired Waters in the Northeast
100-year floodplains in the Northeast
Protecting water quality and quantity is a goal for 109 of the 165 initiatives listed in our inventory. Here are two examples of initiatives that have advocated for smarter spending on water infrastructure to complement landscape-scale conservation goals:
Hudson River Estuary Program
Anticipated rising sea levels and strong storms will cause localized floods
and threaten shoreline infrastructure and development throughout New York
State's historic Hudson River Valley.
The Hudson River Estuary Program, established
in 1987 to protect the natural and cultural heritage of the Hudson River Watershed, has moved forward aggressively to examine how
best to adapt to increased precipitation and flood events. In response to those
threats, it has developed a four year action plan to begin phasing in
The four year Action Plan identifies both short and long-term targets for helping estuary communities adapt. The first target is a major mapping and modeling effort. Using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, the estuary program is creating detailed maps of the estuary shoreline, and modeling sea-level rise projections to supply communities with the vulnerability maps so that they can identify the areas of "greatest risk". The vulnerability maps will also display natural systems and infrastructure (water and sewer intakes/outfalls, rail lines, roads, utilities, and brownfields) expected to flood regularly. Summary reports assessing the vulnerability to each infrastructure system will also be produced.
The Hudson River Estuary Program will provide technical assistance and advice to communities in the watershed based on the vulnerability studies it produced. The program's staff will help communities determine shoreline areas that are suitable for shoreline protection and infrastructure improvements and where a planned retreat may be required. The goal is to create adaptive management strategies that consider the design life of infrastructure projects and changing conditions. The program hopes to educate all waterfront communities in the river valley by 2020 about the specific consequences sea-level rise and severe storme surges will have on their areas. In the same time-span, the estuary program hopes to assist 75% of the river valley communities in adapting to those challenges.
New Jersey Highlands Water Protection and Planning Council
The New Jersey Highlands Water Policy and Planning Council (Highlands Council) was established to oversee the management of the New Jersey Highlands region in the northern part of the state. An area of tremendous recreational importance, the Highlands watersheds are also the source of drinking water for 5.4 million people, representing more than half of the State's families. Located at the edge of heavily populated cities and suburbs, the quality and quantity of this source water is threatened by urban development.
The Highlands Council achieves its water quality goals through a mix of scientific assessment and planning, zoning and regulations, and restoration projects. The three pillars of its approach are mutually reinforcing. The Council conducts extensive research about existing conditions and incorporates those findings into detailed watershed-based plans that propose zoning regulations based on best management practices. The watershed plans set water conservation needs in a broader regional context, allowing officials to determine priorities for spending on water infrastructure and restoration. The creation of watershed plans also makes projects eligible for state and Federal funding.
Watershed plans in the Highlands are based on three basic concepts: maintaining stream buffers, encouraging low-impact development and clustering, and implementing source controls instead of end-of-the pipe infrastructure solutions. Investing in hard infrastructure and new treatment facilities is increasingly expensive and difficult to site. Source controls take advantage of the ecological services provided by the Highland's forested watersheds to keep the water clean.
In the Northeast Megaregion, complex urban development patterns and high demand for land and resources pose particular challenges for conservation. RPA and America 2050 are working across political jurisdictions to produce a comprehensive inventory of landscape conservation initiatives that protect watersheds, wildlife habitat, and other natural processes at the appropriate geographic scale. The project was launched in November, 2010 with the support from The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the USDA Forest Service Northeastern Area.
Visit the website to learn more: Northeast Landscape Conservation Atlas