Monday, June 23, 2014

Can the Port Authority Help Save the Planet?

Port Authority (Credit: Sergio Membrillas) Click to enlarge.
This has been a bad year for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, with scandals over a bridge closure and, most recently, a shady real estate deal.  But the authority has a chance at redemption, if it is willing to move beyond its traditional mandate.  Its model of interstate cooperation could do much more than prevent traffic jams; it could also play the leading role in managing the ecological health of the Hudson River estuary, and serve as an example for other coastal cities around the world facing complex environmental problems in a time of climate change.

Estuaries exist where ocean tide meets freshwater from an incoming river.  The nutrient-rich environment underwrites an enormous food supply that supports dense animal populations, from seals to frogs to wading birds.  They have also long been attractive sites for urban development because of their prolific supply of natural resources, access to navigable water and capacity to absorb the waste produced by masses of people.

During the last two centuries, urbanization has increasingly horned in on this territory.  In 1800, a little more than 40 percent of the 25 largest cities in the world were situated along estuaries.  Today, close to 70 percent of the planet’s largest cities are found there.

One of the main ecological impacts has been eutrophication:  a decline in water quality caused by an excess of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.  Often, those nutrients come from synthetic fertilizer, but the human waste discharged from cities, especially developing ones, remains an important factor.

In the past, those nutrients found their way back to the land.  Even today in the East Kolkata wetlands of India, sewage is recycled into vegetable patches and fish farms.  But this kind of “closed-loop” system is rare in modern cities wedded to real estate development rather than agriculture.  Instead, nutrients are gushing into estuaries and resulting in harmful algal blooms that rob the water of oxygen, degrade marine habitat and limit the diversity of aquatic life.

Can the Port Authority Help Save the Planet?

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