Can the Port Authority Save the Planet?

By Ted Steinberg, June 16, 2014, New York Times

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.

That’s what has happened in the Pearl River estuary, one of the most urbanized regions on the planet. Nutrient-rich sewage has caused harmful algal blooms, or red tide outbreaks, including one in 1998 that resulted in $32 million of damage to Hong Kong’s fish farms.

The second main ecological impact of urban life is that it has expanded at the expense of wetlands. In New York Harbor, roughly 17,000 acres of marshland were filled in between 1953 and 1973. The region around Dhaka, Bangladesh, with its 15 million inhabitants, lost more than half of its wetlands between 1968 and 2001. The loss destroys the plant life and bivalves that filter polluted water on its way out of the estuary, and on which other organisms depend.

And, finally, expanding into marshland and other low-lying ground has precipitated the problem of coastal flooding. A recent report projected that, by midcentury, average flood losses in the world’s major coastal cities will rise to a stunning $52 billion as more people and property pile in along the coast.

Political boundaries are of little use in dealing with these problems. It makes no sense for the City of New York to release an elaborate plan on its own — as the Bloomberg administration did after Hurricane Sandy — to address coastal flooding within the five boroughs without paying heed to the impact of what, say, building a levee there will do with respect to floods in New Jersey.

What we need are port authorities. In the Western Hemisphere there are already 137 port authorities — from New York to Buenos Aires. And other cities around the globe have similar organizations. These authorities are typically concerned with transportation infrastructure, but they can be reformed and placed in charge of overseeing development at the intersection of land and sea.

If the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey can think holistically about transportation, it can certainly, with the right staffing, do the same for the environment. It has already taken some tentative steps in that direction, partnering with other agencies on localized wetlands restoration, for example. It needs to go further. Congress should merge it with the weaker but important Interstate Environmental Commission, another innovative agency that crosses state lines in the metro area to oversee air and water quality, and elevate the organization as the estuary’s master planner.

With more than half the world’s population now living in cities, and urban planners pressing for more density, we need a model of urban governance that can evaluate the effects of development on estuaries. An improved port authority could forge the way, instead of serving as a punching bag for commuters.

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