New York and Pennsylvania: Among the Best at Planning for the Inconvenient Truths of Climate Change

sewage overflow in Newtown Creek, Brooklyn (photo credit: Riverkeeper)

Today’s post is co-authored with my colleague Ben Chou, water policy analyst and author of a new NRDC report on what all 50 states are doing to prepare for the water-related impacts of climate change.

Across the Northeast  we experienced one of the warmest winters on record this season. And, in 2011, the East Coast suffered an unprecedented level of extreme weather. Warmer temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and rising sea levels from climate change are already having, and will continue to have, far-reaching effects.  Things are heating up everywhere – and that brings wetter weather in some times and places, drier in others, rising sea levels, and a whole mess of complications that affect the nation’s drinking water, farmlands, outdoor recreation, private property, urban infrastructure, and more. And, of course, water resources in places like New York and Pennsylvania are already under threat on many fronts, including from gas drilling.  In particular, hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”), which is already prevalent in Pennsylvania and proposed on a large scale in New York, both consumes tremendous amounts of water and generates pollution that can foul drinking water supplies, rivers, and streams.

Thanks to hotter temperatures from climate change, snowy winters (which we didn’t see this year) could be a long lost memory in this neck of the woods.  Here in New York, since the 1970s, average annual temperatures statewide have increased by more than 2°F and heavy downpours have become more frequent.  Continued warming could lead to more wintertime precipitation falling as rain instead of snow and earlier spring snowmelt, which would impact winter recreation among many other things.  As my colleague, Theo Spencer, has written, the impacts of warmer temperatures on winter sports already are being seen across the country.  In the Adirondacks, the length of the winter season could be cut in half by the end of the century. 

In Pennsylvania (another place where I focus some of my work), hotter summer temperatures with little change in summer precipitation could increase the frequency of short-term droughts, particularly in the north-central mountains and the Poconos, where these drought events could be an annual occurrence by the end of this century.

More precipitation is expected overall, and the amount falling during heavy rain events is expected to increase.  As I’ve written previously, in urbanized areas, more rain is often bad news for local waterways.  In cities with outdated sewer systems -- like New York, Albany, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh -- rainfall events can overwhelm sewer infrastructure, dumping billions of gallons of raw sewage and polluted urban runoff into our rivers, streams, lakes, and beaches.

Sea level rise is also a serious threat to densely populated coastal areas.  In New York City, more than $320 billion in assets and over 500,000 people are within the 100-year coastal floodplain.  A sea level rise of slightly over 2 feet by 2050 would increase the amount of vulnerable assets to almost $2 trillion.  Furthermore, what is now considered a 100-year coastal flood (a flood that is expected to occur on average once every 100 years) is predicted to occur twice as often by mid-century and 10 times as often by the end of the century.  Even though Pennsylvania doesn’t directly border the Atlantic Ocean, it won’t be immune to the impacts of rising sea levels either.  Sea level rise could force salty ocean water further up the Delaware River, jeopardizing a vital source of drinking water for millions of Pennsylvanians.  The Delaware supplies drinking water to nearly 60 percent of people in Philadelphia.

Fortunately, many leaders across New York and Pennsylvania are paying attention to the threats that these climate impacts pose to public health and our communities.  As detailed in a new NRDC report released today, New York State is taking action both to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and prepare for climate change.  (NYC also is taking action—see my prior blog on our Thirsty for Answers report for more details.)  And New York and Pennsylvania are two of just nine states to have developed comprehensive strategies to prepare for climate change across a wide variety of sectors. 

New York has adopted a statewide pollution reduction goal of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and has established a climate action council to develop a plan for reducing greenhouse gas pollution.  The state is an active member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a collaborative effort to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.  It has also established a sea level rise task force and is developing regulations for a statewide water withdrawal permitting program. 

Pennsylvania has taken steps to address the pollution that causes climate change by developing a reduction plan, but the state still needs to adopt aggressive global warming pollution targets.  Recognizing the threats that climate change poses to communities in the Keystone State, the state government released a preliminary report in 2011, which outlined strategies to prepare for climate change impacts.  While the new NRDC report places Pennsylvania among a handful of states nationwide that have developed a plan to prepare for climate change threats, recent state budget cuts, staffing reductions, and changing priorities threaten to derail the state’s progress.

Cities in these two states also are taking steps to prepare for climate change impacts.  For example, New York City is making historic strides by committing over $1 billion to build out green infrastructure, such as vegetated rooftops (even rooftop farms!) and street-side plantings, designed to trap rainwater before it overwhelms local sewers and use it, instead, as a resource to beautify and improve the health of our communities. A recent legal agreement between the city and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which will be codified in the Clean Water Act permits that regulate the city’s sewer system, locks in binding targets over 20-years and lays the groundwork to intensively plan for more. (NRDC’s executive director Peter Lehner shares his thoughts here on the city’s program, including how it can advance a national paradigm shift in urban water infrastructure.) 

"enhanced tree pit" captures roadway runoff in NYC

Philadelphia, as I’ve written about before, has established itself as a national leader in using green infrastructure to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff flowing into out-dated sewer systems – and the amount of untreated sewage flowing out the other end.  Green roofs, porous pavement, roadside plantings, and rain gardens allow water to filter into the ground instead of running off and carrying pollution into waterways.  Green infrastructure can also reduce flooding —as Philadelphia’s water commissioner noted last year, after Hurricanes Irene and Lee, when the city inspected its first-ever porous pavement street, it “couldn’t find any water there.”  (Both New York’s and Philadelphia’s green infrastructure programs are among the 14 profiled in NRDC’s recent report, Rooftops to Rivers II:  Green Strategies for Controlling Stormwater and Combined Sewer Overflows.)

These smart investments in green infrastructure will help communities cope with climate change impacts.  But state agencies in New York, and especially Pennsylvania – where climate adaptation initiatives have slowed – still need to aggressively move forward with a range of proactive strategies, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving water conservation and efficiency, that will protect the health and well-being of current and future generations.   Today’s NRDC report helps chart the course.