R5 The Future of Westchester's Environment

From flooding coastlines to fading fauna, the county’s top environmental expert reveals what Westchesterites may expect.

The looming spectre of climate change was driven home for the county’s preeminent environmental expert in a striking bit of irony one hot day in July 2006. “I was at a national conference on natural disasters in Boulder, when my house got hit with a tornado,” says John Nolon, a law professor and faculty liaison to Pace Law School’s nationally acclaimed Land Use Law Center, a training and research facility for environmental and land-use issues. “My wife called and said, ‘You better stop talking about it, and get home and help me clean up!’ It never occurred to us, living along the Hudson in Tarrytown, that we were in an area that might be subjected to a tornado. I mean, I study this on a regular basis, and it even surprised me.”

Ready for other surprises? We asked Nolon for his insight into what our environment will be like in the future, especially if we as citizens maintain the collective status quo.

WEATHER
Tornados in Westchester? You bet. Expect more of them, and other kooky occurrences. “People’s perceptions that storms are getting more severe or wilder—that cold snaps are getting colder, heat waves are getting hotter, rain storms are becoming more intense, and dry spells are lasting longer—are not just people’s imaginations,” Nolon says.

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“They’re part and parcel of the consequences of what we’ve done to our planet.”

VEGETATION
Like the vegetation in Delaware? Good. Because, according to Nolon, New York could have the climate—and thus plants—of Delaware in a relatively short period of time. “As the planet warms, certain species of flora indigenous to a specific area will perhaps not thrive, and perhaps even go extinct, while others will then become appropriate and thrive there.”

WILDLIFE
More deer? You bet. Also brace yourself for more crows, raccoons, and coyotes. The reason? “Stressed environments cause an onset of undesirable critters,” Nolon says. “In Tarrytown, we’ve experienced a huge increase in crows, raccoons, coyotes, and deer, while the diversity of wildlife is disappearing,” such as smaller birds and mammals (like song birds and squirrels). “Stress is not good for diversity, and diversity is what wildlife and nature are all about.”

FLOODING
“The concept of a hundred-year flood has become a ten-year flood,” Nolon says. “If you just follow the local press over the last six years, you’ll see we’ve had some very severe flooding incidents in this region, of a magnitude which used to come in a frequency of every fifty to one- hundred years, but are now coming at a rate of every five to ten years.”

 

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COASTAL CHANGES
“Because of the general disappearance of ice, sea-level rise is projected to be very serious in a relatively short period of time,” Nolon warns. “There is some disagreement about how much how soon, but there is no disagreement about the fact that it is happening and will be severe.”

What does that mean for Westchester? “Long Island Sound is directly connected to the Atlantic Ocean, and the Hudson River is a tidal estuary that’s affected by the sea level of the Atlantic,” Nolon says. “So, if the sea level went up six inches, for example, in the next decade or two, it would have a severe impact on the built environment along the river and the Sound, the recreation economy, the habitat, and a variety of other critically important public matters. New York City has actually mapped out those areas of the city where six inches or one foot of sea-level rise would go under water.”

To get a sense of how a rising sea level might affect Westchester, visit geology.com, which provides an interactive map allowing you to see what areas of land would hypothetically go underwater at various stages of sea-level rising (geology.com/sea-level-rise/new-york.shtml).

WATER SUPPLY
Bad news here too, thanks to overdevelopment and the changing weather patterns. “We’re tremendously advantaged on one hand, because a lot of our communities get their drinking water from upstate,” Nolon says. “But to the extent that we still have ground-water systems or watersheds that exist in the county, like the Croton Reservoir, those resources are threatened by impervious coverage,” which pollutes the run-off that feeds into such water supplies. “So looking forward, our existing land-use pattern is not favorable for drinking water.”

POLLUTION
Okay, so we don’t really have the obvious, iconic type of pollution—the gunk going into our air from smokestacks, etc. While that’s definitely good news, we’re
not entirely out of pollution’s “choke” hold.

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“The kind of pollution that is not regulated at the federal level, that’s up to local governments to deal with, is called non-point source, and that comes from the tailpipes of automobiles and from impervious coverage on the ground—driveways, streets, rooftops, tennis courts,” Nolon says. “Any time we cover vegetative areas, we increase surface-water pollution, because rainwater runs off these areas, which are made of petroleum products and hard metals, and that pollution gets washed into the surface waters, ending up in the Hudson or the Sound. We in Westchester are not doing a very good job on this score.”

To the contrary, “in Westchester, we have a pattern of development that emphasizes large houses with big roofs, with large driveways, with large garages, big parking lots, and, most important, many automobile trips. For most people in Westchester, products and services, schools, jobs, and recreation are all a drive—and sometimes a long drive—away. We’ve created an environment where some households take fifteen vehicle trips a day. And every one of those vehicle trips is producing carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere. And so we have created the most unsustainable form of human settlement pattern that one could imagine.” – Robert Schork

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