Although the Delaware River has always had a long history of flooding, the ever increasing population of people living, working, and travelling on its adjacent watersheds has significantly altered the hydraulics of the tributaries and the floodplain itself. While it is absolutely essential to decrease development in this unprecedented time of increased precipitation and rising sea levels, it is also crucial to carefully assess the potential consequences of our engineering proposals beforehand.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, as reported by the Warren Reporter on April 8, 2011, stated: “New York City has agreed to modifications of releases of water from its reservoir system in the Catskill Mountains to better protect the ecology of the Delaware River in New Jersey and other downriver states, and help provide drought relief and flood protection.” The Express Times in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania had also quoted the NYSDEC on June 1, 2011, as contrarily admitting that “reservoirs, which spill into the Delaware River basin when they overflow, have the potential to exacerbate flooding downstream during major storms.”
The NYSDEC’s own website attempted to clarify: “While they are both dams, reservoirs are not flood control dams. Whereas flood control dams are specially designed to remain largely empty to capture major runoff events, reservoirs are designed to remain largely full, reserving water for later uses. However, reservoirs can and do provide some flood protection benefits, because even when full, they reduce downstream peak flow rates during large runoff events.” This assertion might not be true if the reservoirs overflowed beyond their capacity for intentional or unintentional relief from a major storm event.
Organizing a public educational workshop about the risks of building large engineering structures which not only protect, but allow increased development in fragile riparian areas prone to flooding would be a step in the right direction. The Delaware River could be explored from its head in New York State, down past Trenton and Philadelphia and into the Delaware Bay Estuary where it meets the sea. On a field trip, the workshop participants could observe how the land slopes steeply up from the river banks towards the towpath running alongside the Delaware Canal. They would see that while no longer used for mineral transport, the historically preserved waterway is now primarily maintained for flood water containment. Further south, as the land stretches gradually to level out to the shoreline, the workshop participants would see that boat houses close to the water’s edge on stalwart piers must rely eventually on the impermanence of saturated soil in which they are built. Standing as a grim reminder on the high banked roadway are twisted guardrails on their undermined foundations left washed away by recent flooding from hurricanes.
In another location down river, just across from Bowman’s Hill, one can walk in the soft saturated soil along the shoreline and observe uprooted and toppled trees leaning out over the water, while other trees stand just offshore with circular rivulets lapping up against their bending trunks. Plastic debris furling in the high branches again indicates the ominous water level reached by last year’s hurricanes. It soon becomes obvious that if one desires to live in the valley, it is most desirable to reside up in the high hill towns overlooking the river rather than down in the muddy floodplains, in dread of the inevitable rainstorms to come.
While living in view of a dramatic geological phenomenon such as the Delaware River is primarily one of choice to “live on the edge” in order to flourish in an environment of risk and potential change, a heightened awareness of how to build synchronously and sensitively with a potentially wild river becomes essential.
Sustainable Design Awareness might be divided into at least two distinct categories being: 1) Peak Oil/ Alternative Energy and 2) Climate Change which is caused in part by the burning of fossil fuels and other unregulated human involvement.
It is interesting to note that while sustainable building checklists mainly focus on conserving energy and water, recycling materials, and reviving brownfield properties, it is still fair game as to where to locate the building. For instance in LEED 2009, the only prerequisite in Sustainable Sites is ‘Construction Activity Pollution Prevention’ while it is only recommended that buildings are not located in 100 year flood plains or wetlands by offering a voluntary point in subsequent credit portions. One could even conclude that while sustainable guidelines recognize that buildings have contributed the most damage with global warming and energy wastefulness, that a magic checklist will redeem that legacy while still building as much as possible.
Disaster mitigation introduces a different perspective in sustainable design in that it mainly addressed the aftermath of a cataclysmic event caused by a hurricane, tornado, tsunami, flood, earthquake, volcano, or mudslide. Just as Benjamin Franklin stated “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’, preparedness can be brought into preliminary design with the intention of relying less on emergency procedures in order to save countless lives in disasters as a last resort. It is time to re-learn how we can face catastrophes by understanding nature and when, how, and where we build to predict for these inevitable consequences.
We must first delve into the geological nature of shifting tectonic plates that overlap, separate and grind at fault lines where earthquakes, volcanoes and deepening trenches can be frequent. These natural events cause varying major weather interactions between water and air from which result hurricanes and tsunamis causing unmanageable destruction through floods. Secondly, we need to see how human consumption and burning of fossil fuels has created the ‘Green House effect and consequently is causing the melting of glaciers, rising sea levels, wetland destruction, wandering diseases and the extinction of biodiversity.
Ironically, these cataclysmic events have also created dramatic places such as San Francisco Bay where houses perch precariously for exhilarating views. Historically, river deltas attracted people to build cities because of the fertile land replenished by naturally overflowing rivers and the biodiversity of flora and fauna. As the population grew, and port trade activity increased, building sea walls, jetties, levees, and dams seemed to become an obvious if at least temporary solution.
But nature will always find a way to prevail. The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina can now be viewed as an engineering disaster when it is recognized that the shipping channel walls also funneled the river sediment out into the gulf towards the sea rather than allowing the naturally formed sand berms and wetlands to be replenished. Flourishing mangroves, cedar trees, and marsh grasses which actually slow down hurricanes might have prevented the city’s sea wall levees from being breached and causing unfathomable human displacement and damage to the city neighborhoods with thousands of life lost.
Whereas much research and activism has occurred within scientific communities, legal and political entities, and from conscientious engineers and environmentalists, architects can be proactive as well and know when not to build or if designing emergency shelters and safe havens would be a more useful direction to pursue.
But then, maybe it is not the so-called technically advanced cultures, but indigenous tribes and wild animals that can only sense or detect sounds from the approaching waves long before they strike the shore and head for the hills.
Architects can look beyond paving the globe and take on their most fervent usefulness with imagination and cunning in a shifting universe.