Greg Gerritt is sharing this at the 2008 Land and Water Summit

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Economic Development and the Restoration of Urban Rivers
Greg Gerritt's part for panel with Richard Davis at RI Land and Waters Summit 3/15/08

What my esteemed colleague Rich Davis just presented is the state of the art, what has happened  in the last 35 or so years. Where we are now.  I want us to consider that perspective during this conversation. Many of us have been in this business that long.  I organized in my high school for the first earth day, my second solar powered house in Maine was highlighted on the Real Goods national Solar House tour in 1994. Many of you have been as interested for as long, and still have many active years ahead of you working for community and planet. So if we have been doing this for so long, lets think an equivalent amount into the future, lets look 25 or 30 years down the road and think about what further restoration will be like, what it will mean, how important it will be in the economy of our communities.   

Rivers are the heart of our communities, have been forever, since the beginning of civilization, in Mesopotamia,  Egypt, and China, and probably all the way back to the stone age.  Rivers and estuaries were the heart of the economy for every human inhabitant of the Narragansett watershed from the first people who arrived after the retreat of the glaciers right up until Roger Williams arrived as a refuge.  He too settled close to the water and depended upon it.

It is hard to imagine just how abundant the life in our rivers was.  In Maine people could pick up lobsters along the shore. Cod supported thousands of jobs along the northwest Atlantic. One example from away is that it is believed that the Caribbean sea now has 1/500th of the biomass than it had in 1491. All the megafauna, whales, giant tuna, sharks, turtles are GONE, nothing has taken their place in the food chain. And no one knows how to reestablish a balance at a higher level of production again.  Everyone is hungrier as a result as the sustained yield that people could harvest is 1/500th the size as well as a result of the squandered marine wealth.

Rhode Island was built upon our waters as well, with shad runs fertilizing farming  until the dam building era and water power grinding grain and sawing wood in the early days of the republic. Then came the industrial revolution and an even more river dependent economy. Then came hydrocarbons.

How about the Blackstone River and its salmon runs or the herring and shad in the the other rivers? What would Pawtucket be like if Samuel Slater had decided he wanted the salmon runs to continue while he powered his mill, and had a closed loop system so that the dyes would not end up in the river?   People had been using the Blackstone for over a century for various milling and sawing projects, but there was still a commercial salmon fishery until his dam was built in 1793, sparking riots by those losing their livelihood.   

The industrialists in their dam building phase were sued by Rhode Island farmers at every stop, but won all the cases, dramatically altering the flow of rivers and their fauna, even before polluting them.  What if the courts had ruled for the rivers the way we hope they do now?

While manufacturing created jobs and raised incomes, it damaged ecosystems. Eventually the manufacturing also left, but not before it had caused us to turn our backs on our rivers. That short period between the end of the industry along our rivers that depended on the water flow, and the return to the rivers in recent years may be the only time in RI history or prehistory that the economy was not river centered.

With industry gone, and the Clean Water Act occasionally being enforced, the most egregious pollution ended.  Slowly the stench died down and all of a sudden communities rediscovered their rivers, diminished that they be.   We even began to again think of our rivers in relationship to economic development rather than as a useless eyesore.  What town or city in RI is not trying to build some sort of tourism/commercialism on its waterfront, be it river or bay? Rich focused us on some examples.

But what are we facing in the next twenty five or thirty years? How will we use our rivers to support us in that society?    What might the economy and the conditions be like, and what role will ecological restoration, and specifically watershed restoration, play in it?

What is the economy going to look like 30 years from now?

However you imagine the future, whatever you want for the future in Rhode Island, I assume you are not imaging a bleak permanently shut down kind of place, with persistent droughts and floods, toxic skies, and poverty stalking the land. I doubt many of us really hold out much hope that 25 years from now Rhode Island will be a utopia of the high tech world either.  You all are seeing some sort of ecological improvement or it is unlikely this conference would have attracted you.  

Do you imagine a sort of business as usual, just a little more futuristic, a little greener?  See more high tech and biomedical industries? See an urban amenities future but without much real productivity in our communities? Food still coming from California, traveling on average more than 1500 miles before that forkful gets to your plate? A state with a good plan to end sprawl, but still sprawling? More immigration from the global south to replace Rhode Islanders retiring or taking their fortunes out of town? Skyrocketing health care costs as our government tries to use the medical industry as the business to build the economy around while more and more of us can not afford to go to the doctor?  A new high tech bubble around alternative energy?  A bigger military economy? More tourism?  

Or do you see something more radically different as we react to a world with fewer resources and a serious ecological orientation? Do you see a world with less travel and shipping as petroleum diminishes and becomes more expensive?  Economies dependent upon clean mass transit systems with only a very few super efficient petroleum toys for the rich? Will tourism survive the demise of petroleum?  Can it be reinvented as clean, with clean global transportation?  Will sustainable tourism be truly sustainable and rely upon the carbon emission free eating of local foods? Will our manufacturing continue to drift away or is there something we are no longer going to be able to get from far away and start making again?

Food has to be among our most basic concerns.  We live in an age of global food based on cheap labor and cheap transportation.  But will we be able to afford the costs of shipping and the cost of the global warming that the shipping exacerbates? Local food like Rhody Fresh and farmers markets in every town, is the rage, but most communities still view the revitalization of our agriculture as marginal,  a detour for the decadent, rather than a core of the economy. Can you imagine it changing?  Can you imagine it not?  Can you imagine what a return to local food would look like and what we might need to do to get there?   

The water borne version of this is local fisheries returning to strength, a strength maybe not seen in 200 years as we replace the fish and meat we now get unsustainably.  Aquaculture will pay a part, but what clean waters coming from the interior, including both no more chemicals and hormones and a much reduced sediment and trash load, when combined with reforested shores, dam removals, fish ladders, and fewer parking lots, is allow things like eel grass and saltmarshes to rejuvenate, increasing bay productivity, and opening new places to fishing. We might see the return of fish runs and what they can supply if the food chain in the ocean heals as the rivers get cleaner, as long as we remember to remain focused on long term healing and not go crazy the first time we see something return that we have not noticed in a long while and immediately try to create a commercial fishery around it.  

But how much restoration will we see?  And how important will it be? I think most of you understand what it is taking to maintain the system of sprawl, globalization,oil wars, and shrinking wages, and how much harder that job is going to be as it runs out of ingredients and the climate becomes more unstable. But I wonder if you are starting to contemplate what the full implications will be.

What kind of transformations we are going to need to keep Rhode Island a good place to live?  What we shall see in the next 25 years that might surprise us almost as much as the transformation of the last 25 years.  In 1980 was anyone contemplating a Providence Renaissance based on Waterfire and local food restaurants? Are you ready for that big a leap again in the health of the rivers and their importance in the food supply?

The combination of peak oil and global warming are going to make it much more difficult for RI to rely on distant lands for food. We shall have to produce more, and that requires fully stocked and diverse ecosystems, better farming techniques, healthier soils, more forests,  with the rivers at the core of that system, and the recipient of a much cleaner drainage system.  

Places have run out of ingredients or been polluted beyond recognition on a local scale before, but this time it is global and there are no new places to exploit for the first time or send our trash to.  Its a fundamental change I am not sure we quite have come to grips with.  Unless we are willing to sacrifice all of the forests in the Amazon, what new farm land can be brought under the plow? And what climatic effect will it have if we burn the Amazon basin? Where are we going to get wood if not locally when Siberia has all been cut or we can not afford to ship it? Now that the oceans are rapidly emptying and antibiotic laced feedlots are no longer really working what will we eat?

We are on a path to making the correction. We all see the signs, Rhody Fresh and the local foods revival. Fish ladders, aquaculture,dam removal, reuse of brownfields, community gardens, eel grass plantings: we see that evidence in almost every workshop today from stormwater to land acquisitions for conservation. From stopping sprawl to building windmills. But given the rate of change in last 25 years, and the speed at which ecosystems are crashing, what can we do to make it more likely we can mitigate the climate change disaster and keep our economy alive? And can we imagine the ecological restoration of rivers in Rhode Island as part of the picture?

Rhode Island is a relatively densely populated place, the 2nd most densely populated state in the nation. Our most dense urban areas are along the rivers, and they are lined with abandoned  or converted mills. How do you make the transformation in such a place?

Currently our land use patterns are  based on the automobile, a tool that will fade as burning oil for transportation becomes ever more expensive, economically and ecologically. Asphalt prices will also soar, making maintaining roads tougher and tougher.  The petroleum markets will effect international trade as well, less stuff will move across oceans, already shipping is 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. What will we do as the car fades away?  Will we be able to use the opportunity to restore the productivity of our community>

Think about this example. Plastic Bags. 10 years ago no one except eco freaks like me was seriously talking about banning them and replacing them with reusable bags, now it is a world wide movement and even in RI we are contemplating laws to radically reduce their use. And they are made from oil.

When was the last time your river clean up did not produce huge numbers of fast food wrappers? You know the kind of foods that while cheap cause heart attacks and are a uniform product shipped around the world and served by underpaid workers. Can we afford the energy and carbon intensiveness of a big mac, what do we eat without the mega feedlots that poison the land and waters? Scratch the surface a bit, dig a bit deeper. The trash is just a symptom of a deeper issue, one we are having to confront. An economy that requires 15 planets to produce the resources it wants when it only has one planet to exploit.

How about more and more flooding along the rivers, caused by a combination of larger rainstorms and more pavement. Maybe creating forests in what are now parking lots is in the long run the best way to reduce runoff and minimize flooding while reducing our carbon footprint.  With gas too expensive to buy, and tar too expensive for resurfacing, maybe this makes more and more sense. How else will we have lumber as the global forest disappears and what else will reduce the runoff as much allowing for more productive water ecosystems? .

What is housing going to look like? What will we be able to afford, afford to heat, and afford to reach?  Will we have wood to build it? We know we will have lots of current buildings still being used, but what will be built? Are LEED standards good enough? Can we make everything a carbon emissions free zone, not carbon neutral, but carbon emissions free?  Recent reports call for the ceasing of all emissions so the atmosphere can over time lose some of its CO2 and reestablish a cooler climate.  The faster we get to zero, the faster the earth starts to heal. And how can that not be good for the health and well being of our communities when all of our energy is produced from clean renewable sources and our food is healthier than ever?

Utopian?  Maybe?  But given the changes of the last 25 years and the ever growing awareness of the hard ties ahead, can we discount it?  And do we have a choice?
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