Hedrick Belin is president of Potomac Conservancy.
As Hurricane Dorian recovery efforts continue in the Bahamas and the Carolinas, we in this region were fortunate that we weren’t in the storm’s path. Next time, we may not be as lucky. The effects of climate change, including catastrophic storm events, are hitting closer to home each year. It’s time to acknowledge that we all have a role in helping to weather this crisis.
The evidence is everywhere. A July thunderstorm dropped nearly four inches of rain in less than an hour, causing the first flash-flood emergency declared in the District. Basements flooded, commuters abandoned cars on Canal Road, and 50 million gallons of sewage rushed into the Anacostia and then the Potomac. In the same month, the water temperature in the Potomac hit a record high of 93.7 degrees.
Such extreme events are likely to continue. Without immediate action, catastrophic storms will be eight times more likely each year by 2050. Irreparable harm from flooding could befall not only national treasures such as the National Archives but also individual homes and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, rising waters will exacerbate the frequency of coastal flooding in Georgetown, Alexandria and Anacostia.
The climate crisis also threatens to undo our region’s recent progress in restoring the health of the Potomac River. Despite the positive trends with river-friendly development and cleanup efforts, each intense storm delivers a toxic stew of fertilizers, street oils and plastic waste into our local streams. This pollution then flows into the Potomac, threatening our main source of drinking water, endangering local fish and wildlife, and limiting outdoor adventures.
But there is good news.
In the absence of federal action and leadership, local governments are tackling these challenges with innovative, nature-based solutions that mitigate damage from climate change and improve the health of our local rivers. In Montgomery County, the Breewood Tributary restoration project demonstrates a successful neighborhood collaboration with local county agencies. The project resulted in more trees, shrubs and meadow grasses along the stream bank and rain gardens and bioswales capturing runoff from roads, driveways and parking lots.
In the District, efforts are underway to generate clean water through river-friendly redevelopment, such as the Wharf, which now captures and reuses polluted rainwater to prevent it from flowing into the Washington Channel. In Northern Virginia, Fairfax County recently converted 10 acres of parkland from residential turf grass to healthier and more sustainable native plants and trees. We need more projects such as these in more locations around the region.
In addition to local government initiatives, we can all take individual actions to mitigate the effects of climate change on the area. First, we can get more green on our residential properties by planting native trees that act as nature’s filters by absorbing carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen and shading our homes and streets. Many localities even offer discounts, coupons or free trees for planting on private property.
Second, we can diminish our individual carbon footprint by investing in energy-efficient lights and appliances and by taking public transportation. These approaches also happen to be good for our pocketbooks. And, we can fight climate change by eliminating single-use plastics from the waste stream. According to the Center for International Environmental Law, if current trends continue, in 2050, the plastic life cycle will generate emissions equivalent to 615 coal-fired power plants each year. These steps will curb harmful greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce airborne pollution that end up in local waterways.
Finally, voting is the most important individual action we can take to address the climate crisis. In less than two months, Virginians can make a mark by voting for state legislators who support action on climate change and clean water. We need our elected officials at all levels of government to enact legislation and funding solutions to mitigate and recover from future disasters that range from localized flooding to extreme storm damage to longer heat waves. All threaten our local streams, the Potomac and everyone who lives in the region.
It is easy to equate the perils of the climate crisis with deadly hurricanes and melting ice caps, but equally important are the subtle and incremental changes that degrade our local ecosystems and the infrastructure that supports them. By understanding these changes, taking smart individual action and encouraging our elected leaders to do the same, we can stem the tide of climate change in our community and build the perfect storm of political will needed to fight its effects for years to come.