Guest Column / Andy Garfunkel
In Norwalk, a pretty seaport, we have much in common with the other 62 percent of Connecticut's population who live along Long Island Sound. The coast accounts for many of our jobs, for our recreation and for the tourists who help boost our economy.
Our coastal wetlands provide important ecological resources that help remove harmful accumulations of CO2 and nitrogen from the atmosphere, protect against wave action, and provide a nursery for commercially valuable fish, crustaceans and shellfish, as well as catches for recreational fishermen. Seventy-five percent of the leading species of commercial fish spend part of their life cycle in coastal wetlands.
But if the Sound giveth, it also taketh away. It accounts for damages due to rising sea levels, storm surges and even hurricanes. And one way or another, even if Norwalk misses the hit, we eventually have to pay for damage in neighboring communities, either directly through increased taxes, or indirectly, through business and job losses and service interruptions.
Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in conjunction with other agencies and private researchers, began studying the impact of restoring ecosystems in coastal areas like ours on all three coasts. The study in Mobile, Ala., has not yet been able to accumulate enough data, partially due to the BP oil spill disaster, but the results garnered in San Francisco Bay and in the Virginia Seaside Bay have many implications for us here in Norwalk and for Nutmeggers up and down the coast.
By restoring ecosystems, the NOAA found that every dollar invested in restoring coastal wetlands created $15 in net economic benefits, including increased stocks of fish.
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For every million dollars invested, almost twice the jobs were created than if the same amount of money was spent on off-shore gas and oil drilling. In other words, there is a direct connection between enhancing the environment and economic opportunity. It is a win-win. In contrast, the cost of doing nothing is lose-lose. You not only lose the cost of the damages, you lose the economic opportunity.
Planting oyster reefs and seeding eel grass in shallow water was the simple investment made by the NOAA. The oyster reefs and grass beds created wetlands that provided habitat for young fish and bay scallops, thereby contributing to commercial value and marine harvesting jobs. Oysters and other bivalves took up carbon and incorporated it in their shells. Eel grass stores more CO2 per acre than a tropical rain forest. For Norwalk, this would have a direct, positive impact on our shellfish dependent businesses.
Coastal wetlands also often serve to buffer storm surges and soak up extra water. The Norwalk communities that got hammered during Sandy were mainly those on the water's edge where no barrier ecosystems existed. As the sea level rises, we should consider developing these and other barriers, wherever practical. Individual communities cannot, by themselves, undertake coastline protection without shifting the problem to the next low-lying area.
An important factor in this type of intrastate cooperation is involvement by regional planning agencies. Our state government has decided to simplify our current structure of fifteen regional planning agencies and a number of "councils of government" or COGs by eliminating the regional planning agencies and working with nine remaining COGs. Norwalk is currently a member of the Southwest Regional Planning Alliance, which will shut its doors in December, and should act quickly to join the communities that form the Western Connecticut Council of Government. As of this writing, the Norwalk Common Council has not yet voted to have Norwalk participate in the WCCOG, and I urge it to take that step, so that Norwalk officials can continue with these vital regional planning discussions without disruption.
Andy Garfunkel is a candidate for state representative of the 142nd District, which covers a portion of New Canaan.