Along the Delaware Day 2: An interview with with Lee Clark, NJ League of Conservation Voters

Faces of Rivers: A profile series from American Rivers

This interview is part of the American Rivers’ Along the Delaware tour. Day two of the tour was in Phillipsburg, NJ.

American Rivers: Tell us about your connection to the Delaware River!

Lee Clark in the Delaware River

Lee Clark: As long as I can remember the Delaware River, and it’s connecting rivers and streams, have always been a huge part of my life. I grew up along river banks and formed a deep appreciation for clean and healthy waters. The Delaware River is special to me because I share such a close relationship with it. As a child I first learned how to fish in the waters of the Delaware. I’ve kayaked and hiked along the Delaware River starting from a young age, and continue to do so now as an adult. Every day I have the opportunity and privilege to work on behalf of environmental conservation, and to help communities become more engaged with their environments. I have no doubt that my early interactions with the Delaware River as a child made me more inclined to pursue a career in environmental advocacy and policy. As a young child I played in the waters of the Delaware, and as an adult I look to protect and preserve these same waters, and waters just like it, so the next generation can have the same appreciation for nature that I built over my years.

AR: You work to advance environmental justice policies and even held a local political office for a while. Tell us about the importance of clean water equity in local and state policy.

LC: Clean water is critical for communities to thrive and protect not only the health of their local environments, but the health of their economies and residents. Clean water equity ensures that all communities, regardless of their socio-economic status or racial makeup, have clean water. Historically, low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to suffer from insufficient water quality, leading to health issues, primarily linked to lead, but also limited to no recreational opportunities for community members to engage nature, and hindrances on tourism and potential water dependent business for river side towns that could potentially increase municipal revenue.

I had the privilege to serve as Councilman of Phillipsburg, NJ. One of the priorities that was closest to my heart was protecting the Delaware River from pollutants, and helping to develop responsible and environmentally-friendly businesses and infrastructure around our town’s greatest natural resource. If I had more time I would like to think we could have done more in this area. These kind of issues did not start overnight, and they will not be fixed overnight either, so time is always one of the greatest resources local and state representatives have to tackle to roots of problems. The state and local governments must work together to tackle these problems to provide support. Through meaningful policy we can achieve more equitable communities that have safe clean water resources.

AR: Phillipsburg is a highly urbanized area along the watershed. What challenges and opportunities does that bring, and what kind of solutions work best in dense communities?

Lee at an event in Phillipsburg

LC: Phillipsburg is a beautiful town with a beautiful history and strong sense of tradition and community. I see one of our strengths being the growing diversity of our neighborhoods. Having a more urbanized downtown that rests along the Delaware River provides us with the opportunity to develop an innovative and exciting business district that can naturally complement our local environment through meaningful green infrastructure investments, while at the same time permitting even further recreational access to our riverfront that can increase community engagement and tourism.

Some of the challenges of course is with so much impervious cover and increased rain flow, stormwater runoff is a serious issue. Much of the water infrastructure is out of date from the 1800’s and prone to overflowing in the downtown areas. This is a threat to the water quality of the Delaware River. The best solution for this is to invest in green infrastructure that can absorb significant amongst of rain water to help ease the burden on our sewers. We must also update and renovate our stormwater systems to manage the increasing amounts of rain fall we are seeing due to the impacts of climate change. All of this can be expensive and many towns are struggling with funding the necessary steps to combat this because grant funding can only go so far and you don’t want to raise the municipal tax burden on residents. A policy solution can be to pass a resolution to set up dedicated funding paid for by polluters to invest in this essential infrastructure.

AR: Greening communities can include green stormwater infrastructure projects that address runoff and provide open space. How can these kinds of projects benefit communities and clean water? What are some challenges in spreading the word, and leveraging funding, for these kinds of projects?

LC: Green infrastructure projects have the ability to absorb polluted stormwater and floodwaters, make towns more climate resilient and lessen the burden on our water systems, and prevent stormwater runoff from going directly into our sources of water. One of the challenges many towns experience is finding dedicated funding that can be used to directly address stormwater runoff. State and local grants can only go so far, and may not last as a long term means of funding that is dependable. Raising taxes or borrowing money to complete such projects are never preferable for towns on tight budgets or looking to keep their debt low. Without needed tax revenue funding, these projects largely take the back seat to more imperative needs which leads us to the current state of our stormwater infrastructure.

However, towns and regions can be creative in ways they pay for essential stormwater infrastructure, specifically by making polluters pay. Property owners like strip malls and storage centers with big impervious surfaces like parking lots who contribute most to polluted stormwater runoff can pay for upgraded stormwater infrastructure, with minimal impacts on homeowners who generally aren’t the cause of the problem. By levying a fee on the amount a property owner pollutes, and a reduction for how much runoff a property manages, towns can create a sustainable revenue source that is dedicated to clean up polluted runoff. That sets aside dedicated funding for the sole purpose of safeguarding their sources of water from the threats of pesticides, animal waste, motor oil, trash, and all of the other pollutants that get washed over impervious cover in water flow, and right into the rivers.

Spreading word in the community is important so residents understand what is at risk and how a polluted river can affect them, their families, and their town. Proper education on the effects of stormwater runoff can begin a positive dialogue between town representatives and residents for growth and healthy well-being.

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?

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