Essential Paddling Guide: Keeping Our Paddling Waters Clean And Healthy

We look to national park vacations as a healthy lifestyle ingredient, one filled with fun, laughter, and lasting memories. Not on our agendas is worrying about mercury in the fish we pull from mountain streams, droughts that would beach our boats, or industrial and agricultural pollution that impairs the very waters we enjoy in the parks. Sadly, those issues aren’t foreign to the National Park System:

• In 2008 the results of a six-year study of fisheries in Glacier, Mount Rainier, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Denali, Gates of Arctic and Noatak national parks turned up disturbing levels of mercury and DDT.

• Climate change poses threats to the marine life in the coastal waters of Everglades and Biscayne national parks.

• A long-running drought in the Southwest is draining the Colorado River Basin, a problem that carries worrisome consequences for parks lining the Green, Yampa, and Colorado rivers, and park visitors looking to those waters for paddling fun.

• Drought also is impacting the Great Lakes, where water levels are dropping and costing the National Park Service in redesigning and building dock facilities.

Each region in the country has its own unique set of concerning issues confronting the lakes, streams, and even oceans we play in. In those regions, National Parks Conservation Association staffers work to generate resources to help address those issues, raise public awareness, and seek agency and political support to ensure that these waters are clean and healthy for park visitors today and 50 years from today.

Here’s a look at some of the regions and the issues confronting them, and how NPCA staff are making a difference.

“Superstorm Sandy” Delivered Climate Change Lessons To Northeast Parks

When Superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast in November 2012, it greatly impacted more than 75 units of the National Park System and exposed the risks both waterfront parks and even those along the Appalachian ridgelines face from more of these potent storms. Fire Island National Seashore was cleaved in two, areas of Gateway National Recreation Area were flooded and swept away, downed trees littered the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and General George Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters at Morristown National Historical Park was blockaded by uprooted trees.

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Superstorm Sandy chewed a hole through Fire Island National Seashore. NPS photo.

“In terms of climate change, Superstorm Sandy made it abundantly clear that we must fortify our waterfront national parks and neighborhoods in the region against future storms,” says Oliver Spellman, senior program manager for NPCA’s Northeast Region.

“Certainly, hard infrastructure plays a strong role in protecting communities, but NPCA and many other organizations in the area are focused on the important role that soft infrastructure projects, such a restoring marsh islands, softening shorelines, and planting oyster beds, must play to create healthier ecosystems and protect waterfront communities from the next natural disaster.”

Easing the human footprint also can play a roll, by increasing ferry access to units of Gateway and other urban parts in a way that reduces vehicles numbers while providing a “cost-effective and environmentally friendly mode of transportation that will allow more urbanities in the region to enjoy the park,” he says.

Progress in these directions was quickly made after Sandy as President Obama’s Superstorm Sandy Taskforce provided critical leadership, coordination, and oversight to the region as it rebuilds communities and national parks in the storm’s wake.

In another area, creation of the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy at Gateway NRA is viewed as a critical step by government and non-government entities to increase coordination among agencies and provide increased funding opportunities for the park. The announcement of the Jamaica Bay Science and Resiliency Center, a cutting edge climate change research entity, is a critical step forward in coordinating and expanding the research efforts needed to keep the region resilient and protected from future flood and storm events.

“Many non-profits have worked tirelessly to influence decision-makers and implement projects that improve our waters,” Mr. Spellman points out. “The NY-NJ Harbor Coalition, which NPCA co-chairs, is an innovative alliance of leading non-profits in the region that are working together and with government officials to improve the NY-NJ harbor. In addition, groups like The American Littoral Society and the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, continue to lead on-the-ground efforts to build marsh lands, restore shorelines and educate communities about the important waters we share.”

If you enjoy leisurely summer days in the waters of Sandy Hook, kayaking Jamaica Bay, or surf casting along Great Kills, you can help with these, and other, projects by encouraging your elected officials to act and supporting the many NGOs and organizations that contribute to these efforts. Consider becoming a member of organizations that are working hard to keep our waters clean, resilient and accessible, such as the NPCA and the NY-NJ Harbor Coalition. Your help makes all the difference.

Coming next Monday: Chesapeake Bay's 64,000 Square-Mile Watershed Grapples With Water Quality