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What Story Does Your Waterfront Tell?
Evaluating History to Understand Present-Day Environmental Conditions

New Bedford Harbor

New Bedford Harbor

Highly degraded urban areas have a story to tell. The actions that drive urbanization create an accumulation of impacts, some irreversible.

A bridge built in 1798 may facilitate commerce between two communities, but it also changes how a river flows and how it deposits sediments. Piping sewage into a river contaminates the water and destroys shellfish beds. Filling in wetlands for a textile mill to be near a river destroys habitats. Building barriers to protect communities from hurricanes increases sediment and affects water flow.

Facts like these from historical ecologies can help communities understand the legacy of their environmental problems. Scientists at the EPA's Atlantic Ecology Division, Office of Research and Development used this approach to evaluate and understand present-day New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts. This harbor is seriously polluted and is a designated EPA Superfund site.

"Today's visible evidence of degradation in the Harbor represents an accumulation of effects over several hundred years," explains Carol Pesch, research aquatic biologist at the EPA lab in Narragansett, Rhode Island. Pesch and her team identified four developmental periods-agricultural, whaling, textile, and post-textile-that explain the connection between land use during urbanization efforts and current-day environmental degradation.

Her research shows that land-clearing during the agricultural period in the late 1600s had minimal effects on the harbor, the whaling and textile industries created some irreversible consequences-altered currents and sediments, erosion, loss of habitat - and the polluted water caused low species diversity and closed shellfish beds.

Towns and states can explore the story behind their environmental issues, understand environmental impacts and which ones are irreversible, and what type of remediation can be most effective.

"There is no doubt that we need to do more to explore the connection between history and science. The information we find out can be used to support community-based environmental protection and land management remediation strategies," Pesch added.

EPA uses community-based environmental protection by involving people who live near watersheds to help plan the solutions. This approach includes open and inclusive discussions with communities to identify local environmental issues, understand current problems, and determine the consequences of development. Historical analyses of the urbanization's ecological consequences provide information to drive these discussions and the resulting remediation strategies.

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