White House officials visit Del. wetland project

 The future site of the 20-acre Southbridge wetland (Shirley Min/WHYY)

The future site of the 20-acre Southbridge wetland (Shirley Min/WHYY)

A wetland project in Wilmington caught the attention of White House environmental leaders who visited Delaware’s largest city today.

The 20-acre wetland in South Wilmington is expected to reduce flooding in Southbridge, a low-income neighborhood notorious for flooding, even after only an inch or two of rainfall. Factor in a storm like Hurricane Sandy and the inundation is inevitable. 

“It’s perfectly appropriate that we’re talking about a federal task force, but we’re talking about it in a neighborhood,” said Deputy Assistant to the President, David Agnew.

Last week, President Obama established a task force on climate change preparedness. At that time, the President handpicked Delaware Governor Jack Markell, along with seven other governors, to serve on the task force under the leadership of co-chairs Agnew and Nancy Sutley.

“The charge of this task force is to work with bipartisan elected officials across the country to support their effort to protect their communities by modernizing federal programs and developing the tools and information they need to prepare,” Agnew said.

Because of the state’s investment in the Southbridge wetland, as well as all of the preparations currently underway elsewhere throughout the state to protect against future storms, flooding and the threat of sea level rise, Nancy Sutley says Delaware served as the perfect backdrop for the task force co-chairs’ first post-announcement visit. 

“We are just so grateful that Gov. Markell has agreed to serve on this task force,” Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said. “We will in no doubt benefit from the firsthand experience he brings in building climate resilience in Delaware.”

“I look forward, on behalf of all of you, to sharing our best practices, but also learning from some of the great work that’s being done in other parts of the country as well,” Markell said. 

Finger-Gordon parcel

Wilmington City Council approved spending $808,833 in August to buy the land referred to as the Finger-Gordon parcel. The state is kicking in $4.3 million towards cleanup, restoration and conversion into the wetland that will not only mitigate flooding in the area, but also provide a natural habitat for birds and other wildlife. 

“This wetland isn’t going to solve all the flooding, there’s still going to be flooding in some of these communities, but it’s going to be a fraction of what it was before and folks can have confidence to put more equity into their home or to open a business here because they can have confidence that it’s not going to get washed away next time there’s a storm,” said Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara.  

The state’s investment in the wetland is part of statewide preparations against future storms and predictions of sea level rise. The lowest-lying state in the country, at just 60 feet above sea level, DNREC estimates Delaware will see anywhere from one-and-a-half to three feet of sea level rise by 2100.

“I know there are those who dispute the science, but it’s real. We have seen it right here in Delaware with hurricanes, droughts, record precipitation, severe inland flooding, severe coastal flooding,” said Markell. 

Back in September, Gov. Markell signed Executive Order 41 which requires the continued reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and directs all state agencies to integrate sea level rise predictions when it comes to future investments and planning.

“This is not just an environmental issue,” Markell said. “This is critical if we’re going to support a thriving economy and to protect the health and safety of our residents. We have to continue to reduce emissions and make our state more resilient to impact.”

The first phase of construction on the Southbridge wetland is expected to be complete in 2015.

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