The Towpath and a Shared Future
By Stephen Hiltner
One of Princeton’s beloved and longest running assets is the towpath that borders the D&R Canal. Third among New Jersey’s most popular state parks, the canal and its path are long-running in both space and time. Until recently, an ambitious bicyclist could ride the trail 25 miles towards the Atlantic, or 35 miles over and up the Delaware, avoiding car culture altogether.
As long as I’ve been in town, the towpath has been covered with a sturdy, dependable, well-drained surface of crushed stone, firm enough for pushing a stroller or riding a bike, but easy on joggers. All that changed last August when the floods from tropical storm Irene washed out some sections of the trail and deposited a thick layer of silt on the rest.
Now, almost seven months later, little has been done to restore the trail. Though portions are passable when dry, it quickly becomes a quagmire after a rain. The Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission site is replete with photos of destruction, including damage to bridges and historic buildings. I called to inquire about prospects for repair, and was told that there are plans to restore and improve the crushed stone surface now buried under silt, but all depends on the eventual arrival of money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Repairing even the less-damaged sections may cost $10,000 per mile. Meanwhile, the park’s personnel, reportedly reduced to a third of 1980s staffing levels, struggle to find funding for basics like office paper.
There’s a problem here. Storms are getting stronger. Government is getting weaker. And though some may see this as just another natural disaster to deal with, natural disasters aren’t as natural as they used to be. Increasingly, the climate is gaining a human imprint as much as the land, and these two massive, collectively wrought influences — the paving of landscapes and the warming of the atmosphere — merge to powerful effect along our river corridors. Warmed atmosphere spawns more powerful storms. Meanwhile, we harden the landscape with roads, buildings and not-very-absorbent lawns, all of which convey that rainfall more quickly and destructively into the rivers.
Who’s to blame? No one and everyone. There is safety and peril in numbers. Certainly there’s a long history of inadequate public policy, and changes to policy that could still help, but what intrigues me is the role of the individual in contributing to, and potentially steering us incrementally away from, a dangerous course.
In Princeton, where the hardscape of roads and buildings is largely a given at this point, our main contribution to saving a shared asset like the towpath comes down to individual homeowners’ decisions. The aim is to stop feeding nature’s fury, and to make more absorbent those portions of the landscape we have control over. As owners of cars and other assorted climate-changing machinery, we can find ways to use them less. It’s possible to make a yard more absorbent by replacing lawns with more deep-rooted plantings, catching runoff in rain gardens, and using fall’s harvest of leaves as mulch to soften the earth. I’m a bit less sanguine about the role of rain barrels, though they could help if they were five times larger, on many downspouts, and happened to be empty when the big rains hit.
Even if the towpath is eventually repaired, the chance of future damage continues to increase with changing climate. The towpath may prove a harbinger of things to come — a steady erosion of shared assets if we take no action to protect them. The solution, like the problem, will be a collective endeavor, through what we make of government and the actions we take as individuals far from the towpath itself.
In human interactions, we don’t expect our individual acts of kindness to change the world, and yet we do them anyway. It’s time to view an individual’s impacts on land, river and air in a similar light, and extend acts of kindness to the long shared path, from the comfort of our own homesteads.
Steve Hiltner maintains many blogs, including princetonnaturenotes.org, princetonprimer.org, and frugaline.org.
Relevant to the towpath, the Kingston Greenways Association will host a talk by Jim Waltman, Executive Director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, entitled “Lessons From Hurricane Irene”. He’ll speak about what we can do to reduce flooding and flood damage in future storms through changes in mindset, behaviors, and policies. The program takes place at the Kingston Fire House, 6 Heathcote Road, Kingston, at 7:30 p.m. on March 14.