WESTTOWN – State Senator Jen Metzger (D-Rosendale) announced on Thursday that the black dirt region of Orange County will be the recipient of $400,000 in State and Municipal Aid (SAM) funding to provide for the continued efforts of the Wallkill River Bench Project.
The Wallkill River Bench Project is an effort that includes Westtown, Wawayanda, Warwick, and Minisink. Its goal is to dig a swath, creating “benches” approximately 10 feet on each side of the riverbank, which reduces the water level of the river 10 feet and slows the flow of water, protecting the crops grown along the river in the black dirt region. The benching prevents flooding and soil erosion that can devastate the harvests of crops.
Metzger said the amount of the funding is unprecedented for her, but the utility of the project warrants it.
“This is the largest SAM grant I have recommended,” said Metzger. “I see tremendous value in this project, absolutely tremendous value,” she said.
Metzger believes storms will continue to get worse due to climate change and that it is imperative to protect local growers, especially in a unique and fertile agricultural area like the Black Dirt.
In addition to increasingly severe weather, the COVID pandemic has also made this project more urgent. Farmers in the region had crops devastated by resulting floods from storms like Irene, but with COVID, Orange County Soil and Water Conservation District Chairman John Wright said losing crops is even more unacceptable now because more people are relying on local food. This project will greatly reduce crop losses.
“Millions of dollars of local food have rotted in the fields in the past because of flooding and issues, so this is going to be helpful. What we’ve done so far has been helpful,” said Wright. “As a farmer, the weather is our friend and our enemy both. We go to sleep at night, we wake up in the morning thinking: is that storm going to hit us? Are we going to be able to get in the field? Are we going to be able to harvest our crops?,” he said.
So far, three-quarters of a mile of the Wallkill and 15 acres of soil have been benched, with the addition of trees planted in the bench areas, which adds to slowing and directing the water away from the banks. The $400,000 of SAM funding will go toward an additional three acres of soil removal and take approximately three months. The entire project, up to the New Jersey line, is expected to have a total cost of $8 million to 10 million.
The SAM funded construction begins immediately.