Maggie Reilly, Creating Sustainable Alternatives


Chatting with Maggie Reilly

As luck would have it, Maggie walked into my studio one Sunday preCovid and we immediately hit it off. Her background in Climate Adaptation and my seagrass inspired abstractions both had a common thread: our environment. I love it when strangers walk in with a completely different perspective on our planet. After asking her more questions, I realized the depth of her knowledge and the work she does was way beyond a five-minute chat.

Before she left, I asked if it was OK to interview her and shed light on the thought-provoking environmental work she does. What better way to bring in the new year than thinking about our actions, and our connection to our planet.

Maggie: That Sunday afternoon is so vivid in my memory…my husband and I were visiting our son and his girlfriend in Boston for the weekend. We enjoyed such a great pre-Covid time together andbefore we left to come home to Central New York, we all headed over to this most amazingplace, SoWa Open Studios, which was full of inspiring works of art and their most interesting creators, the artists! When passing your studio, Nedret, it was your bold use of color and paint on the canvas that first caught this gardener’s eye. In addition to the abstracts, what drew me into the studio was your smile and very kind welcome. 

Surrounded by the energy of these landscapes Ibegan to read about an artist who is inspired by the “sensations of life within seagrass beds,” but that wasn’t all. She not only works with scientists to learn about how to protect seagrasshabitat, but she also has them present at her art receptions! How amazing, I thought…theconnectedness of art…science…and protecting the environment. I had to learn more. And so we began our conversation about why I was so interested in what you do. 

We talked about returning to Boston to do a commission piece with you, attend your next reception, all while visiting our son. What could be better? Then a pandemic became our reality, yet we stayed connected. 

Nedret Andre,  Buoyant, Oil on Canvas, 12”x 48”, 2018

One of your landscapes, “Buoyan,” is now on view in our garden room reminding me of the connectedness between art, science, and protecting our environment — and the good timesto come in Boston when it is safe to return.

Nedret: Thank you Maggie, I am humbled by the positive reception my work receives in your home surrounded by all those cool plants! It is always wonderful to hear how my work resonates with my clients in their home. Thank you for also taking the time to shed light about the amazing work that you do!

How did you decide that the environment and climate would be your focus?

Maggie: Caring about the environment seemed to be part of my life from a very young age. I spent a great deal of time in my parents’ garden on the banks of the Raquette River in northern New York, where I learned to love plants of all kinds, sparking my passion for gardening. As a young child I remember my mother telling me not to pick the trillium on the riverbanks behind our house, since it was an endangered species, and to take only what is needed. She instilled in me a respect for our environment, especially in her minimalistic and thrifty lifestyle. I spent many hours outdoors in my youth and so I didn’t want to see anything happen to our beautiful surroundings. 

As a civil/environmental engineer I have worked and taught in the environmental field, so as Climate Change became a crisis it became clear that I needed todevote my life to combatting it…this just feels natural to me. Now that I am a “Nana” to three beautiful grandchildren I want them to have a safe, healthy and happy future. So here I am focusing on Climate Change and its effects in all aspects of my life.

Nedret: I love this term net-zero, how would you describe net-zero and why is it so important?

Net- Zero & Zero Emissions

Maggie: While “net-zero” was the original concept put into the media as a solution to Climate Change, it really is “Zero Emissions” that we need to strive for in order to mitigate the Climate Crisis justly.An example of the difference between the two may be more helpful. 

Net-zero is the positiveand negative added up to zero. So, we have pollution in Brooklyn, causing health effects on the population such as asthma. But the polluters are allowed to “offset” these local impacts by, say, planting trees in a different country such as Brazil. While it may be “net-zero” overall, there are still children in less fortunate communities in Brooklyn suffering from asthma due to that pollution. 

What needs to be pushed in our legislation is “Zero Emissions.” That means the polluters are no longer permitted to emit pollutants due to the use of fossil fuels. So, we need to get Zero Emissions to become not only flashy but what we work and strive toward.

Another thought could be that if net zero is allowed, then the positive and negative must happen in the same community it affects.

Nedret: Fascinating, I am personally thinking of ways to reduce my carbon footprint. I should also be striving for “zero emissions” for all to benefit, got it!

Is it likely that we can reduce the predicted greenhouse gas increases, which in turn will lessen the adverse effects of climate change? I have been reading that if we continue increasing CO2 levels as we have been over the last 5 years, we are looking at floods in Southeast Asia, islands disappearing, and coastal communities being hit by severe storms like wewitnessed with Hurricane Sandy.

Is there a way to reverse or put the brakes on this trajectory?

Maggie: When I look into the eyes of my grandchildren, I must believe we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to have hope for their future happiness. So yes, we can definitelydecrease the adverse effects of climate change. As a practicing engineer in the climate science community, everything we do that lessens greenhouse gas levels will help defer the resulting impacts. But we must be honest and realize what is ultimately going to happen and what we are experiencing now so we learn to adapt to Climate Change as well as try to mitigate it. We must be realistic so we can help those being most severely impacted such as those Southeast Asiaislands that are disappearing along with coastal communities hit by severe storms. There is so much that government and communities can do to lessen the trajectory predicted. This is why we must become active while educating ourselves and others about what we all can do tolessen our contribution to climate change. More to come on that…

Climate Adaptation Group, Ramboll

Nedret: Great I can’t wait to hear more on what we can all do to help! So, what exactly do you do? Are you an engineer or landscape architect?

Maggie:Well, I seem to wear a lot of different hats with respect to Climate Change, but my career has been as a practicing professional engineer (P.E.) in the civil and environmental engineeringfields in Central New York. Currently, I work for Ramboll in the Climate Adaptation Group of their Americas division. They are an engineering firm based in Denmark that recently bought out O’Brien & Gere Engineering in the United States. I have over the years had several different jobs, including many years as a community college professor while consulting as an engineer. Itaught various subjects in engineering, including an environmental course which covered basichydrology. It was one of my most fulfilling and enjoyable jobs and that was my most favorite subject. Currently, I work mainly on water-related projects.

Nedret: I love the name of the Climate Adaptation Group. It’s so future-thinking and proactive; climate change is here, so how can we best prepared to deal with waters rising and coastal floods? For those of us who are unfamiliar with these issues, could you briefly describe what’s happening in New York where you work?

Maggie: Yes, I have to admit that I am thrilled to be working as a project engineer/manager in Climate Adaptation. It seems so progressive and I am grateful to be working onsomething that I am so passionate about. It is especially gratifying since I work on local flooding projects where real progress is evident. Before I started working for Ramboll Iheard about these floodplain bench projects being planned, designed and constructed just miles from my home. And I thought, how wonderful it would be to work on such meaningful projects that are having positive impacts on neighboring communities.

In our area of Central New York, flooding is currently one of the main impacts experienced due to Climate Change. In the past decade or so we have witnessed people’s homes gettingdamaged repeatedly due to more frequent and more severe flooding events. It is heartbreaking to hear them speak of the devastation. But there is evidence that shows the recently built floodplain and restoration projects that I am now involved in actually lower the flood elevations and also reduce the area that is being flooded as well. More to come on this subject…

Nedret: You mentioned you are working on a project that deals with mitigation and adaptation in urban areas with regards to flooding. Can you explain a little more? Do you use maps to identify lowlying areas that are at risk? How does it all work, and what about the human impact this brings to people’s homes?

Maggie: Of course, let me explain a little bit more about these exciting projects that both mitigate and adapt to climate change. 

I currently work on the Sauquoit Creek Channel & Floodplain Restoration Program in the Town of Whitestown, a nearby community. This most vital program consists of several innovative projects, and if it is successful it will become the blueprint for making watersheds more resilient to future flooding events inNew York State. 

This program takes a global approach of how to realistically deal with flooding due to Climate Change. It includes natural floodplain components that mitigate the impacts due to the flooding but, it also includes adapting to the impacts of these storm events. Currently, we are working on a buy-out program for those homeowners that have experienced repetitive flooding in a small local village. Once these homes are removed this area will be returned to function as a floodplain, helping to mitigate flooding even further. Smart growth and future planning in communities located withinthe watershed are also part of this critical program.

So, where does all this problem solving begin? Well, first we must determine what problem actually needs solving (not always easy) and what is causing it to exist. Is there something we are doing in our communities that contributes to the impacts from Climate Change which makes them worse? Don’t forget that when we pave over an area that used to be grass the rainwater has nowhere to go but runoff into the creeks when it used to infiltrate into the ground — so, more water traveling faster to the creek. This leads us to studying the creek’s watershed and investigating ways we can make it more resilient to future flood events.

Ramboll has some of the most knowledgeable scientists and engineers in the world.They are performing some of the most sophisticated modeling of existing and future storm events using some of the most cutting-edge software. All of which is based on science and data… and maps and maps and more maps! But the cool thing is Ramboll has the expertise and technology to simulate future flood events based on different design options, allowing us to determine what solution is best for each problem area. It is based on our topographic maps and future precipitation data…science at its best…real solutions to real problems…the reason I became an engineer…working on my passion, Climate Change mitigation and adaptation! So wonderful!

Nedret: Yes, working on your passion is pretty amazing! You mentioned maps of storms, could you explain?

Climate Change, Flooding, and Mitigation

M: Here is a photo of the most devastating flooding event so far in our area; The 2019 Halloween Storm. It was declared a disaster by FEMA.

The 2019 Halloween Storm[Photo: Maggie Reilly]

Here are a few maps showing the inundation of the 2019 Halloween Storm on a nearby village and the following two are showing the progression of the flooding.

Maps showing the progression of the flooding. [Image: Maggie Reilly]
Maps showing the progression of the flooding. [Image: Maggie Reilly]

Nedret: Wow you can really see the water ways widening with the maps.

You mentioned making watersheds more resilient, what does this entail? Are you involved in creating living shorelines? Or is it more structural things?

Maggie: Many of my answers to your great questions are interrelated so let me see if I can answer them clearly and concisely. Ramboll does work on creating living shorelines and in some of the most vital areas coming up with innovative techniques. There are also structural solutions to problems, but we do a lot of blue/green work that is similar to living shorelines. Thenature-based elements are much more sustainable, but structural components are necessary as well, at times.

Some of my work at Ramboll has involved a program called Resilient NY

“The Resilient NY program will develop state-of-the-art studies to reduce flooding and ice jam formations and improve riparian ecology on 48 high-priority flood-prone watersheds throughout New York State. The program will employ advanced modeling techniques and field assessments to identify priority projects and actions to reduce community flood and ice jam risks, while also improving habitat. These studies will give communities a blueprint or path forward to abate the worst effects of future flooding.” 

Here at Ramboll we study these watersheds and recommend the sustainable alternatives for projects that communities can undertake to mitigate and adapt to future flooding causedby Climate Change. We perform the advanced modeling techniques in the creeks that simulate the alternatives based on scientific data of future storm events. Many of theoptions brought forward are natural-based solutions that connect the waterway (creek, river) to its original floodplain while stabilizing the waterway itself. Part of our work is to reach out to the communities and ultimately present the alternatives/options to them along with theinvolved state/federal agencies. And of course, we submit a report on each Resilient NY Watershed which serves as a plan for these communities to become more resilient to future flooding. All of this is continuing during the pandemic in alternative ways such as Webex.

Nedret: What is flood bench creation and channel protection?

Maggie: So, many of the alternatives or options we propose to help make communities more resilient to future flooding are natural based solutions such as floodplain bench creation and channel protection on the banks of creeks whose watersheds are susceptible to flooding. They basically go hand in hand and are a critical component ofthe Sauquoit Creek Projects I work on currently. 

First, before I get into this discussion too far, just so everyone knows what a floodplain is and how it is associated with amcreek’s watershed, let’s do a little hydrology review…

Watershed, Floodplains & Floodplain Benches

WATERSHED: The watershed of a creek, also known as a drainage basin or catchment, is the land area that drains into the creek including any tributaries and most of the precipitation in that area.

Watershed [Image Source: Maggie Reilly]

FLOODPLAIN: The creek’s floodplain is the area of land associated with the creek that gets covered by floodwaters during the regional flood, which is usually a 100-year storm. Notice in the floodplain diagram that the fill under the house within the floodplain (“Flood Fringe”) takes up flood storage when a storm event takes place and waters within the channel (creek) would rise. This is associated with development that takes place within a community and is allowed within the footprint of the floodplain. This is contributing to the impacts due to climate change. Smart growth can help address this issue. 

Floodplain Characteristics [Image: Maggie Reilly]

Nedret: Interesting, so with urban development and housing, the vegetation that would normally be there to absorb the water has been changed to concrete. So this makes it harder to absorb all the flood water. Is where Flood Plain benches come in?

Typical Compound Channel[Image: Maggie Reilly]

Maggie: FLOODPLAIN BENCH: A floodplain bench (also known as bankfull bench) is a flat area(looks like a bench) adjacent to the creek/stream/channel at bankfull elevation (top ofstream banks). 

A floodplain bench is constructed by excavating material to create an area for flows above this elevation to spread out during a storm event. These floodplain benches should dissipate energy in the stream channel while providing an area to catch erosion if necessary. Floodplain benches are often used in combination with bank stabilization (toe stabilizing techniques such as toe wood) in order to prevent soil erosion. A bankfullbench is effective for reducing high flow velocities, improving water quality, reducing stream bank erosion and providing stream bed stability. The floodplain benches are intended to reconnect the creek to its natural floodplain, replace invasive species with native plants improving the site to prevent erosion and increase flood retention, and to install natural structures to improve wildlife habitat.

Nedret: I was looking on Ramboll’s website; it’s pretty huge and impressive. How do your meetings start at work? What is the problem-solving process?

Maggie: Well, the funny thing is that I started working for Ramboll last April, which was near the beginning of the Covid pandemic, so I have never actually worked in their office. OurUtica, New York, office is located in a very cool, old, renovated brick building across from ourtrain station, Union Station. So, Zoom and Webex were how we met and continue to work together. It has worked out quite well so far…I work out of my office at home while my husband works upstairs in his office (previously our son’s bedroom). Everyone Iwork with has been great and are very receptive to working together on a project to solve whatever is the problem of the day!

As discussed earlier, we identify a problem, whether it be project oriented or otherwise, and then identify who is the expert and decide who needs to be part of the solution/discussion. Then tasks are assigned, and the project manager keeps track ofthe work and when necessary we all get back together where we discuss as a team. Everyone is allowed to “put in their 2 cents” after the expert gives their findings. A consensus is usually how we do things, but sometimes the project engineer or manager makes the decision and we go with it. 

That is a very simplified explanation of our problem-solving process. The complexity of the problem/issue weighs into the equationalong with schedule and cost. It definitely is a “process” at times.

One of the reasons I took this job with Ramboll was its mission and the projects they work on: “Ramboll is a worldwide company, partnering with their clients to create sustainable societies where people and nature flourish …. We improve the physical environment, strengthen societal cohesion and development, and minimize the negative impacts and environmental degradation related to modern life…. Ramboll has decades of proven experience creating livable and sustainable places across the world.”

Climate Activism & Social Justice

Nedret: Sounds like a perfect match with you! Changing the topic a tiny bit, would you consider your self a climate activist? If so why?

Maggie: Yes, I am a very active climate activist and I find it to be one of the most important roles in my life. While we have spent much of this time discussing my career and the science behind Climate Change. But there is much, much more to combatting it and its impacts. It goes back to that problem-solving process: identifying the root problem and then identifying what can be done to solve this very complex problem and in a very short time. 

I consider myself an advocate for the environment working on mitigating Climate Change and its effects on our planet and its inhabitants. But it goes much deeper than that. I consider myself part of a movement seeking systemic change for not only the necessary overhaul of eradicating fossil fuel but first and foremost for “Climate Justice.” We need systemic social change recognizing that the impacts from climate change are unequal and are much more severe on those marginalized, underserved and underprivileged populations. So, as we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we must do it in a just manner that addresses the needs of those communities that are more susceptible to the risks posed by climate change. These are usually lower income communities, people of color, indigenous people, those with disabilities, women and the very young and old. 

Since climate change and racism are so interconnected, my activism includes a great deal of time spent on social justice for all. My belief is that if everyone, most especially our country/world leaders, believed that their fellow human being — no matter race, creed, color, gender, sexual preference, disability or whatever makes them different — is as important as they are, equal (not the same, but equal) in every way, then we could begin to solve most social justice problems. If there was empathy, compassion and caring for all inhabitants of this earth, then there would be no Climate Change because a mutual respect and desire to help would be the priority in a society. Greed would not influence the decisions made by our leaders, for society’s safe well-being would be more important than wealth. 

Call it idealistic, but I believe it is our only choice right now for the human race to survive.

I will someday retire as an engineer, but my life as an activist will never end; it is who I am and who I want to be. 

Much of my activism revolves around being the co-leader of a local Climate Crisis Working Group consisting of around 75-100 local activists working on issues that help mitigate oradapt to climate change through education, legislation, and other actions in our communities, our state, and our nation. We work tirelessly on legislation such as the CLCPA and CCIA (Climate and Community Investment Act) in New York State. 

Some of us assisted in DIVESTNY, which is a group that “convinced” the state comptroller to Divest NY’s State Retirement Fund, worth over $226 billion, from fossil fuels. Currently, we are working on Community Gardens in Utica, our local city, assisting in lower income neighborhoods, and a peace garden in Utica’s Proctor Park, an Olmstead-designed urban park. We regularly have educational presentations on pertinent topics such as alternative energy sources, regenerative agriculture, or any topic we can share with others. As an activist we advocate for legislation that will encourage the necessarysystemic change that is so needed in our country, since for real systemic change to take place it must be done on a governmental level led by the people! That is us! Our group is a sub-group of a local Indivisible group, and we are an organizational member of NY Renews.

This organization, NY Renews, is a “coalition of over 200 environmental, justice, faith, labor, and community groups, and the force behind the nation’s most progressive climate law.” They fight for good jobs and climate justice, and they are not finished yet!  They were the force behind getting theCLCPA passed in New York State and our group was an integral part of it — what we in New York consider the most aggressive climate legislation passed in the country. Now we are working on getting it funded with the CCIA.

In Albany, NY, on the Million Dollar Staircase at the State Capital pleading with our governor to sign and pass the CCPA (aka CLCPA) [Photo: Maggie Reilly]

On a footbridge over the arterial highway in Utica during Climate AwarenessWeek, September 2019, all inspired by Greta Thunberg. Our youth will save this planet.

Maggie and friend on NY Footbridge [Photo: Maggie Reilly]

I am also a member of our local Climate Smart Community Committee for our town.

Many of the actions listed in this program can be done at the local level with assistance from community members to build a “sustainable, balanced climate action program.”

Reducing our Carbon Footprint

Nedret: What would you encourage people to do on a daily basis to reduce their CO2 footprint?

Maggie: That is such a loaded question… First, do what you can, but definitely get educated. There is so much being thrown at us it can be overwhelming. But every little bit helps and if you can do more, then do it!

First and foremost, ask yourself if what you are doing, whatever it is, has a negative or positive impact on the environment. If you are unsure then do some research.

The 3 R’s are a good place to start.

Reduce: use less, buy less and waste less.

Reuse: find multiple ways to use the same item, try not to throw it away.

Recycle: Finally, if you have to throw it away, then Recycle it. 

If it does end up in your garbage, then why? We compost our food with CNY GreenBucket, a program that brings our food waste to a local anaerobic digester that produces electricity. So, we have very little garbage and we put it in biodegradable garbage bags.

While you are thinking of what you can do to lower your carbon footprint, think about how much you consume and where you get it and how it gets to you. Clothes are one of the most impactful items. The clothes issue was and is the hardest for me to curb…we all need to consume less.

Other ideas are to replace your light bulbs with LED; buy local and from local farmers if possible (CSA); if you garden, compost and look into permaculture; and replace household items with more ecological items. And for goodness sake, use less plastic! We recycle all plastic and use plastic alternatives. 

But most of all we need to be looking at the use of fossil fuels. If you can buy an electric vehicle and think of using renewable energy for heating/cooling your home, that is a great reduction of your carbon footprint. If you can’t put solar panels on your property, then look into alternative energysources. If you are building or renovating your home, use lower-impact products. Be aware of “green washing.” 

Because of our strong beliefs in combatting climate change, my husband and I decided to remove all fossil fuels from our home. Our first decision was to lease a hybrid vehicle, then we bought a EV (electric vehicle) and put a charging station in the garage. We then replaced our roof and installed solar panels on it that are enough to generate theneeded electricity to heat and cool (we don’t use much air conditioning) our home. We replaced our hot water baseboard heat and gas-burning furnace and hot water heater with air source heat pumps. Geothermal heat pumps were not an option. We did this not only because transportation and heating/cooling buildings are the two highest forms of pollution, but also to be an example of how a fairly typical  four-bedroom and 2.5 bath colonial home can be converted. We received several incentives/rebates for the EV, solar panels, roof replacement and air source heat pumps from NYSERDA (New York StateEnergy and Research Development Authority).

We also replaced our lawn mower and all garden tools to battery operated. I am also an avid gardener who tries to be organic, but I would say I am more natural. Iam going to revise some of my gardening practices, including planting more native plants and definitely getting rid of anything that is invasive.

Finally, if you are serious about reducing your carbon footprint then you will be successful at some level. Every little bit you can do at the beginning counts and then as you get comfortable and start doing more… it becomes very natural and second natureto you. It is a new way of life that you will enjoy and feel so very good about doing!

Nedret: What can individuals do if they want to get involved even further?

Maggie: Well, if you live in New York all you have to do is ask a friend or neighbor and you will have more to do than you have time. It really does depend on your interest and what you ultimately want to do. If it is climate activism or environmental work, then there is probably a local chapter of or Sierra Club or Indivisible or any of the knownclimate/environmental groups. 

If there is a certain issue pertinent to your area such as cleaning up your local lake, then there is probably a group dedicated to that issue. Many churches such as the Universal Unitarian Church works on Climate Justice. If you havean Interfaith Coalition, then you can get hooked up with them. Do you have a local Soil & Water group or Cooperative Extension? Depending on what state you live in there should be a state department similar to our NYSDEC (NYS Department of Environmental Conservation) and/or NYSERDA. Look at your local community college for ideas. It won’t take you long before you are involved in something. It may take a few tries at finding agroup or two that you are comfortable working with, but give it time. You will be an advocate for the environment and enjoying every moment!

Nedret: How happy are we to be back in the Paris Accord? Is the new administration’s focus on the environment going to be enough to get us back on track?

Maggie: We should all be ecstatic that the United States is back in the Paris Accord. But we need to do more with raising the bar worldwide. I do believe that what this administration is saying and what they are doing so far with respect to Climate Change will move the needle. We need the United States to be a world leader and introduce bold and big climate legislation that not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but does it in a just manner. 

We don’t need to replace fossil fuel greed with renewable energy greed where only a few prosper from it. We need everyone to benefit from a renewableenergy economy especially those impacted by it the most — our underserved communities — as we spoke of earlier. We need to fight climate change while battling racial injustice. 

We have seen, by what has taken place with respect to the pandemic, that we as a society ona worldwide level can make enormous change in a very short time if we put our minds to it. How we do everything in our lives has changed, and we can do the same with respect to climate change. But it will take systemic changes. It is all worth it. Look into the eyes of your children or grandchildren or any loved one…look into the eyes of acomplete stranger (six feet apart, of course!)…or look into the mirror. We are all worth it!

Thank you so much for the time to talk about my passions. But sometime you will need to visit our home in the summer so you can walk with me in the gardens while sipping a glass of wine and having a bite to eat. Then you will see my real passion, ourgardens. I truly love to have friends visit in the gardens for a stroll or a meal…tranquility and peace…surrounded by the environment that is so worth saving. 

Happiness to you all. Stay safe and healthy for a better tomorrow!

Maggies Garden
Maggies Garden

Nedret: Absolutely, I would love to come check out your amazing garden, it looks so beautiful! I would also like to see how you got your home to be net- zero 🙂 Thank you for the kind invitation and taking so much time sharing your work, home and passion with us! Before I let you go what other sites, books do you recommend we take a look at?

Maggie: This site shows some living shoreline projects that are similar to what we work on at Ramboll. Also, there is a simulation of a flood similar to what we do as well:

This site is all about Natural Stream Channel Design

This site references the Resilient NY project:

Depending on what you are interested in, there are tons of sites and books: 

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming(Edited by Paul Hawken) 

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming(David Wallace-Wells)

Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution(Peter Kalmus)

Climate Matters: Ethics in a Warming World(John Broome)

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes(Dan Egan)

I also recommend any of the many books by Naomi Klein. I also have a library of gardening books, but my favorite gardening magazine is Fine Gardening. Happy reading!