Port Mahon Delaware

Sea level rise is causing erosion that has all but swallowed this once-thriving town on the shore of the Delaware Bay.

These pictures taken in March 2011 tell the story of the current state of Port Mahon, Delaware. Once a popular bayside community, now all that is left is a boat launch lamp accessible at low tide. At high tide the road is impassible.

Physical deterioration was evident in March at the beginning of the spring storm season. It appears that if the road is not heavily maintained, it may be completely washed away with a few months. (See the photos with broken asphalt).

These sobering photos were taken on March 23, 2011, on a calm overcast day with light rain. Since this was not a full moon or any other lunar cycle, I concluded that this was a normal high tide. We generally expect tide levels to increase over the spring.

Two watermen had pulled boats and were leaving Port Mahon Road as I entered. It was about an hour before high tide. I wondered if they knew that the road became impassable at high tide, but I drove ahead anyway. The deepest water was about six inches, which is about the maximum my little SUV can handle.

On the long drive back home, I reconsidered the possibilities of hardening to resist erosion (the strategy used by my local community in New Jersey) as compared to a strategic retreat (the strategy endorsed by the scientific community). My guess is that we’ll do everything possible to avoid addressing the issue in a responsible and effective manner.

Delaware sea level response report

Note added at republishing: This post covers an older report. Since the date of publication water level rise forecasts have been revised upwards.

Delaware’s comprehensive sea level rise risk assessment report confirms that long term strategic retreat from low-lying coastal areas is the most likely response to water level rises expected to continue for coming decades.

Key findings of the report are:

– a water level rise of 1.6 to 4.9 ft. is considered likely by 2100

– Up to 10% of the state will be permanently flooded

– Up to 75% of specifically named towns will be permanently flooded

– Public safety will be at risk; fire and emergency stations, police stations, and evacuation routes will be flooded

– Public health may be at risk by the thousands of septic tanks, wastewater pumping stations and treatment facilities that will be flooded.

– Revenue from tourism is at risk and local governments will face increased funding needs for maintenance or repair of shore points.

 

Download the Assessment
Full Document (5 MB)
Executive Summary
Introductory Sections (5 MB)
Natural Resources
Society & Economy
Public Safety & Infrastructure
Mapping Appendix (37 MB)
Introduction
Maps – Natural Resources (8.5 MB)
Maps – Society & Economy (6MB)
Maps – Public Safety & Infrastructure (13 MB)

Review of “Hotspot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America”

Note added at republishing: This is a review of an older 2012 article explaining the ‘hotspot’ phenomena. Since then, the forecasts of water level rise were revised upwards by Rutgers and others.

For years, sea level rise (SLR) has seriously impacted communities along the mid-Atlantic seacoast of the United States. Governments and individual residents in this region are financially and politically consumed by the demands of battling the effects of storms and erosion. The effects of storms and erosion consumes governments and individual residents in this region, both financially and politically. While scientists were reporting SLR predictions of less than one millimeter per year, the mid-Atlantic east coast was struggling with the devastating effects of increasingly violent inundation that has even destroyed entire communities(1). The lingering discrepancy in public perception between scientific explanation and the actual effects of SLR left governments unsure of the appropriate response.

This June 2012 report published in Nature Climate Change by the U.S. Geologic Survey(2) is important for three major findings:

First, although SLR is expected to be 2 to 4 feet on a global basis by the end of this century, that rise is not expected to come at the same time in all locations. Prior to the publication of this report, researchers did not consider that climate warming could affect SLR differently over time and at different locations. The authors propose that differences in the rate of SLR may be observed due to land movements, the strength of ocean currents, water temperature, and salinity.

Second, the report confirmed that the North Atlantic coast – referred to as the “hotbed” – had 3 to 4 times the global average SLR and that the trend is accelerating. Portions of the highly populated middle Atlantic region from Norfolk, VA to Boston, MA, , have experienced up to 7 inches of water rise in the past decade.

Third, the article extrapolates the accelerating trend of SLR to predict dire impact in the next few decades. The authors predict that communities in the “hotbed” can expect to see another 8 to 11 inches of sea level rise. These already impaired communities will increasingly experience devastating effects from even milder storms of the future.

This article serves as a wake-up call to governments that were slow to recognize the impact of SLR in the communities within their jurisdiction. Environmentalists used the publication of this paper and related publicity by US. Coast Guard(3) to amplify their message that “ignorance of science is not going to be a defense that politicians can wield for much longer”(4).


1 This topic is important in Money Island, New Jersey where three of the closest communities – Thompson’s Beach, NJ, Sea Breeze NJ and Port Mahon DE – have all recently been evacuated. The Money Island, NJ community is now being evacuated becasue of sea level rise.

2 Published online in Nature Climate Change at http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate1597.html.

3 ClimateCentral.org, “If A Tree Falls in the Senate, Will Anyone Hear Sea Rise?”, April 20, 2012, http://www.climatecentral.org/blogs/if-a-tree-falls-in-the-senate-will-it-slow-rise-of-seas

4 U.S. Coast Guard News Release “Sea Level Rise Accelerating in U.S. Atlantic Coast” June 24, 2012, http://www.usgs.gov/newsroom/article.asp?ID=3256&from=rss_home#.UIQ_Y8XA-Sq

Six years after Sandy

The government-created “disaster after the disaster” continues to dominate much of our lives at the bayshore. After the physical effects of the storm faded in memory, we continue to battle the effects of government mismanagement that emerged after the storm. 

This month will mark six years since superstorm Sandy devastated our communities. Much of the damage has not yet been repaired and may never be repaired. The telephone line in front of my house, for example, was never replaced. I still have the downed wire that I cut down and rolled up myself during the cleanup when Verizon did not respond to repeated service calls. For most other issues it was a combination of fraud, mismanagement and red tape within the government systems that administer post-Sandy rebuilding programs are mostly to blame.

We have plans to redevelop a new type of sustainable aquaculture-based community. Funding is just beginning to flow. We still lack government approval to proceed with any part of these plans.

Many of the local people who initiated the “No retreat – Save the bayshore communities” campaign have sold their properties and moved out over the past year. Those who remain are deeply entrenched in a battle with government to negotiate a plan for recovery and sustainability.

Some of the issues that specifically hamper Money Island, New Jersey recovery are:

  1. New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance declined to investigate sales practices of insurance companies that sold inappropriate and inadequate coverage.
  2. The National Flood Insurance Program admitted fraud and mismanagement in handling flood insurance claims but continued to deny payment on those claims anyway. Policyholders have been forced to settle for lesser amounts or give up die to high legal costs of pursuing their claim in court.
  3. Most recovery programs were denied to homeowners and businesses on the New Jersey bay shore region. We read that 98% of all post-Sandy Small Business Administration loan applications were denied.
  4. Almost all of the applications and project proposal applications for post-Sandy recovery work at Money Island have been denied.
  5. On Monday June 11, 2018 when NJ activist Doug Quinn addressed FEMA administrator Brock Long about specific policy provisions at the National Flood Conference in Washington, DC on Monday to address the Congressman’s’ letter this week, NFIP administrator Brok Long said “I’m not going to answer that”, then shut down the meeting to questioning and walked off the stage. Quinn later wrote that the event “was a learning experience. We have no friends there”.
  6. On the same day, June 11, 2018, at the public meeting of Downe Township Committee mayor Bob Campbell said that FEMA officials admit that post-Sandy projects they intend to see completed are still incomplete here in our township. There was no discussion of a timetable for the federally funded projects.
  7. Last month the New Jersey Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Tony Novak and others for failure to make progress on post-Sandy recovery despite the track record of more than ten applications and pre-application proposals to do so.

It is clear that our struggle is with government, not nature. Given the history of what we call “the disaster after the disaster” I am not optimistic about any immediate change in government’s role in our future recovery. We will continue to push for our recovery and long term sustainability at a grass roots level for years to come. We are able to rebuild under the various regional and local recovery plans but we need government permission and cooperation to do so. We also need funding for those aspects of the recovery projects that benefit the public interest rather than just private businesses and homeowners. Virtually all government cooperation is still lacking at this point five and a half years after Sandy.

I anticipate at least two more years will be required to settle existing post-Sandy litigation and appeals and then return to the process of rebuilding. The legal battles are a waste of time and money that only enrich the lawyers on both sides but we don’t think that it is likely that government will act responsibly or come to our aid anytime soon.

An environmentalist and a engineer talk about the future of Money Island

7/20/2018 – I had an interesting meeting with a well-connected civil engineer on site here at Money Island yesterday afternoon. Hours earlier, I had a long telephone conversation with the Money Island project manager for The Nature Conservancy (TNC).  Both conversations added valuable insights.

The Environmentalist

The TNC official echoed an opinion that I hear often from environmentalists: although they personally support Money Island’s sustainability plan, they believe that certain people in mid-level state management at NJDEP do not. Some state employees would prefer that people abandon Money Island to nature. This is commonly referred to in environmental discussions as a “retreat strategy”. The retreat strategy is certainly worth full consideration. Eventually, with three feet of sea level rise, our town and millions of acres of shoreline will be gone. My response is always the same two points:

  1. Higher water levels are actually good for the future of aquaculture!.It may not be good for roads, buildings or traditional infrastructure but we can certainly work around that with currently available construction modifications. Our core mission of providing public, industry and government access to local waterways will not be impaired by future water level rise. (I usually continue the conversation to discuss how Rutgers’ most recent forecasts of tidal impact and flooding trends for the next 30 to 50 years are built into our sustainability plan but don’t need to go into that detail here).
  2. Life is too short to fight the government. If we suspected that the  retreat path was the opinion of state leadership, including NJDEP leadership, then we would change course. Life is too short to be in a battle against the prevailing force of government. But this is not the case. Every high-ranking official in NJDEP and state government that I’ve spoken with – probably more than two dozen by now – have all told me that they support the project and urge m to ‘stay the course’. Some warned me that the path to enlightened sustainability management will be difficult and that I will need to be persistent and ‘keep fighting’. Many of these government leaders have even given me pep talks to keep me going through this current struggle, pointing out how important this mission is to future generations. That’s what motivates me. That’s why I stick with the project.

The engineer

An civil engineer generally familiar with our issues wrote online “The biggest challenge in fighting climate change is getting our institutions to let go of well-intentioned but obsolete policies”. The other engineer on site had more pragmatic comments:

  1. He agrees with the previously expressed project engineer’s opinion that NJDEP should not be taking the current prosecutorial actions against marina infrastructure (our infrastructure) that predate the beginning of permitting requirement laws in the 1970s. Granted, there are a lot of factual details that muddy the situation (historic photography, old land surveys, post-Sandy reconstruction law, etc.) but the core fact remains that our original marina and docks were built in the 1930s before land use permitting were required and therefore should be grandfathered to some extent.
  2. He asked several times “Why are they…?” and my response in each instance was that we don’t have the legal muscle to show where the state has made factual or legal errors in their prosecution of Money Island stakeholders. In contrast, the state has unlimited legal resources and seems intent on using these resources against us rather than negotiate through traditional problem-solving channels. I referred these factual and legal errors in the courtroom but the judge did not seem to give my objections serious consideration. Without a budget for legal defense, I don’t see any reasonable chance of addressing the state’s errors.
  3. He says that the fundamental underlying problem is that the state has not yet come to grips with the impact of water level rise on our wetlands and the infrastructure resources in these locations. While viable management approaches are proposed, we aren’t making adequate progress toward implementation. We discussed different aspects of thin layer dredge spray that is part of the Money Island sustainability plan. I suspect that not many people are familiar with this proposal so I would say only that it is public policy that makes a lot more sense from a public policy perspective than our current strategy of pumping sand on the Atlantic coast beaches! Workable sustainability solutions are available if we choose to pursue them.
  4. The usual first step in planning a project like this is called a pre-permit meeting with a wide range of stakeholders. He doesn’t understand why our requests for a meeting were declined. We discussed the thinking of certain department officials and how those have been addressed in other similar projects. His opinion, based on our exchange of bits of facts and third-party conversations,  that our project does have the support of the most influential people who have been effective recently in getting the NJDEP to change their thinking about bayshore sustainability. We discussed the cost of this permitting and told me what I already knew: I would need to find a loan to cover the cost of land use permitting. we didn’t discuss that I’m already working on it or my frustration that the process is moving so slowly. Now that partial funding is available for compliance, we decided to try again.

“No retreat”: Pros and Cons

no-retreat-save-the-bayshor

A few years ago the deputy mayor of Downe Township, a former neighbor here at Money Island, came up with the idea and we printed a bunch of bumper stickers and signs that said “No Retreat! Save the bay shore communities”. I say ‘we’ because as far as I know the project was paid for with public funds. I didn’t think that government should be involved in a choice that was essentially a private decision about their home or business. Our properties lie on the border of Downe Township and Lawrence Township. Lawrence Township took the opposite approach and vowed to support its residents no matter what they decided to do in reaction to state government property buyouts. The campaign was a great success as far as bumper stickers go. Several years later I still see the ‘No Retreat’ bumper stickers and signs everywhere. The campaign itself was not so successful. Most of my community, including the former local government official who designed the campaign, sold their properties to the state and retreated inland.

For some the ‘No Retreat’ slogan effectively summarizes the political and financial effort to retain all of our taxable real estate assets. Shoreline properties tend to be taxes at the highest rates within a community. Losing them can be financially disastrous to a community. For others, the slogan simply reflects an affinity for the bayshore community or a natural desire to keep family home. At the core of issue is the question: “Can humans survive the challenges of climate change at the bayshore?” For most, the answer has proven to be ‘no’. The financial demands and threats of government forced the decision for most of our neighbors. For me, the answer is ‘yes, but it requires major changes’. Only time will tell how the financial and government challenges will be met for the few businesses or residents that remain. A book coming out next year from Beacon Press covers this episode of local history.

The problem is that the scientists and accountants among us know that “No Retreat” is not a sustainable strategy per se. Virtually all of us who have been involved in sea level rise response planning recognize that we will lose some of our shoreline properties and communities. A reporter reported on the irony that under the force of a strong new moon tide, he saw the “No Retreat” signs floating down the flooded roadway. Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and other states are heavily involved in stakeholder discussions about how to handle this natural force. New Jersey lags far behind in this process. Some politicians still question the state’s official sea level rise projection that calls for some of our communities to be completely inundated within our lifetime.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of community planners believe that strategic retreat is the best available strategy as a response to sea level rise. We will undoubtedly save some of our present waterfront and technology will allow some businesses – like aquaculture – to survive and even thrive in this new high water environment. But the older homes along the bayshore will eventually be swallowed up by the forces of erosion; the combined effect of more water and higher levels of destructive energy in the water.

The first wave of buyouts here at Money Island is complete. Next month the tear-downs will begin. A second wave of tear-downs will follow.

I predicted this series of events in a blog post and many public discussions. As an early forecaster of the trend, I was sometimes blamed for its impact. I still believe that this section of the bayshore needs to retreat to its commercial roots – fishing, shellfish, and aquaculture – but use new technologies to ensure sustainability for coming generations. The loss of our bayside vacation communities is a sad but inevitable development for many of us.

sunset over Bayview Road in Money Island were houses are scheduled for demolition next month.