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Protecting New Jersey's Waterfront Communities Against the Next Superstorm

Scientists say that 'living shorelines' and other advanced environmental strategies will do far more than simply restoring the shore.

living shoreline
Credit: Partnership for the Delaware Estuary
A "living shoreline" in the making.

As New Jerseyans consider how to build what Gov. Chris Christie calls a “21st century shore” in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, environmental scientists, regional planners and policymakers on the western side of the state said the “Restore the Shore” approach is too limited and will likely prove harmful to human and aquatic life.

Speaking at the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary’s (PDE) biannual conference in Cape May this week, some of the nearly 300 attendees from New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere called on elected officials to better acknowledge storm-devastated waterfront communities beyond the shore and to realize that worsening long-term weather patterns guarantee that simply “restoring” damaged areas to their previous state will repeatedly expose them to destruction.

“Maybe we should change our language from ‘restoration’ to ‘renovation,” suggested University of Delaware Marine and Geological Sciences Professor William Ullman. “The idea that you can somehow go back to some previous time, it just doesn’t happen. Time’s arrow is in one direction, and we want to go [toward] something more sustainable.”

Setting a restoration goal to some idyllic date in the past isn’t just impractical, it’s also dangerous, according to these scientists. Why? By setting priorities that aren’t based on today's forward-thinking perceptions and knowledge, the state risks ignoring recent environmental advances. And only by implementing modern strategies like “living shoreline” buffering that place organic material between water and shore, can waterfront communities save themselves from infinite rounds of restoration.

“We need to have paradigm shift,” said Danielle Kreeger, science director for the PDE, a strong advocate for the living shoreline approach. She says that if Hurricane Sandy had a silver lining, it was that policymakers are finally starting to listen to warnings and recommendations that environmentalists have been issuing for decades. “They’re starting to put ideas on table for how to build more smartly.”

Global Warming

Although not everyone agrees about the causes and effects of climate change -- or that it exists at all as anything but a natural cycle process -- a report released by the PDE, one of 28 congressionally designated national programs focused on the improving the health of the nation’s estuaries, insists the science of climate change is frighteningly real. A look at some of the more dramatic findings shows that in the Delaware River Basin, which runs from the Poconos, through the Delaware Bay and out to the ocean, the basin has warmed one degree Celsius per century and will rise by another 1.9 degrees to 3.7 degrees Celsius before this one’s finished.

In addition, precipitation in the basin has climbed by ten percent every decade for the past 30 years -- a number that reflects a fivefold rise over the hundred-year trend. Three-quarters of the models used in a study cited in the report predict increases in the frequency of “extreme hydrological metrics, including heavy precipitation and consecutive dry days.”

New research on sea-level change could prove even more alarming for residents along the Delaware River.

Late last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that global sea level, which varies by region, was rising faster than they’d anticipated. They followed up by boosting their estimates to predict a two-meter (6.6-foot) average rise by 2100.

But water in the Delaware Basin and mid-Atlantic states rises faster than the global average, because of a decrease in velocity in the Gulf Stream and a greater-than-average rate of land sinkage caused by massive withdrawals of groundwater for irrigation. This means that the PDE, which had subscribed to the conventional estimate of an approximately 1.2-meter rise in the Delaware River for every one meter average global rise over the same time period, has been woefully underestimating the actual increase.

Why does it matter? Ask Ben Stowman, chairman of the planning board for Maurice River Township, a small community at the southern tip of Cumberland County where the crabbing and fishing industries bring in up to $100 million annually.

“Storm action compounded by sea-level rise has torn away our shoreline,” he said. “Salt water from the ocean comes in further and further and puts our industry more at risk.”

Looking at a map of the township, it’s easy to see where erosion has erased swaths of land that once jutted into the Maurice River and guided its flow. In the past 30 years, two beach communities have vanished, and landmarks along the river – the A.J. Meerwald tall ship, an 1849 lighthouse, a Rutgers oyster-research center, a marine police station, several shipyards, and a few historic Swedish, Dutch and English communities – are at risk. Storms like Sandy simply accelerate what’s already happening.

“Sandy came up to the base [of the lighthouse] and took away another 20 yards of beach,” Stowman said. But that concern troubles him less than trying to convince the Department of Environmental Protection to repair the road that got washed away when Sandy caused a dyke to breach, leaving customers looking to buy crabs and shellfish from Matt’s Landing fishermen to access them by the one remaining entryway: a bike path.

Stowman doesn’t need conferences to persuade him that coastal communities have to build with an eye toward a more watery future. He’s already got funding to construct several living shorelines, a cornerstone initiative of the PDE that may include techniques like covering rock jetties with dredge spoilage and organic material to foster animal life and planting native grasses and shellfish beds along the shore.

The thinking is that creating natural habitats for flora and fauna can help revitalize the ecosystem. A “softer” barrier against erosion will shift with the coastline and help diffuse the force of waves that crash against it and threaten what lies behind. Alhough he’d received support from public agencies and municipal neighbors for his projects before Sandy, he says that the storm has freed up money and mindset among those who weren’t convinced that organic materials like coconut-fiber logs, oyster-shell bags, and marsh sills could outperform “hard” infrastructure like bulkheads.

Spreading the Word

Convincing thought-leaders is Jennifer Adkins’ job. As the executive director of the PDE, Adkins often speaks to those who control the money, explaining that while living shorelines might have a more limited lifespan than traditional solutions, the starting price of less than $450 per linear foot makes them less expensive than a bulkhead. Further, hard solutions don't offer any of the ancillary benefits of a more eco-friendly option.

Adkins' aim is to convince community leaders not just to pay for these improvements but to think progressively when they issue new building permits and write new zoning ordinances. She also hopes that local, state, and federal agencies will align their regulations and procedures to streamline the process for individual organizations seeking permits.

Though she sees more people opening their minds to a holistic approach, especially after mountains of anecdotal evidence show Shore towns protected by dunes suffered far less damage than those that were exposed to the ocean, she understands that it’s extremely difficult to adopt completely foreign methods of planning. Nonetheless, she says Sandy gave everyone an opportunity to witness firsthand the storm’s effects on these defensive schemes, which usually can just be analyzed theoretically. Now it’s a matter of what philosophy will triumph: restoration or renovation.

“My general feeling is there is a real desire to do things right, and people see real opportunity for that. But we have all these systems and rules designed around doing things the same way. It’s really a challenge,” she said.

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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