The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work last week on two federally funded construction projects along New Jersey’s coast: a $38.2 million plan to construct berms and improve stormwater outflow between Loch Arbor and Deal in Monmouth County, and a $57.6 million contract to replenish beaches and dunes from the southern end of Ocean City to Sea Isle City in Cape May County.
Appearing at two news conferences on Friday with local elected officials and Army Corps representatives, NJ Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said this was a key part of the Christie administration’s resiliency efforts.
“These two projects are critical toward our goal of constructing a statewide coastal protection system that will protect lives and property against future weather events such as Superstorm Sandy,” he said.
But some critics have raised concerns that the measures being taken don’t go far enough. Further, they say the Monmouth County project could be detrimental to fish and wildlife habitat. And they’re continuing to call on lawmakers to not just consider fortifications, but also explore ways to reduce vulnerable coastal development and move people in the most sensitive areas out of harm’s way.
The Cape May County project will involve the construction of 25 foot wide dunes along a nine-mile stretch of coast, while the Monmouth County one entails a two-phase plan to close a five-mile gap in the stretch of coastline between Sea Bright and Manasquan that was rebuilt after Sandy. The first phase — beginning now — includes widening 1.6 miles of beach in Loch Arbor, Allenhurst, and southern Deal, while the second contract — scheduled to be awarded this summer — will extend that project an additional two miles north to the Elberon section of Long Branch.
Colonel Paul Owen, Commander of the Army Corps New York District, said Friday that the Monmouth County project will include building a sand berm between 140 and 300 feet wide to reduce erosion.
“That is a significantly larger beach than what you have right now,” he said, “and when we come back towards the end or maybe the middle of the summer when we’re complete [with the first phase], it will look a lot different, and it will be a much more protective measure for future storms, but also probably a nicer place to have for recreation.”
Owen added that the 2.8 million cubic yards of sand being used to widen the beach in Monmouth County is being dredged from an area of seabed about two miles offshore from Sea Bright.
“It’s a great source of sand. We’ve been using it for the last couple of years on all these projects, so I don’t see any potential impact,” he said.
[related]The Jersey Coast Anglers Association disagrees, however. The group — which represents some 75 fishing clubs and thousands of anglers throughout the state — sent a letter to Commissioner Martin earlier this year.
“It’s hard for us to understand why the DEP would ever consider mining these prime fishing areas,” they wrote. “Surely, there are other areas to consider for sand mining for this project that are not as important to the fishing community.”
Others raised concerns that the Monmouth County project won’t offer enough protection since it doesn’t include dunes like its Cape May County counterpart.
“We are glad the Army Corp and the DEP are replenishing Monmouth’s beaches, however unless we restore our natural dune systems all this time and money will be wasted,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.
“Without the dunes, the sand will wash away making towns vulnerable to storm surges and flooding. Dunes are vitally important when it comes to protecting our coast against beach erosion, providing habitats for all types of species, and protecting property from storms and storm surges. We cannot rebuild the Shore smarter and better without building dunes.”
Congressman Frank Pallone (NJ-6) — speaking at the Friday news conference in Loch Arbor — rejected concerns from some environmental and planning groups that more attention should be paid to the underlying problem of coastal overdevelopment rather than simply focusing on “constructed protection.”
“I consider myself an environmentalist, but there are many within the environmental community that think that everyone should just move back and we shouldn’t do these beach replenishment projects. We don’t agree,” he said. “So much of our tourism base depends on having and using the existing infrastructure. The bottom line is none of these projects are done without a very thorough cost-benefit analysis. The benefit has to outweigh. And the benefit is not only protecting the shoreline and homes, the boardwalk, the utilities, and the roads, but also the fact that we don’t have to come back and spend so much money with storm damage. The fact of the matter is that if you didn’t have this beach replenishment, then the impact of future storms is greater.”
Taxpayers for Common Sense — which has long been critical of Army Corps projects like the ones currently beginning in New Jersey — says that such arguments fail to consider that the damage would have been much less if these areas had not been as developed in the first place.
“Many in Washington are trying to write-off advocates of smarter floodplain management and disaster preparedness, claiming the choice is between retreat and reinforcement,” the group said. “This is a false choice with loaded words.
Though Americans don’t like retreating, what we’re proposing is advancing to higher ground and moving out of harm’s way when it makes the most sense. Buyouts and relocations with residual flood and storm protection are the best choice in some locales, while in others reinforcing the flood protection may be most economical and efficient. And defenders of the ‘no retreat, reinforce at all costs’ strategy ignore what millions now know for the first time — that they are vulnerable to natural disasters. Ignoring this reality will put people in harm’s way.”
Over the past year, the Army Corps has completed eight post-Sandy beach repair projects in New Jersey along 45 miles of coastline, and there are more plans on the horizon, including a recently announced project to build levees, floodwalls, and tide gates to reduce flooding in Union Beach.
A major obstacle delaying earlier work has been beachfront homeowners refusing to grant easements for the Army Corp to complete its work. Commissioner Martin said that what started out as 4,200 holdouts has now dwindled to about 300, and that — after earlier objections — all Monmouth County residents voluntarily granted easements in the end.
Still fierce objection to the dunes remains in parts of Ocean County — most notably in Bay Head — where the Army Corps hopes to commence a project later this year between the Manasquan Inlet and the Barnegat Inlet.
“That’s just not acceptable at the end of the day,” Martin said. “We’re going to continue following up in court. We’re going to continue to use eminent domain to take those properties. We need to. These projects are too important to the overall state and to the overall communities.”