While many coastal residents continue to struggle with the Sandy recovery, New Jersey’s beaches have now mostly been repaired and are in excellent condition heading into the summer. Recent testing has shown ocean water quality statewide has met recreational standards, and the state — in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — is nearing completion on a $1 billion “comprehensive coastal protection system” that will reduce vulnerabilities to future storms.
So said NJ Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin, speaking in Asbury Park yesterday. He was joined by several coastal scientists to present the NJ Sea Grant Consortium’s 13th annual State of the Shore report, released on the eve of the Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer tourism season.
Speakers said a relatively quiet winter — without any major nor’easters — has meant only minor erosion over the past few months. What’s more, a below-average hurricane forecast spells good news for shore residents and tourists alike.
Still, some challenges remain. Dune-building and beach-replenishment efforts continue along small stretches of the Monmouth and Ocean County coastlines, possibly causing minor disruptions for beachgoers. Some homeowners in places like Margate and Bay Head are still refusing to grant easements to allow the state to build dunes on their properties. And some environmentalists say the state isn’t doing enough to monitor water quality on a regular basis.
According to Dr. Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton University’s Coastal Research Center, Sandy swept away more than 14 million cubic yards of sand from the Jersey Shore, but two-and-a-half years later, a variety of Army Corps projects have succeeded in replacing much of that.
A mild winter in terms of storm activity has also worked in the state’s favor, leaving newly-rebuilt beaches in good shape and ready for the influx of summer visitors. Sand that did erode over the past few months likely remains just offshore, explained Dr. Jon Miller, a coastal expert with the Sea Grant Consortium and Stevens Institute of Technology.
“As the mild spring and summer conditions continue, these (sand) bars will eventually get pushed up onto the beach, naturally restoring it to it pre-winter width,” he said.
While beachgoers flocking to the Jersey Shore will be greeted with newly-widened beaches this summer, they’ll also have clean water in which to swim, said Martin, who noted that state officials conduct aerial surveillance flights six days a week to spot algae blooms or floating debris before they present a hazard. In addition, he said the state has 215 monitoring locations — including 185 along the ocean and 30 in the bay — where environmental samples are taken every Monday to ensure that water quality remains safe.
That’s little consolation, though, to NJ Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel, who worries that the Monday testing schedule is inadequate for weekend visitors.
“This results in five days of untested water before most people get to the beach, leaving the highest number of swimmers vulnerable to unsafe water,” he said. “So if it rains on Friday, people could be swimming in polluted water, not knowing until the testing is done. That needs to be changed. It takes days in New Jersey to get test results, yet there is technology out there that will get results in a few hours, which is what we should have. We hope we have a very good summer season, but unless we start changing our policies and doing better testing and monitoring, we may be putting people at risk.”
Based on the weather forecasts, Jon Miller from the Sea Grant Consortium said a good summer season is exactly what appears to be in store. He noted that a Colorado State University tropical storm outlook released last month is predicting an extremely inactive hurricane season, with only about half as many storms as in an average year.
Still, he cautioned against complacency.
“The chances of a hurricane making landfall in New Jersey are relatively low: 0.6 percent,” he said. “It seems like a very low number. Nobody’s worried, nobody’s concerned. But 0.6 percent is basically 6 out of 1,000. If I told any one of you that your chances of hitting the Powerball were 6 out of 1,000, how many would run out and buy a ticket? Pretty much everybody.”
For that reason, he added, it’s important for individuals and communities to be prepared for the next Sandy.
“Communities should continually be asking themselves, ‘What else can we do?’ Some of the answers may involve things like creating or enhancing a dune, addressing bayshore erosion and flooding issues, restricting development in flood-prone areas, and elevating vulnerable homes and infrastructure.”
Still, he said, “Strong beaches and dunes are a great first step.”
When it comes to the ongoing Army Corps efforts in this regard, Martin touted the progress that’s been made, but noted “significant delays” to two additional major projects in the pipeline.
On Absecon Island, he said, litigation between the state and the Margate City Council stands in the way of moving forward. Oceanfront homeowners in Margate have opposed dune-building plans because they believe the existing wooden bulkhead provides sufficient protection, even though they sustained damage during Sandy.
Meanwhile, in northern Ocean County, about 280 property owners in Bay Head, Point Pleasant and other towns continue to refuse to grant the necessary easements to start work on the beach projects there, forcing the state to take them to court to pursue eminent domain. If these residents continue to hold out, Martin said, the process could drag on for another three to five months.
Bay Head resident Larry Bathgate — who’s been an outspoken leader of the dune opponents — has said he believes his borough is already protected by its rock sea wall, and that construction of a dune would be a waste of money.
But Martin said that a proper approach requires both “hard” and “soft” structures.
“The water’s got to go somewhere,” he said, explaining why a wall alone is not enough. “If they think that they’re protecting their town, they’re partially correct. They might be. But it’s also sending the water north to Point Pleasant Beach or south to Mantoloking, and those towns would get impacted as well. So it’s not just about their house and their beach. It’s about protecting everybody else as well.”
Martin did sympathize, however, with the concern Bathgate and some of the other dune opponents have expressed about the unaddressed threat of flooding from the bay side of their town.
“That’s still a challenge,” he said. “We continue to talk to towns and our engineers and the scientists as well to try to figure that out. We’re going to have to worry about building larger bulkheads on the bay side, because we have seas rising. Barnegat Bay is rising. We’re trying to deal with one major step at a time. Let’s get the coastal side done, but we’re also planning for the future for that.”