Back Bay Flood-Defense Plan Will Take Time, Federal Official Says

Gathering and weighing input from residents, communities, local and state officials will keep regional plan on slow track

back bay flooding
A U.S. official told residents of New Jersey’s back bay communities on Thursday that it will be three years or longer before federal and state authorities finalize a wide-ranging plan to defend the bays from Sandy-like flooding, and some years after that until the plan is executed.

J.B. Smith, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the first public meeting on the back bays project that it will take time to gather input from state and local officials, nonprofits and residents on ways of making the low-lying communities resilient to sea-level rise and the bigger storms that are expected to come with climate change.

He said the Army Corps and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection are seeking a “comprehensive” solution to the flooding that left some residents with one or more feet of water in their homes during Sandy, and which often causes storm drains to back up into streets during high tides and storms.

The study covers the tidal bays between the barrier islands and the mainland from Monmouth to Cape May counties, encompassing 950 square miles and almost 3,400 miles of shoreline. It aims to identify the vulnerabilities and find ways of reducing damage to homes, infrastructure and ecosystems.

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Possible solutions range from building levees and planting living shorelines to creating new dunes, restoring marshes and simply relocating some of the most vulnerable properties to higher ground, according to documents handed out to about 100 attendees at the Stockton University meeting.

Reaching agreement on any of that, and then putting it into action is going to take years, Smith said.

“We want to make sure that at the Corps of Engineers we do due diligence and identify correct solutions based on technical information and analysis,” Smith said after the meeting. “We are working as expeditiously as we can to find solutions but we are also trying to bring together a lot of different interest groups, and that takes time to consider everyone’s input.”

Some attendees backed the idea of taking a regional approach with input from many municipalities even if that is a time-consuming process.

“You have to have a consensus,” said Paul Ludgate, 61, a retired school teacher who lives at Somers Point. “If one community is doing something beneficial and the other three aren’t doing something beneficial, it’s not good. Municipalities have to rally, and each person do their part, but keeping in mind the bigger plan.”

But the New Jersey Back Bays Flood Risk Management Feasibility Study came under fire from Paul Jeffrey, a resident of Ortley Beach, a barrier island near Toms River, who said the project was going so slowly that most of his neighbors would likely be dead before the measures were implemented.

“The truth for most of the people in my neighborhood is that this is for their children because they won’t live long enough to see it take effect,” said Jeffrey, 63, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association.

One of the challenges is public education on the realities of climate change and sea-level rise, said Pat Doyle, a Lacey Township resident whose home was devastated by Sandy, forcing her out for two years while the house was rebuilt. “There is massive ignorance out there on the part of average homeowners,” she said.

Options being considered include raised roads, higher bulkheads and storm-drain valves to a series of nature-based measures including submerged aquatic vegetation and restored wetlands. “Nonstructural” possibilities include zoning changes and “managed coastal retreat”.

Bill Dixon, the DEP’s director of coastal engineering, said New Jersey needs financial and technical assistance from the federal government in order to conduct the study.

“To do it on our own without assistance from the federal government would be extremely difficult,” Dixon said.