State’s Tidal Wetlands Could Be Swamped by Rising Seas — Report

Tom Johnson | October 1, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Thousands of acres of tidal wetlands in the region, including in New Jersey, said to be at risk from effects of climate change

Credit: Ellis Calvin/RPA
The Meadowlands, New Jersey's famous wetlands system
Roughly half the tidal wetlands in the metropolitan area are at risk of being submerged by the end of the century as sea levels rise, according to a new report by the Regional Plan Association.

The report warns that climate change threatens the remaining 70,000 acres of tidal wetlands in the New Jersey, New York and Connecticut region, a prospect that could drown those natural areas.

The scenario spells increased flooding for surrounding communities since the wetlands serve as natural buffers that absorb water during major storms, averting the inundation of inhabited areas, the 36-page report said.

“Wetlands add tremendous value to our communities and our region,’’ said Robert Freudenberg, a vice president at RPA. “With the gains we’ve made to protect wetlands from development over the past few decades, it would be a devastating loss to allow climate change to diminish these critical natural systems.’’

As development pushes up against these natural protections, sea-level rise has the potential to completely submerge the wetlands.

The worst-case scenario

“Under current conditions, they simply have nowhere to go,’’ the report concluded about rising tides. The result would be the loss of those natural buffers and the critical habitats they provide to fish and wildlife, as well as the loss of their abilities to improve water quality.

Parts of the tristate region, including many bay areas in New Jersey, are at risk of being permanently inundated under the worst-case scenario of sea-level rise, according to various studies, including one by RPA. By early next century, sea levels could rise by six feet under that scenario.

The report, built upon previous research and studies by other groups including Rutgers University, notes the region has made gains in protecting wetlands, but needs new policies to address the risk of new losses of wetlands.

“We have the tools to anticipate where wetlands could move as sea levels rise,’’ said Ellis Calvin, senior planner in energy and environment for the group. “With thoughtful planning informed by research, communities can find ways to accommodate wetland mitigation as they develop adaption plans.’’

One way to accomplish that goal is for communities to protect unobstructed areas adjacent to existing tidal wetlands where wetlands can migrate should sea levels rise.

Buyout programs

Within the region, the report identified 100,000 acres of unobstructed potential “pathway’’ tidal wetlands adjacent to existing ones. It also noted another 95,000 acres of potential pathway wetlands, which currently are partly obstructed by roads or other development.

Policymakers ought to prioritize protecting and conserving parcels in high-priority pathways to allow wetlands to migrate to those areas as sea levels rise, the report recommends. Towns and local governments should discourage investments and infrastructure in those areas through zoning and regulatory areas.

It also recommends that buyout programs — similar to what New Jersey does in its Blue Acres program to acquire flood-prone properties — be allowed to focus on long-term adaption policies to purchase land in places where wetlands may migrate.