At East Point Lighthouse, it’s finally time to build some sea defenses to stop — for now at least — the Delaware Bay washing away the historic structure and its sandy spit that clings to the Cumberland County shore.
After decades in which the sea has been eroding the point and getting ever closer to the lighthouse, a contractor for the state Department of Environmental Protection last week began building a sand-filled “geotube” made of durable synthetic membrane that will stretch 570 feet along the western side of the point, a $460,000 project that’s designed to shield the building and its surrounding marshes from the encroaching waters.
It’s the state’s biggest recognition yet that the natural forces of erosion and sea-level rise need some immediate human push-back to stop the 1849 lighthouse — the state’s second-oldest after Sandy Hook, and still an active aid to navigation — from being swamped by the waves.
And yet the project is explicitly a stopgap, designed to buy the state some time to investigate longer-term solutions like moving the lighthouse to higher ground or, like many private homes nearby, elevating it above expected flood levels.
“This project will provide protection while long-term solutions are evaluated and developed to protect the East Point Lighthouse from storms and sea-level rise,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, in a statement. She said the lighthouse could suffer “irreparable damage” if the surrounding erosion is left unchecked. The project is being funded by the National Park Service.
Even though the geotube is expected to be effective for only five to 10 years, officials decided the vulnerability of the lighthouse justified spending the money now, said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna. He said the technology has been successfully used in other New Jersey counties.
“Given the relative speed of ongoing erosion at the lighthouse, the expenditure of funds on the current project was seen as a necessary measure that would offer the lighthouse protection in the short-term and enable ongoing planning and examination of alternatives for a longer-term solution,” he said.
In future, the lighthouse and its adjacent oil house could be raised above expected flood levels in their current location for about $1.8 million, according to a feasibility study, Hajna said.
From the 40-foot high lantern room, it’s easy to see why the DEP has decided it’s time to act, and it’s hard to avoid concluding that the low-lying point is under siege from waves on three sides.
To the southwest, there’s a marsh where saltwater flooding has killed native vegetation such as the milk weed that once attracted thousands of migrating monarch butterflies but now contains only invasive phragmites reeds. To the west and northwest lie thin strips of beach and a low sandy berm that is 75 feet or less from the lighthouse’s western wall.
Bay water on the doorstep
The berm, about 3 feet high, was built in January 2018 in the hope of repelling waves driven by winter storms, but was breached only two months later, allowing bay water to reach the front steps of the lighthouse, said Nancy Patterson, president of the Maurice Township Historical Society, which manages the lighthouse for the DEP’s Division of Fish & Wildlife.
Sand for the berm was paid for by the state but it was built by crews from Maurice Township and Cumberland County, Patterson said. After it breached in March 2018, she scrambled to find a stronger way of defending the lighthouse, and was able to locate 50 3,000-pound “super sacks” of sand that were donated by two local companies and installed by township and county workers in a line on the seaward side of the berm.
The new geotube will be built near the sand-bag line about 75 feet from the lighthouse. Construction is due to be completed by the end of the year.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy drove bay waters over the top of a natural dune that was there at the time, hitting the lighthouse wall but not damaging the structure, Patterson said.
The only real sea-defense for East Point, Patterson argued, would be to build “hard” infrastructure like a bulkhead, a sea wall or a jetty, all of which would offer more security than the current project. She argued that such infrastructure has been built at some towns along New Jersey’s Atlantic shore, reflecting post-Sandy funding that didn’t reach the Delaware Bay shore in such quantities.
Hard sea defenses would also allow her society to develop the lighthouse as a tourist destination, bringing badly needed dollars into an economically challenged region of South Jersey.
Patterson rejected the idea of moving the lighthouse to higher ground, saying that would be “giving up on the point” and would result in the further widening of the mouth of the Maurice River, a phenomenon that has already contributed to flooding upstream. Besides, the lighthouse “wouldn’t be a lighthouse anymore” if it was moved inland, she said.
Access cut by flooding of road
But even if the lighthouse is successfully defended from the waves by the current project or future measures, visitation will be limited by frequent flooding of the one road that connects it to the nearby village of Heislerville. Patterson said the road floods every time a high tide coincides with a full moon, and sometimes stops her from reaching the lighthouse from her home in Mauricetown 11 miles away.
“If I can’t see the white line on the road, I don’t go through the water because it’s dangerous,” she said, in an interview at the lighthouse. Besides, driving through saltwater rusts cars, and recently forced her to buy a new one.
Patterson rejected a suggestion that East Point’s problems are the result of sea-level rise, and argued that “natural erosion” is mainly responsible for eating away at the land surrounding the lighthouse.
“The threat facing East Point is primarily caused by natural erosion — the tide coming in and out around the land known as East Point through the decades,” she said. “Since nothing was ever done to stop the land and beach from washing away, with each tide and various storms through the many decades, the land has badly eroded, leaving the lighthouse susceptible to flooding and very little left to protect it from the waves of the bay.”
If sea-level rise was the major cause of the problem, nearby hard structures such as a boat ramp would be under water by now, but they are not, she argued.
Historic photos show the lighthouse was once much further away from the waterline than it is now.
Looking for a long-term solution
According to climate scientists convened in 2016 by Rutgers University, sea levels along the Jersey Shore are forecast to rise by 1.0 to 1.8 feet between 2000 and 2050. By the end of the century, sea levels are projected to be as much as 3.1 feet above 2000 levels, even assuming that global carbon emissions decline in line with the goals of the 2016 Paris Climate Accord — which the Trump administration has said it will formally leave in November 2020.
Tim Dillingham, executive director of the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society, welcomed the project but said it needs to be followed by a long-term solution.
“The state is to be commended for acting to protect the light, a wonderful, iconic symbol of Delaware Bay’s heritage,” he said. “This is a highly dynamic location which requires a long-term commitment to managing the shoreline changes to ensure the environmental values — horseshoe crab & shorebird habitats — are preserved.”
For Patterson, the new project offers the prospect of short-term relief, but doesn’t address the long-term needs of the lighthouse and its point. The geotube is shorter than first planned and will leave unprotected a beach on the southwest side that she fears will lead to more flooding.
“It’s better than nothing and I’m happy to see it,” she said. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful but it’s like being given a Band-Aid. You’re happy to get the Band-Aid when you need it, but you need something much bigger.”