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DEP Launches Blueprint for Making Jersey Shore More Resilient to Climate Change

As UN gives stark climate warning, NJ steps up plans to defend coastal zone from rising seas and bigger storms

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Two days after the United Nations strengthened its warning about climate change, New Jersey officials on Tuesday launched a wide-ranging program to adapt the Shore to increased flooding from sea-level rise and bigger storms.

The Department of Environmental Protection said it will seek input from coastal scientists, environmental leaders and other stakeholders over the next year on the best ways to protect the state’s coastal zone, a tidally influenced area that is home to 53 percent of the population in 239 municipalities. It may be none too soon, as the U.N. predicted that drastic effects of climate change may come sooner than expected, as early as 2040.

The DEP said its New Jersey Coastal Resilience Plan would become a blueprint for the protection of lives, property, infrastructure and the natural environment, and it would be achieved through policies, regulations and funding.

The program sets up four regional planning teams to identify coastal assets most at risk from rising seas, build community support for a resilience plan, and put the plan into action.

The teams, based in Jersey City, Middlesex County, Long Beach Island and Ventnor, have been awarded up to $200,000 each to identify and implement solutions to coastal and river flooding.

‘…no one-size-fits-all solution’

“Our coast is an ecological and economic treasure, integral to our identity as a state,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, at a Monmouth University conference on coastal resilience. “Faced with the realities of global warming and sea-level rise, it is imperative that we put in place a cohesive, integrated plan that safeguards this treasure.”

McCabe said the plan would be tailored to suit differing conditions in locations as diverse as Raritan Bay, Monmouth County and the barrier islands of central and southern New Jersey.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” she said in a statement. “Adapting to sea-level rise requires innovation, flexibility and commitment to planning and preparation.”

It was unclear whether the DEP program would overlap with the current post-Sandy project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study and defend New Jersey’s back bays from rising seas and bigger storms. A draft of that report, covering some 3,500 miles of coastline in five counties, is expected to be published by the end of 2018 but the first coastal defense construction is not due before 2026. By contrast, the DEP is aiming for its projects to begin in 2021.

“They are separately funded processes but there is certainly going to be a great deal of synergy between these and all of our coastal resilience efforts,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP.

Flooding in low-lying areas

The DEP program comes in the wake of a landmark report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying that the worst effects of climate change will be felt after a global temperature gain that is smaller than previously forecast.

The report said the atmosphere will rise by up to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, triggering more sea-level rise and flooding in low-lying areas like the Jersey Shore. Globally, curbing climate change will require a transformation of the world’s economy that has “no documented historic precedent,” it said.

The DEP’s initiative also follows the Murphy administration’s plans to convert the state to 100 percent clean energy by 2050 and to rejoin the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an emissions-trading agreement between nine northeastern states, which the Christie administration left in 2011.

Rutgers Climate Institute projects that sea levels along the Jersey Shore will rise between 0.6 and 1 foot from 2009 levels by 2030, and by 1 to 1.8 feet by 2050. If global carbon emissions can be kept low despite the plan by the Trump administration to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, New Jersey seas are expected to rise by 1.7 to 3.1 feet by the end of the century. But they would rise from 2.4 to 4.5 feet by that time under a high-emissions scenario.

In June, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that almost 25,000 New Jersey homes will be inundated by rising seas by 2035.

Implications for new development

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said real coastal resilience is more likely to mean avoiding new development in vulnerable areas than building sea walls. “We are going to be looking at a massive restructuring of the way we approach development along the shore,” he said.

After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, many coastal residents rebuilt with the intention of preserving homes that their families had owned for generations, but their ability to sustain those houses will be steadily diminished by rising seas, O’Malley said.

“No one wants to retreat from the shore, no one wants to say that we’re somehow giving up,” he said. “The reality is that the sea-level rise that’s already cooked into the system is going to mean a lot of tough choices for the state and for communities.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, welcomed the DEP initiative as a “good first start” to defending the shore from rising seas but said that there is more that the state could be doing before the first new coastal defenses under the program are built.

“There are things we could be doing right now to help the state be more resilient,” Tittel said. They include reopening the DEP’s office of climate change that was closed by the Christie administration, and starting a program of climate mitigation and adaptation.

He also urged the Murphy administration to reverse Christie-era rules that allowed more development in coastal areas and to restore water-quality management planning rules that restrict sewer extensions in flood-prone areas.

“We’re not stronger than the next storm and we can’t wait a couple of years to become so,” Tittel said.

Jon Hurdle is an environmental writer who often covers water for NJ Spotlight. He lives in Philadelphia.

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