Saving Coastal Communities a Risky, Expensive Proposition

By CINDY NEVITT, The Press of Atlantic City | December 8, 2015

The sea is rising. The land is sinking. Entire mid-Atlantic communities are anchored in between, bookended by certain disaster unless a way is found to turn back the tide and save the shore.

No one knows how to fix the fix we’re in, as climate change and sea-level rise continue to assault our shores, although several organizations are beginning to put forth innovative suggestions for dealing with the coastal flooding that inundates barrier islands from the bayside.

Seaside Heights, N.J., October 28, 2013 -- A before and after image of the damage sustained to the Seaside Heights Pier following Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Liz Roll/FEMA
Seaside Heights, N.J., October 28, 2013 — A before and after image of the damage sustained to the Seaside Heights Pier following Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Liz Roll/FEMA

Build levees and dikes. Erect bulkheads around entire towns. Construct dunes in the marshes to absorb flooding from the west. Transform low-lying areas into amphibious suburbs. Admit defeat and retreat.

“A lot of new things are starting to be considered,” said Jim Rutala, a principal in Rutala Associates in Linwood who specializes in coastal work for communities in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. “There’s a lot of interest in the back bays, and a lot of money is being spent,” he told The Press of Atlantic City.

Despite that, no one seems to know how many miles of bay coastline exist in New Jersey. A partial estimate comes from Jeffrey Gebert, a Hurricane Sandy planning technical expert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia District, who out of curiosity compared the bayfront from Manasquan Inlet to Townsends Inlet with the corresponding oceanfront. Examining those 67 miles of ocean shoreline – out of a total 127 miles – Gebert calculated a corresponding 209 miles of bay shoreline. If the same 3.1-to-1 ratio were applied to the state’s entire Atlantic coast, New Jersey’s baycoast would measure 394 miles long.

Perhaps the bay has been slighted in favor of the ocean because the Atlantic is what draws $38 billion in tourism money to the state. Since 2013, the Army Corps has spent $1.1 billion on coastal storm damage reduction projects such as dunes, beaches, seawalls and bulkheads, primarily along the Atlantic Ocean, in a state that leads the nation in attracting federal funding for beach replenishment. The federal agency has estimated it will spend $442 million on Ocean City’s north-end beaches alone by the time its 50-year agreement with the resort expires in 2041.

The damage Sandy wrought on the backside of shore towns has helped open up the discussion to include the bay. Beginning next year, the Army Corps and the state Department of Environmental Protection will undertake a study on New Jersey’s back bays, looking at nonstructural and environmental measures such as creating wetlands, said Army Corps spokesman Ed Voigt.

“The bayside is basically the Achilles’ heel of New Jersey,” said Michael Kennish, a research professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. “It’s a crisis scientists are concerned about. People are more concerned about what they’re going to eat two days from now.”

“You’re talking big-time impacts ahead for us,” he said. “There’s no real good solution for us at this time on the bayshore.”

But there are many suggestions, all astronomically expensive.

Kennish said most experts advocate what he calls “a practical view,” endorsing infrastructure improvements to stormwater drainage systems and the installation of pumping stations, along with raising roads and houses. A 1990 Environmental Protection Agency study calculated the cost of rebuilding utilities and raising structures and roads to accommodate an 8-foot sea-level rise on Long Beach Island, an 18-mile-long spit of sand in southern Ocean County, at $1.835 billion. The cost today, estimated Stewart Farrell, founder and director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton University, would equal the total of the island’s tax ratables: $14.3 billion.

Paul Dietrich, municipal engineer for Upper Township, favors a system of dunes built along the marshes behind the one-lane Cape May County town of Strathmere and into Sea Isle City. The dunes would provide protection to properties along the edges of marshes by absorbing floodwaters and would create nesting habitat for birds, he said.

The cost of construction probably would be comparable to that of building beaches and berms; a 9-mile project from Ocean City through Sea Isle was recently completed for $57.6 million. Such a plan would destroy some wetlands, and the cost to create wetlands elsewhere to amend for that destruction would be prohibitive, Dietrich said. Plus, as beach and dune construction last on average three to five years, there would be a continual cost for replenishment projects.

Bulkheads, designed primarily to hold back dirt, are not the best option to keep water out, as they seep at the joints and are unsightly, several experts said. Made of vinyl, composite (fiberglass-reinforced plastic) or steel, bulkheads will endure 40 or more years, said David Southard, senior estimator and project manager for Walters Marine Construction in Dennis Township.

Using the least expensive material at $1,500 per linear foot to enclose the 2.08 million feet of bayside coast would cost $3.12 billion. At $2,500 per linear foot, it would cost $5.2 billion. One group estimated in 2014 that it would cost $36 million to bulkhead the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City alone.

Although the cost of mitigation is high, proponents argue the financial losses to affected regions would be greater. Atlantic and Cape May counties would lose a combined $65.55 billion in tax ratables if municipalities with bay or ocean exposure were abandoned. The state’s Blue Acres program, which buys out flooded properties, has targeted lower-revenue areas such as Lawrence and Downe townships in Cumberland County.

Still, retreat must be considered an option, Kennish and Rutala said.

“In some cases, the benefits don’t outweigh the costs,” Rutala said, citing Strathmere as “an area that is always targeted for retreat. Lack of a sewer system in the town is an example of how “the state is not investing in infrastructure there” and that “a slow transition is taking place,” he said.

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