DNREC’s Policy of Inundation Unacceptable
By State Rep. Harvey Kenton & State Sen. Gary Simpson
Recent statements by some state officials suggest Delaware is charting a new and troubling course when it comes to the protection of our small coastal communities.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Delaware Audubon Society have opposed the restoration claiming, among other things, that the government should not act to interfere with the natural process. Although legal challenges launched by the group have been unsuccessful, they have delayed repairs.
Without the dune barrier, saltwater from Delaware Bay has intruded into a man-made freshwater impoundment, destroying habitat frequented by wintering waterfowl and upland animals.
During Hurricane Irene in late August, the breach allowed bay water to move inland, resulting in flooding that undermined the already fragile Prime Hook Road (CR 39), leaving it unsafe for travel. Impassable for several days, the loss of the road severed the only public access to Prime Hook Beach, leaving some 200 homeowners unable to reach their properties.
In the wake of that flooding, DNREC moved sand to close the breaches. The work was intended as a temporary fix until a more resilient barrier could be built. Unfortunately, the repair lasted only a few weeks before high water and waves removed it. This was not surprising given the project’s modest scope and the obvious drawbacks of using sand as the only building material.
In recently published remarks, Sec. O’Mara said: “We do not expect in the immediate term to take additional action. The bottom line is, there are a lot of different views about the appropriate level of taxpayer support that should be invested in a small community with only a few visitors. It’s one thing to spend $20,000 to try to deal with a short-term problem. It’s another to spend multiple millions of dollars.”
We have tried to meet with Sec. O’Mara and members of the governor’s staff to discuss this situation only to be disregarded. Based on Sec. O’Mara’s remarks, and the lack of response to our concerns about the property owners impacted by the damaged dunes, it seems clear Delaware is fashioning a new policy that could not only have dire consequences for those living in and around Prime Hook Beach, but which could also carry repercussions for the residents of many other similar coastal communities.
In the case of the breached dunes at Fowler Beach, DNREC is apparently abandoning its duty to protect residents’ welfare. Allowing the dunes to break down and saltwater to intrude further inland will jeopardize drinking water and irrigation wells, and make some agricultural land impractical to farm. Also threatened is the continued viability of Prime Hook Road (CR 39) and access to Prime Hook Beach.
The state’s abandonment of its responsibilities will likely negatively affect property values, amounting to a “government taking by neglect.” This could easily lead to legal challenges by landowners against the state, resulting in money being wasted in court battles and possible compensation payments. In such a scenario, the repair of the Fowler Beach dunes becomes an increasingly cost-effective option.
Sea Level Rise
DNREC’s stance seems to be influenced by the belief of agency officials that the sea level along Delaware’s coast will rise by more than three feet over the next 100 years.
According to a federal document cited in a DNREC report issued in September, Mid-Atlantic states “should prepare for sea level to rise by at least one meter (3.28 feet) by 2100.” That same report notes that the current rate of sea level rise actually measured in Lewes is 13 inches per 100 years.
Sec. O’Mara has already acted on the unproved prediction of dramatic sea level increase. Earlier this year, he denied a sewer permit to a developer building The Landings, a proposed housing project west of Leipsic. The denial was partly based on O’Mara’s assertion that the community’s sewage treatment facility would be subject to flooding during its expected service life from rising sea level. In response, the developer filed a lawsuit noting that DNREC has no specific regulatory authority to allow it to consider a projected increase in sea level as part of its permitting process. DNREC reversed its decision and issued the permit. The lawsuit was dropped.
Elsewhere on the Coast
DNREC has posted on its website an interactive “Sea Level Rise Inundation Map.” Visitors to the site can dial-up various levels of sea level rise and watch how much of our state will flood if our officials take no action. Under the one meter scenario, Prime Hook Beach and Broadkill Beach would inhabit a narrow barrier island. Most of our state’s small coastal communities – Slaughter Beach, Bowers Beach, Kitts Hummock and Port Penn – would largely be underwater. All of these areas could also be described in the same words Sec. O’Mara used to describe Prime Hook Beach: “A small community with only a few visitors.” It raises the question: If DNREC considers it cost-effective to write-off the future of Prime Hook Beach, will these communities be similarly judged?
If the prediction of one-meter of flooding does come to fruition, most of Delaware’s resort communities would also suffer significant inundation, as would many of the residents of Long Neck and other communities bordering the Inland Bays. With regard to state intervention, will a different standard be applied to these homeowners, or will the state take no action and let nature take its course?
While it is generally commendable to plan for the future, those efforts should not shackle our actions in the present. It is possible the sea may rise by a meter over the next 100 years, but at this point that possibility is speculative. What we know with a certainty is that if the Fowler Beach dunes are not repaired, access to approximately 200 homes will be threatened; saltwater intrusion will damage the value of agricultural and residential land; and valuable freshwater wetland habitat will be permanently lost.
The state has a duty to safeguard the welfare of our citizens and environment today, not base its actions on the hypothetical projections of what might happen over the next 89 years.
To view DNREC’s interactive “Sea Level Rise Inundation Map,” click here.