Sea level is rising. According to a Rutgers University study last year the New Jersey Coast has seen sea levels rise by 1.5 feet in the last century, more than twice the national average for coastal communities. Rutgers researchers go on to predict a 2.1-foot increase by 2050. The future beyond that they say is largely dependent on the amelioration efforts by then.
An even more recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research argues that New Jersey has one of the highest concentrations of housing in risk areas in the country. Detailing a bust in housing prices in Florida caused by fears of sea level rise, the report says a similar housing price crisis is coming to New Jersey.
I think we should assume that the ocean water will continue to rise over the next number of decades, and be taking steps to adjust to the new realities, just as the people of Holland have done since they began building dikes a millennium ago.
The local question needs to be who should be doing what?
The communities across the county are all engaged is various flood mitigation efforts. Minimum thresholds for bulkheads have been raised, stormwater pump stations are being modernized and new ones built, drainage systems are being updated, flood events are monitored with distributed water pressure valves, low lying roads are being raised, and new construction elevation levels have been increased.
Almost all of these efforts are initiated and funded at the municipal level. That means they will proceed at various speeds and with different levels of funding.
State and federal efforts include marsh restoration, beach replenishments and even construction and repair of sea walls.
In 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers, supported by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, presented its preliminary study for defending the state’s back bay communities from the dangers of sea level rise. Measures included sea walls, storm surge barriers, built-up wetlands and even ideas on how to keep ocean waters out of the bays.
What role should county government play in all this activity? We all have a lot at stake when it comes to rising sea levels. The engine of our economy, in the absence of any other economic development, is seasonal tourism and vacation home ownership. The over $6 billion dollar a year tourism-based economy is as critical to mainland towns as it is to island communities.
To use a hackneyed phase, we are in this together. So how do we ensure that an appropriate plan is in place that connects the disparate activities in the individual municipalities so that the total effort is coordinated, appropriately funded, and sufficient to the task? This is a county-wide issue and requires a county-wide response. Isn’t that what a county planning office is for?
We are already dealing with expanding subsidence on the barrier islands, a response to geological forces and groundwater extraction. Studies tell us that the lower half of the Delaware Estuary is losing marsh at an alarming rate. Major rain events are much more frequent. Storms are more destructive. Even “sunny day flooding” is an increasing reality.
This is more than just a danger to homes that have been built in risk zones. Sea level rise and increased flooding represent a danger to the entire county and we all have a stake in ensuring that there is a plan in place to meet the challenge.
Rising sea levels are a manifestation of these changes of particular importance in coastal communities. Yale University has done opinion studies which are carried to the county level and display strong support here in Cape May County for more local action.
Does this rising threat mean that the shine has come off Cape May County real estate? It depends on how we deal with the challenges in the years ahead.
To put the concerns in a more clearly economic light, the referenced National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study argues that sea level rise is already having a negative effect on the housing and mortgage market in coastal Florida. The hypothesis in the study is that the downturn in Florida is not a result of lender behavior but rather an increasing sensitivity on the part of prospective buyers to the risks involved in climate change and rising sea levels.
The current boom in the real estate market in Cape May County’s island communities would lead us to believe that what is happening in Florida will not happen here. The NBER study argues it will.
When reporting on data collected from a series of water pressure monitors across the borough of Stone Harbor, Dr. Steward Farrell recently told the borough council “as sea level rise becomes a reality, especially a few decades from now, the worst nuisance flood of today becomes the normal high tide flooding twice every day.”
It is time to initiate a planning function that spans municipal boundaries.