Planned retreat: Getting out of the way of the sea

    In a region that loves its summers at the Shore, a lot of phrases become familiar: beach tag, salt-water taffy, tear down. Here’s one you may not know, but may begin to hear as storms and rising ocean levels continue to batter the coast: “planned retreat.”  And its cousin: “rolling easements.”

    First in a series

    In a region that loves its summers at the Shore, a lot of phrases become familiar: beach tag, salt-water taffy, tear down. Here’s one you may not know, but may begin to hear as storms and rising ocean levels continue to batter the coast: “planned retreat.”  And its cousin: “rolling easements.”

    Both terms need some explaining, but they just might be our only hope of keeping the beaches we know and love every summer. And 2012 is a year that these terms will begin to seep into the vocabulary of our shore-loving region.

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    “We have to ask ourselves, do we really want to hold back the sea everywhere that we’ve developed as sea level continues to rise, or would it make more sense to hold it back some places and not hold it back somewhere else. Well, if you’re not going to hold it back in some places, then one has to ask, how do we go about doing that?”

    The man asking the questions is Jim Titus, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s project manager for Sea Level Rise. He’s probably given more thought to answering these questions than anyone else over the last 30 years. The problem is, Mother Nature apparently wants her beaches back. Big storms are battering the coast, and it seems their frequency is increasing. And the seas are rising. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted, conservatively, that the world’s sea levels could rise by as much as 2 feet by 2100. Lately, those same scientists, with better data, are saying that a global sea level rise of 6 feet by then is a more likely worst-case scenario. Humans have fought coastal erosion in the two main ways:

    Armoring, through sea walls, big stones and concrete rip rap.
    Replenishing, by dumping lots of dredged sand back on the beach.

    Neither is working very well; neither is a long-term solution. Sea walls protect houses fine, but at the cost of the beach itself. And dumping sand gets really expensive, really fast. A few years back, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimated that one decade of beach replenishment on the Jersey Shore, from 1998 to 2007, cost $700 million. And the best estimate for the bill for replenishing the entire Atlantic seaboard’s beaches from sea-level rise came in at $20 billion through the year 2100. And who’s been footing this bill? Governments, federal, state and local governments, and in case you haven’t heard, they’re not exactly swimming in cash these days.

    And thanks to sea-level rise and big storms, beach replenishment projects are getting more frequent and more expensive just when governments can least afford to pick up the tab. “The first fear one has often is, ‘Oh my gosh the government is at it again, now they’re going to tell everyone to get out of the way of the sea,'” Titus says. “That’s probably actually the last thing that government is going to do. It’s more likely that governments will increasingly just decline to spend the money on holding back the sea. And to some people, a decision to not give you money hurts just as much as the government telling you you have to move, if the only reason you could stay is relying on the government to give you $100,000.” So if penny-pinching municipalities are going to have to somehow start planning a retreat from at least some parts of their shorelines, Titus can suggest some tools to help them do it strategically. And his best idea is rolling easements, which was spelled out in a report released last summer by the EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries Program. You may have heard of conservation easements. “In many places, nonprofit organizations or governments have purchased conservation easements to prevent farmers from converting these bucolic farms into housing developments,” Titus explains. “Well, you could have a conservation easement that simply said on this particular piece of land, the owner cannot build a sea wall or a dike to hold back the sea.” The easement, in this case, would protect the beach, at the expense of the house or built structure it wants to replace. And this isn’t an abstract concept for Titus: His family owns a home on Long Beach Island. Now, the worst time to plan for what to do about eroding beaches is right after a storm, with houses destroyed and the news going crazy. But that’s exactly when most of the attention – and money – is spent. Rolling easements are the opposite of knee-jerk rebuilding along the shoreline. They’re a long-term plan for dealing with a problem we can all see coming. A

    Making difficult sacrifices in the short term to make things better in the long run is not exactly our species’ strong suit. But because governments at all levels are running out of money, just at the time that the shore needs the most help, it might make planned retreat, and rolling easements, ideas you hear a lot more about in 2012. 

    This is the first piece in a series called Just You Wait, which will take a look at ideas, names and phrases you may not be familiar with now, but are likely to become prominent during 2012. Listen to NewsWorks Tonight on WHYY-FM each weeknight to hear WHYY/NewsWorks journalists discussing the latest topic of Just You Wait.

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