Rising sea level predictions: 'This isn't Chicken Little,' Peconic Baykeeper says

Long Island is smack in the middle of a "hot spot" for sea-level rise, where the sea is rising at a rate three to four times faster than it is globally, according to a report released late last month by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rates of sea-level rise along a 600-mile stretch of the Atlantic Coast from Cape Hatteras, N.C. to north of Boston, Mass. are increasing three to four times faster than sea level rise globally, according to a new U.S. Geological Survey report published June 24.

The USGS says sea levels globally will increase two to three feet by the end of this century.

A state task force created by the legislature in 2007 to study the issue found that "sea- level rise and coastal flooding from storm surge are already impacting and will increasingly affect New York’s entire ocean and estuarine coastline" and issued a call for action.

Chaired by the state environmental conservation commissioner, the task force included state emergency management, insurance, health and transportation officials, as well as representatives of NYC, Nassau and Suffolk county governments. It issued a report to the legislature in December 2010 identifying numerous hazards associated with the predicted increases and recommending steps to be taken by state and local governments to better understand the risks and prepare for the consequences.

But that report "went over like a lead balloon," according to Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister.

"There has been almost no discussion of it," McAllister said.

The report said rising sea levels will result in septic system failures due to higher groundwater tables, increased flooding, increases in permanent inundation, loss of tidal wetlands, greater storm surges, increased coastal erosion and and damage to crucial infrastructures such as energy facilities, transportation networks, wastewater management systems and drinking water supplies.

The task force recommended immediately identifying and mapping vulnerable areas, so that land use planning decisions can take sea level rise into account. Those decisions should include discouraging continued development in coastal areas and imposing new, much stiffer penalties for violations of the state's coastal erosion hazard areas act — increasing penalties from $500 to $10,000 per violation, according to the report. The task force also said the government should discontinue its subsidy of low-cost flood insurance for vulnerable coastal areas, because such subsidies encourage development in areas where it should be discouraged.

"This is not Chicken Little," McAllister said. "This is a very serious issue we have completely ignored," he said.

A request to the state DEC public information office in Albany for information on the status of the task force recommendations elicited the following email response on Friday:

"DEC is working with other state agencies to develop information necessary to incorporate sea-level rise considerations into agency decision-making and to assist local governments in planning for hazards associated with sea-level rise and enhanced storm surge," DEC spokesperson Emily DeSantis said in the email.

"One example is an ongoing project to acquire more accurate elevation data, which can then be used to assess vulnerability to coastal hazards. The agencies are also developing a tool that would allow coastal communities to voluntarily assess the status of local resiliency planning."

The Nature Conservancy has already produced a coastal resiliency mapping tool for Long Island and coastal Connecticut. It depicts areas of predicted inundation in the 2020s, 2050s and 2080s, based on a sea-level rise of one meter by the end of this century, as originally forecast by the USGS.

According to the TNC mapping tool, the entire parking lot on the south side of East Main Street will likely be under water 70 years from now, as will much of the town's coastline along the river and bay.

But sea-level rise isn't even on the radar as far as local land-use planning is concerned, according to Riverhead Town planning director Rick Hanley. It was not part of the discussion in the comprehensive plan developed a decade ago, he said.

That's typical of local governments, according to McAllister.

"We absolutely have had our heads in the sand," he said.

And when local governments do take action, it's "totally reactionary," he said.

"Our response is always to fortify the coast, whether bay or Sound or ocean," McAllister said. "We're headed down a path we'll really regret, because ultimately we're going to destroy these beaches with the armory we're installing."

But calls to back off coastal development — or even regulate it more stringently — meet with strong opposition from private property rights advocates, many of whom argue that global warming is not backed by scientific evidence, and theories about global warming and sea-level rise are, at best, speculative.

"Personally I think it's a cycle," said Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, who says she's not convinced on the subject of human-induced climate change and the effects, such as sea-level rise, believed to be caused by global warming.

"We have very harsh winters, then we have very warm summers," she said. "There are arguments both ways."

"There's clear evidence we are seeing sea level rise locally," McAllister says. "I've seen it in the field. There's no question the bays have expanded over the last 10, 20 or 30 years," he said.

"There are oak trees dead as a doornail with high tide at their feet," Mcallister said. "They can't live in a moist substrate. When you have mature oak trees now standing dead in the water, that's physical evidence of rising sea levels. Those oaks grew there when they were high and dry."

"The state has revised the flood maps and put stricter flood plains restrictions in place," Giglio said.

More regulations impede private property rights and hurt businesses, according to the councilwoman, who also operates a permit expediting firm.

"You have to look at the effect of every law you put in place," she said.

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