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Suffolk Closeup

Beach Erosionsmmmby Karl Grossman

Up on Cape Cod (not far from us as the sea bird flies) they’re talking about retreat—or, a better word, relocation or adaptation to a rising sea. But for Suffolk County, the federal government in the form of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is poised to spend more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to take on the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
As a former Suffolk County executive, John V. N. Klein, put it years ago as he opposed the placement of rock jetties (called groins) along the Westhampton oceanfront, we would be “hand-wrestling with God.”
These days—with global warming or climate change causing a rise in sea level which scientists say will increase even with the most effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions—this hand-wrestling is even more futile.
“We’re retreating,” George E. Price, Jr., superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, was quoted as saying in a The New York Times article last month. The story told of how the situation on Cape Cod “raises a practical dilemma in a setting meant to be a place to escape: how to react to rising seas and eroding coastlines as climate change looms for coastal communities across the nation.”
“In many parts of the country,” it said, “like New York, New Jersey and New Orleans, property-damaging storms, tidal surges and floods have been met with the urge to shore up and rebuild.” But “Mr. Price and many who use the beach here do not want to fight coastal change, they simply want to adapt to it.”
The article also quoted Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, saying that this stance “reflects a sound planning approach that is regrettably uncommon so far…As sea-level rise advances,” retreat or adaptation is “going to become increasingly important in large parts of the country.”
But in Suffolk, the Army Corps of Engineers—a combination of military officers trained to fight and engineers believing in what they see as engineering “solutions”—is getting ready to do battle with the ocean. Being readied for implementation is a version of a plan I wrote about when I came in as a journalist in Suffolk in 1962. Authorized by Congress in 1960, it called for dumping mammoth amounts of sand and constructing up to 50 rock jetties or groins on 83 miles of Suffolk oceanfront from Fire Island Inlet to Montauk Point.
Back then, New York State public works czar Robert Moses also pushed to add to this a a four-lane highway the length of Fire Island. The highway, he said, would “anchor” the beach. The Moses road was stopped, a Fire Island National Seashore was created, and the Army Corps scheme was never fulfilled.
This was before the science of coastal geology took full form, before there was a clear understanding of coastal dynamics, before the landmark work of Dr. Orrin Pilkey, Jr., author of many books including “The Beaches Are Moving.” Roads or groins do not “anchor” a beach. And sand dumped on beaches washes away in storms. Beaches are moving.
The Army Corps plan—with an estimated cost originally in the low tens of millions and $53.5 million by 1973—went through, in the face of strong criticism, an extended “reformulation.” Still, it got nowhere. Then Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012 and some politicians and the Army Corps—with its budget hinged on how much work it’s involved in—suddenly brought back the scheme and pushed for prompt action on it.
There’s some acceptance of coastal realities in the draft of the “reformulation.” Some relocation or adaptation is recommended. But to a large extent the Army Corps new plan is a repackaging of the old one—with its price tag more than 25 times its original cost. It could also trigger additional large amounts of tax money going for oceanfront work on Long Island. Senator Charles Schumer has declared that “the same kind of comprehensive protection…being put in place in Suffolk County must be put in place for Nassau County.”
Dr. Robert Young, a protégé of Dr. Pilkey’s—together they wrote “The Rising Sea”
published in 2011—said in a presentation in Suffolk in 2013 sponsored by Concerned Citizens of Quogue that the “first choice” in dealing with a rising sea is “relocate and develop incentives for doing so.” He commented, “I don’t say ‘retreat’ anymore.” That’s because Americans don’t like the sound of that word, he explained. “No, we say relocate.”
Dr. Young, a geologist like Dr. Pilkey, added that it needs to be realized that “coastal erosion does not destroy beaches.” Beaches remain although they get reshaped by nature. The issue, he said, is construction on the coast—and when beach houses and other buildings are threatened, as they are by rising sea level, relocation is key. Dr. Young is the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in North Carolina, founded by Dr. Pilkey.
Synonymously, the word adaptation is also being widely used—from the State of California with its “Climate Adaptation Strategy” to Australia and its “National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy.”
Relocation/adaptation—a much, much better strategy than “hand-wrestling with God” on the coast.

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