We know that as a cure-all for coastal storm damage, beach replenishment creates more problems than it fixes and makes little economic sense. Are there really any good alternatives? Yes!
These options were illustrated in a document from the State of New Jersey titled, “State of New Jersey Climate Change Resilience Strategy,” last updated on April 22, 2021.
Under the “Coastal Resilience Plan” the state lists 9 strategies. These include 1) Incentivize and Support Community Resilience Planning 2) Update Coastal Management Regulations and Policies to Reflect Sea-Level Rise and Other Climate Change Projections 3) Sustain and Strengthen Tidal Marshes to Provide Ecological and Community Resilience 4) Manage Shoreline Stabilization with Nature-based Features 5) Manage Coastal Beaches and Dunes to Reduce Erosion and Storm Damage 6) Reduce Flood Risk to Existing Buildings and Infrastructure 7) Make Smarter and More Coordinated Investments in Coastal Resilience 8) Share Financial Responsibility for Resilience 9) Support and Incentivize Movement to Safer Areas.
Sadly, very few of these options have been utilized, and in most cases only to a minor degree. Although regulation changes and planning improvements figure prominently in the state’s report, little of this has been accomplished.
The state readily admits these failings. In this report they write “New Jersey’s regulations do not currently consider future coastal hazards when determining where and how development may occur. However, regulatory and policy changes could allow the state agencies the ability to ensure that the standards for protection against climate threats are commensurate with the risks now and into the foreseeable future. Additionally, regulations could allow the unique opportunity after destructive storms and flood events to implement flood mitigation and to rebuild under more protective standards and requirements.”
Remember that this is a recently updated version, produced 9 years after Superstorm Sandy. Why are we still waiting, and when can we finally expect these changes? Don’t hold your breath! Knowing what is needed from state government and having them actually do it are quite different things.
Local action has been even worse. For the most part local and regional planning completely disregards the danger storms, flooding and climate change pose. In a recent article a New York Times reporter said he had “…talked to dozens of Jersey Shore mayors, engineers and other municipal officials about the billions it will cost just in the short term to fight the water. None of them had seriously considered curbing development to reduce risk to life and property.” If you want proof, take a quick tour of many of our shore communities. Condos, homes, apartments and businesses are still being built or rebuilt within a stone’s throw of the beach.
A positive change has been the adjustment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s advisory base flood elevations. These created new standards on how high buildings must be to avoid damage and qualify for lower insurance premiums. The result has been that many structures were raised to place them above likely flood levels, reducing the payout from insurance later on. This fits the state goal to “Reduce Flood Risk to Existing Buildings and Infrastructure”. Although it might be better to remove these buildings completely, raising them is a good start.
A strategy receiving strong support at both the federal, state and local level is “Manage Coastal Beaches and Dunes to Reduce Erosion and Storm Damage”. It was welcomed because it demands the least from local governments or property owners, since it has been done in most cases by pumping sand willy-nilly on our beaches. But as we have written elsewhere, it is the least effective and most wasteful method of all.
A missed opportunity is reported as “Share Financial Responsibility for Resilience”. The report concentrates on better cost sharing for a single option. You guessed it – beach replenishment. Yet, we see the sharing in a different way.
At one time few coastal structures were insured due to the high rates charged by insurance companies. It was only after the federal government stepped in with enormous subsidies through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that it became commonplace. Currently, the cost of flood insurance for coastal properties is heavily reduced by taxpayers. If these property owners had to share more of the true price for their own insurance, they would quickly learn what a losing gamble it is to build in high-risk areas.
The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 was an attempt to set things right. It included rate increases meant to move the federal insurance program from subsidized artificially low rates to rates more reflective of actual risk. This is the type of shared financial responsibility that could make a difference but has been ignored. However, soon after this reform was in place, the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014 repealed important parts of Biggert-Waters, in many ways weakening this sensible update.
Currently the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who runs the NFIP, wants to stabilize the program with a new rating system called “Risk Rating 2.0: Equity in Action”. It is set to be introduced in October of 2021 and will adjust these insurance rates to more reasonable levels for the first time in many years. What political pressure it will face and if it can survive that remains to be seen.
Even at current low rates, the state reported that “…many homeowners located in special flood hazard areas are choosing to be uninsured.” While the state sees this as a problem, if it means structures destroyed will not be rebuilt, then it may be beneficial.
Looking at all these strategies, an overriding concern should be that one cure does not fit every situation. The New Jersey coast is complex and varied, in topography, geology, population and risk. Each town – perhaps each neighborhood – must be considered separately and a plan developed for each.
Some properties are so much at risk that it makes no sense to spend millions trying to defend them from danger, then millions more rebuilding them after each successive catastrophe often at fabulous cost to the taxpaying public.
Hard structures such as seawalls may be the only viable method in certain areas, at least for the short term, like it or not. But we know these are eventually destined to fail.
Other buildings and communities need little to protect them for the foreseeable future, yet are getting pumped sand anyway. Why? Where sand is used, protective dunes, properly sculpted beaches, and adjustment to some structures would be far better than the current slipshod uniform methods.
While buyouts of flood-prone properties under the Blue Acres program are the most permanent of all solutions, the state has provided only $36 million for both Green Acres and Blue Acres since 2007. This is in stark contrast to the $50 million annually the state is now proposing for beach replenishment. A shift in this funding is badly needed.
Above all, we need to stop creating more problems. If we know an area is at high risk, no further development should be allowed there. That sounds simple, but the pushback on this is incredible. Local governments scream for more rateables, property owners and investors are looking for a quick buck, and there is little regard for the future cost to our taxpayers. Don’t expect these folks to choose common sense. We must demand it instead.
Here’s a list for consideration:
- Shift state funding away from beach replenishment to other options.
- Stop building in high-risk areas.
- Adjust coastal insurance premiums for property owners to reflect the true cost of this insurance, especially for second homes and investment properties. Federal bailouts should slow or end.
- Improve beach replenishment projects to give us safer, and more environmentally friendly beaches.
- Create protective dunes during beach replenishments whenever possible to give longer lasting benefits.
- Buy out critical properties to relocate people and businesses out of harm’s way.
- Reward communities for wise planning and provide disincentives for poor local planning.