Barriers worsening threat of rising seas Effort to stop water seen causing the loss of marshes, beaches

'Stop ignoring the fact'

November 17, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

In a doomed effort to barricade their land against steadily rising seas, Marylanders are robbing future generations of life-giving marshes and bay-shore beaches, according to a top Environmental Protection Agency expert on climate change.

The Chesapeake Bay shoreline is becoming so coated in concrete that the state is fast losing the marshes it needs to keep bay waters clean and full of fish, wrote James G. Titus, the EPA's project manager for sea level rise. Three hundred miles' worth of Maryland's bay shore have been encased in sea walls in the past 20 years.

Politicians and planners "should stop ignoring the fact that the sea level is rising," Titus wrote in an article published yesterday in the Maryland Law Review.

State and federal laws protect coastal marshes because they're essential to a healthy, productive Chesapeake, but "everything these laws have accomplished will be for naught if the government fails to develop a strategy for allowing wetlands to migrate inland," Titus wrote. "Eventually all these wetlands will be under water."

Titus' article calls for new land-use policies that would require some homeowners to forgo sea walls, giving the marshes room to move inland as bay waters rise over the next 100 years.

"You can't preclude development" along the bay's entire shoreline, Titus said, "but you can tell people that they develop at their own risk and that in 100 years or so their time might be up."

But University of Maryland geologist Michael Kearney said such land-use policies are probably useless in most communities, because many square miles of Chesapeake marshes are doomed no matter what people do. Water levels are rising so fast the marshes can't move inland fast enough, he said.

"The time the grasses are exposed to air gets less and less and eventually, they drown," Kearney said. "You can see it already on the Eastern Shore. The marsh looks like something rotting from the interior outward. It's not going to shift anywhere if it's under water."

Worldwide phenomenon

Rising water levels in the bay are part of a worldwide phenomenon. Scientists agree that sea level is inching higher as Earth's climate warms, because of some combination of natural weather patterns and human-made changes in the climate.

Experts predict that sea levels will climb between 1 1/2 and 3 feet over the next 100 years. At the same time, the land surrounding the Chesapeake is slowly settling and sinking, Kearney said, so water levels here will probably rise 2 to 4 feet in the next century.

That might not sound like much, but the EPA estimates that mid-Atlantic shorelines will erode by at least 60 to 180 yards as the waters rise.

In some low-lying areas of the Eastern Shore, waters might intrude a mile or more inland from the present-day shore, causing forests and farm fields to slip beneath the water.

Under way in Dorchester

Titus and others said the process has begun in parts of Dorchester County, where some coastal fields are becoming too salty and soggy to farm, where marshes are surrendering to open water, and where some older homes are being abandoned as their waterlogged septic tanks fail.

In an effort to defeat the waves, Marylanders are building barricades at a rapid clip. In a typical year, the Maryland Department of the Environment's tidal wetlands division gets 1,200 to 1,600 applications from property owners who want to build sea walls, stone revetments, breakwaters or artificial marshes to protect their land.

Almost all the permits are granted in some form or another, said Richard J. Ayella, the division's chief. But the barriers prevent bay marshes from migrating inland as water levels rise, and cut off public access to the state-owned strip of land along the shore. If water levels rise 2 feet and if most of the shoreline is barricaded, Titus estimates, U.S. bays will lose a third to two-thirds of their marshes.

The solution, Titus says, is an idea called a "rolling easement" along the shoreline. Homeowners whose land abuts a healthy bay-front marsh or beach could sell such easements to the state or to private land-conservation trusts.

As water levels rise, the strip of waterfront land that belonged to the state or the trust would move inland. Under this scheme, when the shoreline eroded so much that a house stood on state-owned or conservation land, the homeowner would have to move the building or abandon it.

Land-use changes

Titus said similar land-use regulations have been put in place along ocean beaches in New England, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas. If state officials carefully picked which waterfront land they wanted to conserve, the idea could work here, he said.

But the MDE's Ayella said state officials have never considered such an idea.

On the contrary, he said, the state's wetlands protection law recognizes a tradition that stretches back to 1820, giving property owners the right to build sea walls, pile dredged-up sand at the water's edge, or take other steps to reclaim land they have lost to erosion.

"In a perfect world I would agree with Jim Titus" that shoreline marshes should be preserved, Ayella said. "But what we need to do is balance what nature is doing with the people's desire, and really, their right to protect their properties."

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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