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NJ Eyes $16B Plan for Gates, Elevations to Alleviate Shore Flooding

Tue August 31, 2021 - Northeast Edition

New Jersey officials hope to slam the door on some of the worst flooding at the state's shore by building gates at the mouths of three inlets and in the middle of two bays that can be closed during severe storms.

It is all part of a $16 billion plan that was unveiled Aug. 19 to lessen flooding in New Jersey's back bays.

After five years of study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) released draft study results and a tentative plan for coastal storm resilience measures intended to protect the state's coastal areas from extreme weather and rising sea levels.

The USACE is soliciting public comment on the New Jersey Back Bays Coastal Storm Risk Management Study, which the NJDEP said in a press release includes a tentatively selected plan for reducing the risk of storm and flood damage through storm surge barriers, cross-bay barriers and building elevations.

The effort would take place in a region that spans 950 square miles from Neptune in Monmouth County all the way to the state's southern tip in Cape May.

But the federal and state agencies are a long way from securing funding for the Back Bays building project, much less seeing its realization. At this point, there is no guarantee Congress will fund the massive project.

If the work is authorized, huge gates that could be slammed shut when major storms approach would be built across the mouths of a trio of New Jersey inlets. In addition, closable barriers would cut parts of two bays in half, and almost 19,000 homes would be raised as part of the multi-billion effort to alleviate back bay flooding, one of the major sources of storm damage at the Jersey Shore.

New York's WNBC-TV reported the plan would also be one of the most ambitious and costly efforts any U.S. state has yet taken to address back bay flooding, which refers to floods that are caused by stealthily rising water levels in bays along inland shorelines rather than by waves crashing over ocean barriers.

While surging ocean waves generated by Superstorm Sandy did extensive damage in 2021, back bay flooding also wreaked so much havoc that, in numerous places, it was the primary source of property damage during the storm.

"To better protect New Jersey's residents, communities, and economy, we must plan and prepare today for the climate change risks of tomorrow," said Shawn LaTourette, commissioner of NJDPA, in a statement. "The Back Bays study integrates years of research and presents options for protecting areas of the Jersey shore from severe storms and flooding — risks that threaten New Jersey today and that will worsen as our planet warms. As we continue to approach climate risks with the seriousness they demand, the Murphy Administration is grateful for the partnership of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and committed to engaging all New Jersey communities. We must seek and hear all voices as the Back Bay Study and other climate resilience plans take shape."

Work to Include Cross-Bay Barriers

The Back Bays Study calls for large storm gates across the Manasquan, Barnegat, and Great Egg Harbor inlets. In addition, so-called "cross-bay barriers" would be erected in Absecon Bay near Atlantic City, and along a former railroad right of way that would extend along 52nd Street in Ocean City.

These bay barriers would have a swing gate in the middle that could be shut during major storms, and slat-like gates spanning about a third of a mile that would be lowered down into the water to block surges of water during storms. The structures would rise about 20 ft. over the water, according to LaTourette.

Similar barriers have been proposed for waterways in New York like those already in place along the Mississippi River and in Venice, Holland, and England. But other places, including Boston, considered the idea but decided the cost outweighs the benefits, noted WNBC.

Some environmental groups oppose such barriers, fearing the structures would restrict the tidal flow and sediment transport, and impede the migration of fish, including striped bass.

Others want more natural remedies, including wetlands restoration and expansion, dune construction and a halt to rampant construction along the water's edge.

"It's not a surprise that the Army Corps wants to build it big — that's what [it does]," noted Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal protection group, in remarks to WNBC. "When you only have one tool in your kit, that's the one you use."

Dillingham said the state should use more of the proposed $16 billion in funding to buy and demolish homes in flood-prone areas. The state already has such a program, but it has yet to purchase a single home along the ocean because no homeowners want to give up their valuable real estate. Most of NJDEP's purchases, he told the New York TV station, have been near inland rivers and other smaller waterways.

For its part, the NJDEP noted that property buyouts, the enhancement of marshes or creating living shorelines could still be added to the Back Bays Study in the next phase of the plan process.

The USACE and the NJDEP want to elevate 18,800 homes along the Shark River, including Belmar and Lake Como; at southern Barnegat Bay, including Long Beach Island, Tuckerton and Egg Harbor; at Absecon Bay, including Brigantine and Absecon; and at the southern shore from Strathmere to Cape May Point.

The costs are undeniably high, not including the $196 million annually it would take to operate and maintain the flood control gear. The federal government would pay $10.4 billion, with the rest coming from state — and possibly local — coffers.

Although the report acknowledges back bay flooding is exacerbated by rising sea level, LaTourette cautioned the proposed engineering solutions are designed to protect New Jersey coastal communities only during the most serious storms and are not a cure for steadily rising seas.

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