A state work group examining the problem wrestles with the question, ‘Is it worth it?’


Perched on a spit of sand between the vast marshes of eastern Kent County and the Delaware Bay, the small beach community of Kitts Hummock is a scenic place to call home.

Residents like Dr. Michael Costello and his wife Carol appreciate their quiet walks on the sand, casual bird watching and the general relaxed attitude that comes with living on the water.

But right now, the Costellos and their neighbors in Kitts aren’t sure how much longer their little strip of coastal tranquility will be around.

Like Delaware Bay communities from Woodland Beach near Smyrna to Slaughter Beach, east of Milford, Kitts is being slowly eaten away by the tides, and without some substantial plans to replenish the beaches, hundreds of home sites up and down the bay coast could be uninhabitable in less than a decade.

Costello said for years Kitts has experienced flooding caused by bay water washing away the dunes and flowing into the marshes behind the beach, then backing up literally to residents’ doorsteps.

The Mother’s Day nor’easter of 2008 was the most severe episode in recent history. Rising marsh waters combined with a high tide and storm surge covered nearly the entire community in roughly three feet of water.

Some residents were pulled from their homes in dramatic early morning rescues staged by local fire departments. Several homes and dozens of cars were destroyed.

After the storm, the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control helped clean up the damage and replace some of the protective dunes that were destroyed by the waves.

But those fixes were only temporary, and bay beaches like Kitts need long-term solutions that will protect residents and their properties, Costello said.

“The coastline is changing, but we’re a smart enough people that we can develop a plan to protect this natural resource,” he said.

After diligent lobbying of state officials, the bay beach communities have commanded the attention of DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara, who set up a special working group this summer to examine the erosion, drainage and flooding problems affecting bayside residents.

On the committee are state legislators with bay beaches in their districts, as well as DNREC shoreline management staff and other environmental experts.

The leader of the ad-hoc panel is Dover Sen. Brian Bushweller, who has made numerous visits to Kitts and other beaches to observe the symptomatic erosion and drainage issues.

“We all know there are problems; these problems have been developing for some time; in some areas these problems are starting to reach a crisis point,” Bushweller said at the start of the group’s first full meeting Nov. 12 at Legislative Hall.

The senator called action taken so far to remediate flooding and beach loss for bay communities a “Band-Aid” and said the state needs to find a way to do more to address the problem, especially in light of scientific reports indicating seas are rising worldwide.

“There’s been some progress made, but it’s really been minor,” he said. “If the projections of sea-level rise are accurate, what will the effect be in 25 years, 50 years or 100 years?”

Bushweller said the work group is charged with making recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly by spring of next year, but before any report is made, the work group must tackle some big questions.

By far the most substantial challenge would be funding the kind of work experts say would be needed to implement longer-term solutions to the problem.

Tony Pratt, of DNREC’s shoreline management section, said it would take at least $16 million to stabilize the developed and inhabited bay beaches, which would entail dredging sand from offshore or trucking it from inland sites to bolster the dune systems and fill “breaches” where bay water washes through the dunes into marshland.

Even a project of that size would only be enough to protect the beaches until a they face a storm severe enough to occur an average of once every 10 years. When that 10-year storm hits, the dune and drainage work would likely be destroyed, and the bay beaches would be back to square one.

Pratt said replenishment and flood mitigation projects for these beaches often straddle the line between worthwhile expenditures and wastes of money — add in sea level rise, and it leans toward the latter.

“This is a battle we will lose, it’s only a matter of when we lose,” he said. “We want our [investments] to be as rewarding as they can be. It’s a matter of going gracefully through these decades ahead.”

Bay beach residents say while they’re drowning, the state spends money and manpower on cost-benefit analyses and endless environmental studies, instead of putting shovel to sand.

Instead of allowing beach communities to slip into the bay as waters rise, Broadkill Beach resident Jim Bailey said the state should add more weight to the cost of losing properties and the tax dollars they generate, as well as the public recreational resources that are the bay beaches.

“As we go along and look at this, and we look at the cost in the short-term, we also have to consider the cost if we don’t [have a plan] in the long term,” he said. “Yeah, we’re going to lose, but let’s go down swinging.”

NEXT MEETING

WHAT Delaware Bay Beaches Working Group

WHEN 10 a.m. Monday, Nov. 29

WHERE Legislative Hall, Dover

Email Doug Denison at doug.denison@doverpost.com