Tour highlights sea level impact on state’s coast

DOVER — Sea level rise is here, and it’s not stopping any time soon, officials say.

And for the nation’s lowest-lying state, that’s a big problem.

According to the Delaware Department of Transportation, it would cost about $1.45 billion to raise all roads and bridges owned by the state. For comparison, this year’s bond bill allocates $863 million for infrastructure and other capital projects — and that’s the largest sum in state history.

In few places is the issue more evident than Port Mahon Road, located east of Dover. The 3.5-mile-long roadway runs alongside the Delaware Bay for much of its span, and it is frequently besieged by wind and waves.

Visitors Monday got a glimpse at the problem. Parts of the road were washed out, covered by debris or pools of water. The road itself has eroded over time, to the point that parts of it have been moved away from the bay a bit. It’s bumpy and muddy, and at the most severe, it becomes impassable.

“High tides really destroy this road,” said Matthew Lichtenstein, DelDOT’s Central District engineer. “Especially further down there’s some areas there are certainly more susceptible to high tides and storm events. There’s some commercial businesses at the end, as well as a (Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control) boat ramp that we really need to keep access to, so it’s kind of a constant source of maintenance for us.”

But climate change is like a hydra: Even if the state is able to fix and secure the street, more areas of need will pop up.

In short, it’s nigh impossible to fight sea level rise without a major commitment from the federal government, officials say.

Fortunately for Delawareans, some money might be coming to the First State in the future.

A group of about 15 people toured several coastal streets Monday as part of an effort by Sen. Tom Carper to highlight federal legislation that would allocate $287 billion for infrastructure over five years, including almost $5 billion to combat climate change. The measure, America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, is the largest highway legislation in history.

Delaware Department of Transportation Central District engineer Matthew Lichtenstein and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (right) talk about infrastructure and the impact of the rising sea level.

The bipartisan bill passed out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last month. While it has not been voted on by the Senate, there are no competing funding bills, according to Sen. Carper’s office.

The current highway bill expires at the end of September 2020.

“As the lowest lying state in the union, climate change poses profound threats to Delaware’s coastal way of life,” Sen. Carper, a Democrat, said in a statement. “And as many First State residents know all too well, our roads and bridges are often on the front lines of this crisis – restricting the flow of goods and services and putting motorists at risk.

“The sites I visited today in all three counties are just a few examples of Delaware roadways that are too often inundated with water thanks to extreme weather events made worse by climate change. That’s why I fought hard to make sure this legislation included the first-ever climate title in a bill of its kind, looking towards the future by fortifying Delaware infrastructure for decades to come and reducing the emissions that fuel global warming.

“This bill creates innovative programs that boost electric vehicle and alternative fueling infrastructure, helps states cut emissions, and offers grants for localities to bolster roadways, like the ones we saw today, to the impacts of extreme weather.”

The measure is intended to treat the underlying cause, not just the symptoms of climate change, Sen. Carper said. While President Trump continues to be skeptical of climate change, Sen. Carper said most congressional Republicans are not, although Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has blocked several related proposals.

To Sen. Carper, the facts are undeniable: climate change is very real and very deadly. He cited increased flooding and recent record temperatures, noting the country can respond in a way that can tackle global warming with benefits in both the short and long term.

“Something is happening here, and as time goes by it’s more and more clear,” he told listeners gathered on the road on a windy day. “Our seas are rising, there’s too much carbon in the air. We can do something about it. The key is we can do something about reducing carbon emissions on our planet, the way we develop electricity, provide transportation and create jobs at the same time.”

Under the bill, Delaware would get about $15.5 million to protect roads and bridges from weather and other natural phenomena and $11.9 million to lower carbon emissions.

The legislation also contains funding for states to expand electric and hydrogen vehicles and to reduce traffic in urban areas by encouraging the use of public transportation and carpooling.

According to Governing magazine, all three counties in Delaware have seen increases this millennium in the percentage of people living in floodplains that have a 1 percent chance of a large flood any given year.

While 1 percent odds may not sound like much, that longshot adds to become much more likely up over time.

Per Governing, about 5 percent of Delawareans, including 11 percent of Sussex County residents, live in 100-year floodplains.

Some scientists and policymakers have advocated for moving communities away from bodies of water. A University of Delaware professor, for instance, published an article in the journal Science last week arguing for carefully coordinated retreats.

“We need to stop picturing our relationship with nature as a war,” A.R. Siders of the university’s Disaster Research Center told UDaily, UD’s public relations outlet. “We’re not winning or losing; we’re adjusting to changes in nature. Sea levels rise, storms surge into flood plains, so we need to move back.”

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