Water is a vital resource, but floodwaters threaten homes and infrastructure in Lewes and areas in the Cape Region.
Nine experts came together Feb. 21 to discuss the issues. Rising sea levels and climate change were themes, but much of the conversation surrounded resilience and preparing for the inevitable.
A. Scott Andres of Delaware Geological Society said sea levels have been predicted to rise 18 inches by 2100, while other state-accepted models predict as much as three and five feet of sea-level rise in the same time frame. All models show sea levels rising more rapidly beyond 2045.
“The impact of this will not be seen by many of us, but it will affect our children and grandchildren, who will live with this in a big way,” he said.
Andres focused on the rising water table. As sea levels rise, he said, so does groundwater. Along the coast in many places, the water table is only a few feet below the surface. In certain conditions – such as during a king tide – he said the water table can rise above the surface.
Such occurrences will be more frequent as sea levels rise, he said. And as the water table rises, he said, the Cape Region will see significant impacts. “When you get within one-and-a-half feet of the surface, you’re going to water log soils and agricultural productivity is going to take a nose dive,” he said.
A higher water table, with added salt in the water from the ocean, is likely to affect water and sewer lines and underground electric utilities. Building, bridge and road foundations could be submerged.
“These are all real long-term planning issues for the city and for the State of Delaware,” he said. “We have to be ready to deal with the rising sea level and salt in your water, and hardening your infrastructure against them.”
Lewes Board of Public Works General Manager Darrin Gordon said BPW is working to safeguard customers from saltwater intrusion and pollution of the groundwater.
As sea levels rise, the balance between saltwater and freshwater will likely favor saltwater, pushing it farther inland into aquifers. Gordon said today, the city’s wells are not in any danger. “The sky is not falling,” he said. “We’ve got great water, and we don’t have any signs of saltwater intrusion affecting our water.”
He noted after an issue with saltwater intrusion in 1955, BPW moved its wells from downtown Lewes inland to land neighboring Cape Henlopen High School. The BPW also prohibited private wells to better manage the amount of water being pulled out of the aquifer.
But not everything is under BPW control, Gordon said. Because the well fields are outside city limits, BPW has little say in what is developed over and around the recharge area. The prime groundwater recharge area for Lewes, Gordon said, is the field at the corner of Kings Highway and Gills Neck Road.
Groundwater could be affected if development occurs in that area, he said. For several years, Sussex County officials have been dealing with the proposed Village Center shopping center at the Kings Highway and Gills Neck Road intersection. Gordon personally warned county officials about the potential impact on the city’s water supply, but a rezoning request was approved despite his warnings.
“We did the best job we could to let them know we didn’t want to have a zoning change,” Gordon said. “They chose to ignore us.”
Despite that loss, any developer will have to follow regulations set forth by the county’s wellhead protection code, which dictates what can and cannot occur on the site. A medical development under construction on the opposite corner of Gills Neck Road and Kings Highway, which is partially inside the wellhead protection area, is undergoing significant site work to ensure it meets groundwater regulations.
Beyond that, Gordon said, the BPW monitors the quality of water pumped from the well fields and tests it for bacteria, nitrates and other things harmful to humans.
This is part 1 of a series about the water workshop.
• A. Scott Andres, Delaware Geological Society
• Tyler Brown, DNREC Division of Wetlands and Subaqueous Lands
• Sarah Cooksey, Delaware Nature Conservancy
• Darrin Gordon, Lewes Board of Public Works
• Andrew Lyons, George, Miles and Buhr engineering firm
• Jeanine O’Donnell, State Farm Insurance
• Mike Powell, DNREC Division of Watershed Stewardship
• Danielle Swallow, Delaware Sea Grant
• Jessica Watson, Sussex Conservation District