At the end of a summer when water advisory warnings have been plentiful in Rehoboth Beach, Save Our Lakes Alliance3 held a Sept. 10 workshop on threats to the local environment brought on by pollution, climate change and sea-level rise.
Sallie Forman, founder and president of SOLA3, said, “I think its a wake-up call for people to really understand the threats that are coming from climate change and sea-level rise. And this community is very vulnerable to the effects of what is going to happen during that time: property values, the economy, businesses, the whole industry for tourism is going to be affected. But it can be less affecting if people are prepared.”
The keynote speaker for the workshop was Tony Pratt, the retired former administrator of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s Shoreline and Waterway Division. Pratt was the point man for the state’s role in beach replenishment. Pratt’s discussion took a wide view of identifying environmental threats, and how they will impact the local economy and quality of life.
Pratt identified sea-level rise, caused in part by global climate change, as the biggest threat to the region. He said the planet is currently in an interglacial period where the climate has been gradually warming over the past 15,000 years. The change has been that man-made activity has accelerated the warming of the planet, causing the rate of sea-level rise to be faster over the last 200 years.
Pratt said to mitigate sea-level rise, officials with DNREC have been evaluating the risks and trying to figure out how to reduce the impacts of sea-level rise on Delaware’s coastline. One of the biggest risk-reduction strategies state and federal governments have been taking during the 21st century is beach renourishment and widening the beaches. Raising the dunes and widening the beaches have helped protect beachfront real estate from nor’easter storms, like the one that decimated Rehoboth in 1962.
Still, Pratt said, there are other areas where additional improvement can be made. One of the biggest is flooding in the bay areas in southern Sussex County and around Ocean City, Md. He said roads in that area get flooded even on sunny days, and the flooding is happening with more and more frequency due to sea-level rise. Pratt said areas in Lewes experience similar flooding.
He said one of the more concerning new developments is the increase in torrential downpours. While major storms seem to be avoiding coastal Delaware and hitting north more than in the past – Pratt said he did not know if that was related to climate change or not – the storms that are hitting the Cape Region are delivering large amounts of rain in a short period of time.
That’s concerning for Rehoboth because of the city’s stormwater management system. When the beaches were widened, stormwater pipes around Rehoboth were buried by the new sand, which caused flooding around the city.
While those pipes were lengthened, Forman said, the system does not have any real mechanism for removing pollutants and the pipes themselves are aging. Pratt said improving those pipes, both the ones that flow into the ocean and those that flow from Rehoboth’s lakes, is critical to improving the city’s water quality, which has been in the news due to bacterial issues throughout the summer.
Pratt said pollutants such as animal debris get into the system and stay there when there are periods with no rain. That builds up and when it rains, it flushes the system out like a toilet and all the debris goes into the ocean. He said the same dynamic is at work in the city’s lakes as well.
Other speakers at the workshop included James Lee, a community relations officer from DNREC who presented Gov. John Carney’s plan for preparing for the effects of climate change, such as trying to reduce auto emissions, reduce vehicle miles, programs to help low- to moderate-income families have access to solar power and the goal of planting a million trees throughout the state.
Danielle Swallow of Delaware Sea Grant spoke on how to prepare for extreme weather brought about by climate change, while DNREC Division of Water Director Steven Smailer provided an update on the status of Rehoboth’s lakes and DNREC’s lakes management plan.