Sea level rise map

If we continue to bury our heads in the sand on the subject of climate change and rising sea levels, we will soon find them under water.

That’s the warning sounded by the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force in a report issued for public comment earlier this month.

Large chunks of land on both sides of the Peconic River and the bays in Riverhead and Flanders, and in some areas along the Long Island Sound coastline are increasingly vulnerable to flooding due to rising sea levels, according to the report. (Download a pdf of the sea level rise map here.)

All land areas with elevations of less than four feet above sea level today will be either permanently under water or inundated by tides before the end of this century  — or sooner if the melting of polar ice caps continues at a rapid pace, according to the report.

“An area far broader than the immediate coastline will witness flooding and erosion associated with increasingly powerful storms,” the task force found.

“The impacts will be potentially more dramatic because of the hidden impacts on the utilities and infrastructure systems upon which our modern society relies,” the report says. These include community sewage and storm water systems and all forms of transportation.

Floodwaters can overwhelm combined storm and wastewater sewer systems and lead to release of untreated sewage, the report said. That’s exactly what happened this spring in Riverhead, when the flooding from the March storms overwhelmed the town’s storm water system and more than 110,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater from the town’s sewage treatment plant got dumped into the Peconic River as a result.

“For about two weeks after that bad rain storm, we were seeing 3 million gallons per day flowing into a sewage system with a design capacity of 1.2 million gallons per day,” Riverhead sewer district superintendent Michael Reichel told RiverheadLOCAL in August. (See Aug. 12 story, “Sewer plant had 110,000-gallon spill during March storm“.)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued the town a notice of violation and is requiring Riverhead’s sewer district to prepare a “wet weather operating plan.”

“Sea water contains salt, which corrodes equipment and undermines its strength, the report says. Floodwaters can release stored chemicals and petroleum, pick up contaminated soil and transport lead‐based paint.

Many elements of existing infrastructure were not designed to withstand extended exposure to moisture. Much infrastructure will be susceptible to ongoing structural and mold problems, such as those that became long‐term hindrances to recovery after Hurricane Katrina, the report says.

“Immediate action is needed to prepare to respond to rising sea levels in order to protect residents and critical infrastructure,” according to the report.

The task force recommends that vulnerable areas be immediately identified and mapped, so that land use planning decisions can take sea level rise into account. Risk reduction measures should be implemented, the study says, focusing on nonstructural measures and natural protective features, because manmade protective structures are cost-prohibitive and ineffective.

Continued development in coastal areas should be discouraged, the report concludes, and the continued subsidy of low-cost flood insurance for high-vulnerability coastal areas should be ended, Flood insurance rates should “reflect full risk exposure and include risks of sea level rise, particularly in repetitive-loss areas,” according to the report.

The task force also recommends the imposition of new, much stiffer penalties for violation of the state’s coastal erosion hazard areas act. Currently violations of the act carry a maximum penalty of $500 per violation, plus $500 per day for continued violation. The report recommends increasing the penalties to $10,000 to $25,000 per occurrence and allowing the state Department of Environmental Conservation to compel removal of unauthorized structures built within coastal erosion hazard areas and restoration of unauthorized excavation  within those areas. The current penalties are not high enough to act as an effective deterrent, the report says.

The public comment period on the report (download a copy by clicking here) ends Dec. 12. 

Comments may be submitted by e-mail to the DEC. (Click here to send an email.) Attachments must be MS Word or ‘pdf’ files, and the maximum file size is 10 megabytes.

Comments may also be mailed to Sea Level Rise Comments, Office of Climate Change, NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, Albany NY 12233-1030.

All comments will be posted on the DEC’s website. Click here to view comments.

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