TRENTON,NJ - The Christie Administration has announced a $202 million levee and floodwall project to prevent storm water surges in Union Beach. The state plans to use state, local, and federal funds to build a beach berm and dune system along the bayfront in addition to levees, floodwalls, tide gates and pump stations along the outer perimeter of the borough. The project includes the restoration of 25 acres of wetlands for a natural buffer and beaches with new jetty-like structures to slow erosion. The New Jersey Sierra Club believes that there are significant problems with the levee and flood wall in Union Beach. We will look at the plan further once it is released, but we have initial concerns.

“This proposal has serious flaws. Manmade structures like levees and floodwalls do not work and will probably fail. The reason they do not work is they raise the level during the storms and impact the surrounding the communities. The surges will go around these walls and cause flooding in other areas. This infrastructure will make the water even higher. We need a balance of natural systems and flood prevention. Dunes work better even when putting boulders under a sand dune. Not only will this wall not work, but it will also cause the beach to erode quicker putting all this money and sand back to sea. We have also not taken into consideration sea level rise and completed proper FEMA mapping after Hurricane Sandy. We do not even know what the projections are for sea level rise. This wall leaves a vulnerable area worse that was already breached during Hurricane Sandy. This is another example of the Christie Administration denying climate change. If you deny climate change, you deny real solutions,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Manmade structures like sea walls will cause more beach erosion, raise the level of the storm surges, and send the water around the sea walls causing more flooding in other places. There are places for levees and sea walls, but they have to be set back from the water, and account for flood storage. Additional flood storage is needed from areas behind the wall so that the water levels do not get raised and overtopped. Elevations and buyouts in the area must be considered when planning to create more flood storage.

“Flood walls provide a false sense of security and do not actually protect people from storm surges. Flood walls raise the level of the storm water creating more flooding as the water goes around the wall.  The seawall in Sea Bright gets overtopped still not protecting the town from storm surges. Another concern is that this flood wall will be used as a single approach instead of other non-structural solutions like elevating homes or buyouts. The town will expect the wall to protect them, but it will fail at some point.” said Tittel. “If they build this flood wall, the town’s name would need to be changed from Union Beach to Union Wall.”

Natural systems will help lessen the impact from storms and storm surges however they should not be the only strategy to mitigation planning.  In order for dunes to work best, they need to be maintained and protected.  The state has done nothing to protect dunes.  Before the storm, the Christie administration was supporting lowering the dunes in Atlantic City and in other places so bars and residents could have better views of the ocean. Also dunes do not always work in all cases.  They do lessen the impacts of storm surges but they do not solve all our problems. Sandy came in from the east, directly hitting the dune.  Storms can come from the north or south avoiding the dune.

 “Instead of coming up with a comprehensive plan to deal with flooding, the sea wall will create more problems. Money funded by tax payers should not go to town projects such as flood walls, but towards more sustainable projects like dune restoration. The most glaring thing that is missing from this plan is dealing with climate change and sea level rise. Unless these are addressed in rebuilding, unfortunately all we are doing is wasting a lot of money and putting people back in harm’s way.  The Governor needs a comprehensive approach to the shore that includes prevention of climate change, adaptation and mitigation for sea level rise, restoration of natural system, buy outs of flood prone areas and rebuilding in a more sustainable manner including pulling back from the shore where we can,” said Tittel.

The National Climate Assessment found that, “Even given the low end of sea level rise scenarios, and without assuming any changes in storms, the chance of what is now a 1-in-10-year coastal flood event in the Northeast could triple by 2100, occurring roughly once every 3 years, simply in response to higher sea levels.”  Dunes are one part of the solution for rebuilding our coast, but we also need to look at rebuilding the shore more resiliently through green building codes, climate change adaptation and hazard planning, better infrastructure planning, and establishing a stable source for Blue Acres and open space funding.  When we do the rebuilding we have to take in to account sea level rise, storm surges and flooding which are getting worse.

“This is where the breach happened during Hurricane Sandy and it could happen again not only destroying the wall, but washing the $202 million out to sea. The state does not currently have a program that requiring towns to protect and maintain their dunes, which is what we need,” said Tittel.

When we rebuild we need to not only rebuild more resiliently we need to use it as a way to fix problems of the past such as implementing green building codes, energy efficiency standards, retrofitting stormwater systems that do not work, improving beach access and creating bike paths.  There are a lot of opportunities to improve the environment and economy of our coast. 

 “This project should also not receive a CAFRA permit because of the damage it will cause and it will not protect dunes or the coast. CAFRA Section 7:7E-3.16 Dunes does not meet the standard set for dunes. This project violates that section since this is not a dune, but really a linear development through where dunes should be. Also in CAFRA Section 7:7E-3A on reconstruction of dunes does not list metal sea walls as a way to reconstruct dunes even in a temporary measure. The Governor has called for dunes and this is not a dune,” said Tittel.

The New Jersey Sierra Club believes that since some of the funding is coming from the federal government that a full National Environmental Policy Act Environmental (NEPA) Impact Statement is required. NEPA has not been waived by the federal government. This project violates HUD’s rules on the community development block grants and the federal government’s recommendation about using green infrastructure first like dunes. This also violates the New Jersey’s Hazardous Mitigation Plan since the plan states ‘sea walls, groins, and jettys do not work and will make things worse’.

“With so many people still struggling to re-build, $202 million could be better spent getting people back into their homes as well as restoring dunes, natural systems, and moving buildings back from harm’s way rather than building an armored wall that will not work,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “By looking the other way, it’s like they are an ostrich with their head in the sand, except this ostrich has a giant wave coming over it. That wave is called sea level rise and climate change.”