The crisis of rising sea levels

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Why Americans are flocking to their sinking shores even as the risks mount

BEACH BUMP: Structural engineer Terry Anderson stands near the dunes he created to help ensure approval of a permit for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee's beachfront house in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. REUTERS/Phil Sears

Part 2: Despite laws intended to curb development where rising seas pose the greatest threat, Reuters finds that government is happy to help the nation indulge in its passion for beachfront living.

SANTA ROSA BEACH, Florida – Mike Huckabee bought a beachfront lot here in 2009, a year after his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. A longtime friend and political ally of the former Arkansas governor bought the lot next door. They planned to build $3 million vacation villas side-by-side, each with a pool and sweeping views of Walton County’s renowned sugary sand beaches and the azure waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The only hitch was that their lots lay on a severely eroding beach. Under state regulations, they couldn’t build on the seaward side of the sand dune nearest to the surf. And after seven hurricanes in six years, the surviving “frontal dune” sat too close to the street to allow space behind it for the friends’ 11,000-square-foot (1,020-square-meter) compounds.

The structural engineer they had hired knew what to do. He dumped truckloads of sand farther out on the beach, shaped it into a mound, and declared the man-made hump to be the new frontal dune. When staff at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) still balked at issuing the necessary permits, the engineer asked Michael Sole, head of the agency at the time, to intercede.

“I met with Secretary Sole on Friday …” the contractor wrote to DEP staff in a March 8, 2010, email, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters. “I believe we’ve reached a consensus decision on the location of both these projects.”

The decision: Huckabee and his friend would nudge their home sites back 5 feet (1.5 meters). The permits were approved. Construction wrapped up in 2011.

In a written response to Reuters, Huckabee complained about “the slow-walking of the permits,” but said he was pleased with the outcome. “We enjoy the home and are blessed to be able to open it to our friends and family, which we do often.”

Accommodating the two politicians was nothing out of the ordinary.  The way they got their permits is standard operating procedure along much of Florida’s besieged shoreline. “I can’t think of a single project that I’ve done here in the last 12 years that’s been denied a permit,” said Terry Anderson, Huckabee’s engineer. He acknowledged that his winning record has depended on the occasional intervention of top DEP officials.

Such interventions are needed to temper the sometimes “over-zealous” permitting staff, said Danielle Irwin, the DEP’s deputy director for water resource management.

The ease with which Huckabee and his neighbors have been able to work around some of the most restrictive beach development laws in the country is indicative of a problem that only worsens as rising seas gnaw at U.S. shores: Americans are flocking to the water’s edge, as they have for decades, even as the risks to life and property mount. And government is providing powerful inducements for them to do so.

Between 1990 – when warnings were already being sounded on rising sea levels – and 2010, the United States added about 2.2 million new housing units to Census areas, known as block groups, with boundaries near the shore, a Reuters analysis found. The analysis did not include Louisiana, Hawaii or Alaska.

That 27 percent increase is in line with growth nationwide. But it occurred in block groups near some of the country’s most imperiled shores, sometimes at much higher rates. Florida’s 1,350 miles (2,173 km) of shoreline – the longest in the contiguous 48 states – accounted for a third of new coastal housing built. Huckabee’s house was one of 22,000 housing units added to block groups near Walton County’s shoreline since 1990, a 186 percent increase.

The number of people living near the Florida seashore has jumped by about 1.1 million since 1990, to 4.8 million – an increase more than four times greater than in Washington, the state with the next highest increase. And Florida’s increase doesn’t count part-time residents who spend their winters in the state.  

ON THE EDGE: A series of storms, including hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina, left houses clinging (left) to an eroded ledge in Santa Rosa Beach in 2005. The house on the right sat on a lot former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (right) bought in 2009 to build a new house. REUTERS/Brian Frank

“Sometimes it does take … appealing to a higher authority.”

Terry Anderson, engineer who helped secure permits for Mike Huckabee’s beachfront house

“There’s not much [privately owned coastal property] in Florida that’s not developed,” said Tom Tomasello, a former DEP lawyer. He is now among the many lawyers, consultants and engineers who offer their services to help homeowners get permits from his former employer.

The latest wave of explosive seaside growth has occurred in the four decades since the state enacted laws to temper coastal development, protect the beaches that are Florida’s most treasured natural resource, and curb the rising costs of damage from tropical storms. During that time, the need to protect the coastline has only intensified.

As Reuters detailed in the first installment of this series, rising sea levels are not just a future threat: They are already here, a documented fact. The oceans have risen about eight inches on average over the past century worldwide. The rise is two to three times greater in spots along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean because of subsidence, a process whereby natural geological movements and extraction of underground stores of water, oil and gas cause the ground to sink.

Higher water levels compound the effects of storms and regular flooding, hastening erosion. Hurricanes slam into Florida more than anywhere else in the nation; more than a dozen of them have resulted in major disaster declarations since 1990.

Yet, as Huckabee’s example in Walton County shows, the law has done little to discourage growth in harm’s way. Out of 3,302 applications for permits to build residential structures on Florida’s 825 miles of beaches since Jan. 1, 2000, just 114 have been denied, a Reuters analysis of state records shows.

Florida also approves most applications for bulkhead and seawall permits to protect shoreline development. Reuters found that the state has issued more than 300 since 2005, an approval rate of 79 percent. Seawalls come with a price to the public: They deflect wave energy that then scours the beaches in front of them.

Irwin, who headed a firm that helped clients obtain environmental and coastal construction permits before she joined the DEP in 2012, said the approval rate is high because the department works with applicants to reduce the impact of shoreline structures, and must approve them if they meet the law.  “Any brakes on development would have to come through the legislature,” she said.

SEASIDE SOCIALISM

Breakneck development at the shore has trapped Florida in a costly Sisyphean effort to maintain its perpetually eroding beaches. More than a tourist attraction, the beaches protect all those buildings from the waves. Nearly half of Florida’s beachfront is designated under state law as “critically eroding.”

But that designation doesn’t limit further development; instead, it triggers taxpayer subsidies that support the status quo. Since 1990, government “beach renourishment” programs have dumped more than 135 million cubic yards of sand on Florida shores.

The state accounts for about a quarter of the roughly $7 billion spent on sand projects nationwide, in current dollars, according to Andy Coburn, associate director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Federal taxes covered about three quarters of the cost; state and local government paid the rest, minus a small share contributed by private landowners.

Congress this session approved five new sand projects that will require an estimated $400 million in federal help. Among them: Replenishment of the 19-mile stretch of beach that passes Huckabee’s vacation house, with $43 million in federal subsidies.

In towns and cities all along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, the sight of dump trucks laden with sand or dredgers pumping a sand-laden slurry through pipes onto beaches has become the norm.

Panama City Beach, a resort town on the Panhandle, has had its beach reconstructed three times by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: in 1998, after Hurricane Opal wiped the sand clear back to the sleepy, low-rise hotels at the water’s edge; in 2005, after Ivan, Dennis and Katrina slammed into the high-rise condos that had replaced the old hotels; and in 2011, when one million cubic yards of sand was added to the beach to keep pace with erosion. Cumulative cost: $54.5 million.

The taxpayer largess doesn’t end there. Federal disaster recovery assistance has exceeded $124 billion since 2004, according to a May 2014 study by the Congressional Research Service, mostly for damages caused by hurricanes.

And many of the houses, condominiums and resorts that line the storm-battered beach are covered by federal flood insurance, a subsidized program that took up the slack when private insurers fled the state after Hurricane Andrew inflicted huge losses in 1992. Florida is the program’s top customer among states. It has two million policies, many of them charging below-market rates, insuring $484 billion in property.

All that money creates what many people familiar with Florida’s predicament characterize as a costly – and dangerous – system of socialized risk to indulge beach lovers. “It’s an unsustainable model that encourages development and leaves people in harm’s way,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based nonprofit budget watchdog.

GOVERNMENT ENABLERS

The scenery along coastal Highway A1A between historic St. Augustine and metropolitan Jacksonville has changed a lot since Walter Coker moved to the area in 1990. Driving his battered pickup on the highway one recent sunny day, Coker, a surfer, photographer and owner of an import business, pointed to a boxy new house on a dune where he used to lead his daughter on a path through scrub oak and sea oats to the beach.

“It’s insane,” Coker said. “Still building right on the dunes.”

This 18-mile stretch of Atlantic coast was undeveloped when the highway opened decades ago. Now, more than 400 houses line the shore of what is, like so many heavily developed areas in Florida, a barrier island whose natural function is to protect the mainland from the sea by bearing the brunt of storms and high seas. “For Sale” signs top undeveloped lots on the narrow dune between the highway and the shore.

The evolution of the shoreline here and all around Florida reflects powerful incentives to pursue seaside development. Local government budgets depend on property tax revenue, and beachside properties are cash cows. Tourism generates state sales tax revenue and jobs.

In St. Johns County, where the attractions include 450-year-old St. Augustine and 42 miles of beaches, tourists spent more than $700 million last year, and real estate taxes accounted for one-fifth of the county’s budget. A Reuters analysis found that about 34 percent of the county’s taxable property value is located within about one-eighth of a mile of saltwater shores.

Decades after Congress sought to curb the federal costs of coastal management, several agencies are encouraging communities to apply for aid to protect shores with sand replenishment, bulkheads, breakwaters and rock embankments. “If you don’t have a federal project, we want to talk to you,” Jacqueline Keiser, chief of coastal and navigation projects at the Jacksonville office of the Army Corps of Engineers, told a recent gathering of local officials and sand and dredging industry representatives. Her job is to look for suitable projects in her area. “We are pulling out all the stops to get funding for you.”

Last year alone, the corps spent $150 million to replenish sand on 39 miles of Florida beaches. Keiser expects a lot more work. “There’s going to be an increasing need to actively manage the shoreline,” she said in an interview. “We either need to nourish the sand or harden the coast – or really retreat from the coast, and I don’t think that’s an option.”

NOWHERE TO GO

Walton County’s coast was a rural landscape of rolling green dunes and sugar-white beaches when Florida lawmakers approved new restrictions on coastal development in 1978. It was a place where “there were more dogs than full-time residents,” wrote local historian Edmond Alexander.

Storms regularly scoured the coast. The beaches responded as beaches untouched by man do: They retreated and regenerated.

Today, a 20-mile wall of villas and resorts pushes right up to the edge of the last dune before the surf. With nowhere to go, the beach – a stretch of rare fine-grained sand that’s almost pure quartz – has been disappearing as summer storms have worsened.

Their erosive effect has been compounded by a separate phenomenon: The normal seasonal increase in sea levels during summer months has intensified along the eastern Gulf Coast since 1990. Scientists aren’t sure why. A recent study by researchers at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg found that this trend has doubled the impact of long-term sea level rise on surges during summer storms.

During that period, hurricanes and tropical storms have resulted in 10 federal disaster declarations in Walton County. The worst, Hurricane Ivan, flung 15-foot surges against the Florida coast in 2004, causing an estimated $8 billion in damage and killing more than a dozen people.

To protect expensive vacation homes on the shore, Walton County applied for federal assistance to widen its beach and to replenish the sand for the next 50 years.

When Dennis crashed to shore the next summer, there was too little beach left to stop the waves from grinding away the dunes under the big villas. Rooms and pool decks hung in midair. The storm caused more than $1 billion in destruction and two deaths in Florida. Katrina passed to the south a month later, taking a little more of the beach.

A state report on the aftermath said the storms left homes on a stretch known as Blue Mountain Beach “critically imperiled” by severe erosion. A photograph of the damage shows two battered houses clinging to a 20-foot-high ledge where the storm had sheared off a large dune.

The property on the right was sold four years later to Mike Huckabee and his wife for $800,000. Former Arkansas state Representative David Haak and his wife paid the same for an adjacent undeveloped parcel.

But their plans to build vacation homes ran up against state laws and regulations meant to curtail high-risk development on the state’s beaches. Their lots rested directly atop the “Coastal Construction Control Line,” a state designation marking how far inland the surge from a 100-year storm might reach. Property touching it cannot be developed without a special permit.

To qualify for such a permit, buildings may not be placed atop the “frontal” dune, nearest to the water. On Huckabee’s and Haak’s land, the beach had eroded so badly that the frontal dune lay close to the street. Another provision allows new homes to be as close to the water as existing houses -- but only if they “have not been unduly affected by erosion.”

Haak, owner of a label manufacturing company in Arkansas, said a surveyor warned him before they bought the property that the lots “were unbuildable” due to erosion. “That’s when we contacted Terry.”

Terry Anderson, the engineer hired to shepherd the project through the state permitting process, told Reuters that he seized on two maneuvers responsible for much of the new construction in risky areas.

First, he began by trucking sand to the beach to create a manmade frontal dune closer to the water. “I’ve done this in many cases,” said Anderson, who opened his firm in Santa Rosa Beach 12 years ago.

He then aligned the footprints of the two proposed houses with the rest of the houses on the beach. Huckabee and Haak should be allowed to place their homes as close to the water as everyone else, he said, even though the terrain and risks may have changed since the older homes were built.

Anderson dropped Huckabee’s name in an email to the permitting staff on Jan. 19, 2010, the same day he submitted the permit applications: “As I mentioned to you earlier, one of these lots is for Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and Presidential candidate. Needless to say, we’re getting a lot of subtle pressure [from the clients] to move the permit process along as quickly as possible.”

DEP staff responded that the artificial sand dune Anderson had built didn’t offer enough protection to the homes or the beach. Eventually, they were willing to approve Huckabee’s house if Anderson built it 5 feet closer to the street. But they insisted that Haak’s house be built 30 feet back, citing differences in the condition of the lots.

“It would have completely destroyed the architectural footprint,” Anderson said.

A struggle ensued “to get the houses properly sited – several trips to Tallahassee and meeting with … Mike Sole and trying to explain the justification for what we were trying to do.”

Sole, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection from 2007 to late 2010, sided with Anderson. The permit was issued with each house moved back 5 feet.

“Sometimes it does take ... appealing to higher authority maybe to get some consideration for more common sense views of a particular situation,” Anderson said.

Sole, now vice president for state government affairs at Florida Power & Light Co, declined to comment.

Huckabee said the negotiations caused unnecessary delays. “The house was built to exceed the most stringent hurricane codes in existence, but that was not good enough for DEP.”

Tony McNeal, administrator of the permit program, said that the staff is trained to go by the letter of the law, but that they may apply it too conservatively at times, prompting him or higher-ups to step in. When told the records show that he initially supported his staff’s interpretation of the rules in this case, McNeal said, “I don’t recall the details.”

Florida’s coastal development restrictions have not stopped development as much as they have made it more expensive, Anderson said. A coastal construction permit with no complications may cost upwards of $50,000 in state, legal and engineering fees. Huckabee and Haak paid a reduced rate of about $50,000 total because their sites were developed together, he said.

Taxpayers pay, too. To protect the growing number of expensive vacation homes on the shore, Walton County applied more than a decade ago to the Army Corps of Engineers for federal assistance to widen its beach and to replenish the sand for the next 50 years.

To qualify, the county had to prove there was a national economic interest that exceeded the cost of the project. The Army Corps found there was, and Congress approved the project in May.

Rob Young, a coastal geologist who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, was surprised to learn that it made the cut. The beach is “spectacularly beautiful” and one of his family’s favorites, he said, but “how in the world is there a federal interest there?”

One of the most significant benefits cited in the Army Corps’ analysis: potential savings in hurricane damage, much of it paid by the federal government through insurance and disaster assistance. The replacement value of the buildings and their contents that would be protected, $1.1 billion, helped nudge the project past the break-even point for economic benefits per dollar spent.

“What it shows you is how many federal subsidies we have that incentivize development of the oceanfront,” Young said, “The federal government is incentivizing keeping property in harm’s way.”

Edited by John Blanton

As the seas rise, a slow-motion disaster gnaws at America’s shores

Part 1: A Reuters analysis finds that flooding is increasing along much of the nation’s coastline, forcing many communities into costly, controversial struggles with a relentless foe.

WALLOPS ISLAND, Virginia – Missions flown from the NASA base here have documented some of the most dramatic evidence of a warming planet over the past 20 years: the melting of polar ice, a force contributing to a global rise in ocean levels.

The Wallops Flight Facility’s relationship with rising seas doesn’t end there. Its billion-dollar space launch complex occupies a barrier island that's drowning under the impact of worsening storms and flooding.

NASA's response? Rather than move out of harm’s way, officials have added more than $100 million in new structures over the past five years and spent $43 million more to fortify the shoreline with sand. Nearly a third of that new sand has since been washed away.

Across a narrow inlet to the north sits the island town of Chincoteague, gateway to a national wildlife refuge blessed with a stunning mile-long recreational beach – a major tourist draw and source of big business for the community. But the sea is robbing the townspeople of their main asset.

The beach has been disappearing at an average rate of 10 to 22 feet (3 to 7 meters) a year. The access road and a 1,000-car parking lot have been rebuilt five times in the past decade because of coastal flooding, at a total cost of $3 million.

Officials of the wildlife refuge say they face a losing battle against rising seas. In 2010, they proposed to close the beach and shuttle tourists by bus to a safer stretch of sandy shoreline.

The town revolted. Like many local residents, Wanda Thornton, the town’s representative on the Accomack County board of supervisors, accepts that the sea is rising, but is skeptical that climate change and its effects have anything to do with the erosion of the beach. As a result, “I’m just not convinced that it requires the drastic change that some people think it does,” she said.

Four years on, after a series of angry public meetings, the sea keeps eating the shore, and the government keeps spending to fix the damage.

Wallops officials and the people of Chincoteague are united at the water’s edge in a battle against rising seas.

All along the ragged shore of Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast of the Delmarva Peninsula, north into New England and south into Florida, along the Gulf Coast and parts of the West Coast, people, businesses and governments are confronting rising seas not as a future possibility. For them, the ocean’s rise is a troubling everyday reality.

This is the first in a series of articles examining the phenomenon of rising seas, its effects on the United States, and the country’s response to an increasingly watery world. Other stories will show how other nations are coping.

In cities like Norfolk, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, coastal flooding has become more frequent. Beyond the cities, seawater and tidal marsh have consumed farmland and several once-inhabited islands. Here in Accomack County alone, encroaching seawater is converting an estimated 50 acres (20 hectares) of farmland into wetlands each year, according to a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency study.

“It breaks my heart to think about it,” said Grayson Chesser, a decoy carver whose ancestors arrived in the Chesapeake Bay area four centuries ago. He lives outside Saxis, a town that’s losing ground to the water. Some nearby villages have disappeared altogether. “You’ve got to deal with the fact that it’s happening – and what are you going to do with those of us on the edge?”

It’s a question the U.S. government is dodging. More than 300 counties claim a piece of more than 86,000 miles (138,000 km) of tidal coastline in the United States, yet no clear national policy determines which locations receive help to protect their shorelines. That has left communities fighting for attention and resources, lest they be abandoned to the sea, as is playing out in Chincoteague.

“If we can’t make a decision about rising sea level in a parking lot, we’re in trouble as a nation,” said Louis Hinds, former manager of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Tidal waters worldwide have climbed an average of 8 inches (20 cm) over the past century, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment. The two main causes are the volume of water added to oceans from glacial melt and the expansion of that water from rising sea temperatures.

In many places, including much of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, an additional factor makes the problem worse: The land is sinking. This process, known as subsidence, is due in part to inexorable geological shifts. But another major cause is the extraction of water from underground reservoirs for industrial and public water supplies. As aquifers are drained, the land above them drops, a process that can be slowed by reducing withdrawals.

WATER EVERYWHERE (from top): Seepage of seawater into coastal marshes is believed to cause ghost forests like these on Assateague Island, Virginia. “Nuisance flooding” inundated the historic City Dock in downtown Annapolis, Maryland, several times this spring. NASA has had to invest tens of millions of dollars into seawalls and replenished beaches to protect launch pads and other infrastructure at its Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque; Mary F. Calvert; Kevin Lamarque

“You’ve got to deal with the fact that it’s happening – and what are you going to do with those of us on the edge?”

Grayson Chesser, lifelong resident, Accomack County, Virginia

For this article, Reuters analyzed millions of data entries and spent months reporting from affected communities to show that, while government at all levels remains largely unable or unwilling to address the issue, coastal flooding on much of the densely populated Eastern Seaboard has surged in recent years as sea levels have risen.

These findings, first reported July 10, aren’t derived from computer simulations like those used to model future climate patterns, which have been attacked as unreliable by skeptics of climate change research. The analysis is built on a time-tested measuring technology – tide gauges – that has been used for more than a century to help guide seafarers into port.

Reuters gathered more than 25 million hourly readings from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tide gauges at nearly 70 sites on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts and compared them to flood thresholds documented by the National Weather Service.

The analysis was then narrowed to include only the 25 gauges with data spanning at least five decades. It showed that during that period, the average number of days a year that tidal waters reached or exceeded flood thresholds increased at all but two sites and tripled at more than half of the locations.

Since 2001, water has reached flood levels an average of 20 days or more a year in Annapolis, Maryland; Wilmington, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Sandy Hook, New Jersey; and Charleston, South Carolina. Before 1971, none of these locations averaged more than five days a year. Annapolis had the highest average number of days a year above flood threshold since 2001, at 34. On the Delmarva Peninsula, the annual average tripled to 18 days at the Lewes, Delaware, tide gauge.

The flood threshold does not measure actual flooding. It indicates the level at which the first signs of flooding are likely to appear – ponding on pavements and such. The higher the reading, the higher the probability of closed roads, damaged property and overwhelmed drainage systems. Scientists consider the readings to be a reliable indicator of actual flooding.

The Reuters analysis shows that the “impacts of climate change-related sea level rise are increasing frequencies of minor coastal flooding,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer for NOAA who led a team of scientists that released similar findings in late July. The NOAA study examined 45 gauges and found that flooding is increasing in frequency along much of the U.S. coastline and that the rate of increase is accelerating at sites along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

The coastal flooding is often minor. Its cumulative consequences are not. As flooding increases in both height and frequency, it exacts a toll in closed businesses, repeated repairs, and investment in protection. In effect, higher seas make the same level of storm and even the same high tides more damaging than they used to be.

In Charleston, a six-lane highway floods when high tides prevent storm water from draining into the Atlantic, making it difficult for half the town’s 120,000 residents to get to three hospitals and police headquarters. The city has more than $200 million in flood-control projects under way.

In Annapolis, home to the U.S. Naval Academy, half a foot of water flooded the colonial district, a National Historic Landmark, at high tide on Chesapeake Bay during rainstorms on April 30, May 1, May 16 and Aug. 12. Shopkeepers blocked doorways with wood boards and trash cans; people slipped off shoes to wade to work in bare feet.

Tropical storm flooding has worsened, too, because the water starts rising from a higher platform, a recent study found.

When Tropical Storm Nicole struck Maryland in 2010, it was no stronger than storms in 1928 and 1951 that were “non-events,” said the study’s author, David Kriebel, a Naval Academy ocean and coastal engineer. Nicole, by contrast, swamped downtown Annapolis and the Naval Academy. “It’s partly due to ground subsidence,” Kriebel said. “Meanwhile, there’s been a worldwide rise in sea level over that period.”

In tidal Virginia, where the tide gauge with the fastest rate of sea level rise on the Atlantic Coast is located, a heavy rainfall at high tide increasingly floods roads and strands drivers in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.

Coastal flooding already has shut down Norfolk’s $318 million light rail system several times since it opened in 2011. Mayor Paul Fraim said he needs $1 billion for flood gates, higher roads and better drains to protect the city’s heavily developed shoreline.

LEGACY OF INACTION

The nation’s capital isn’t immune. The Potomac River turns into a tidal estuary just north of Washington as it flows toward Chesapeake Bay to the south. The average number of days a year above flood threshold has risen to 25 since 2001, up from five before 1971.

In 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a $4.1 million project to close gaps in the line of flood protection for Constitution Avenue and the Federal Triangle area – home of the departments of Justice and Commerce, the National Archives and the Internal Revenue Service. The corps expects to finish in late autumn a 380-foot-long, 9-foot-tall barrier across 17th Street near the Washington Monument.

It still needs to raise by up to 3.5 feet a massive earthen berm built in the 1930s on the north side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. But Congress – high and dry on Capitol Hill – hasn’t approved the $7.1 million needed to finish that and two smaller projects.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the agency charged with reducing flood and storm damage on the nation’s coasts and inland waterways, recommended the project in 1992. Congress authorized it in 1999. “We’ve been waiting for appropriations for a long time,” said Jim Ludlam, the corps’ civil engineer on the National Mall project.

Congress chooses which corps projects to fund on a piecemeal basis. It has $60 billion in approved but unfunded projects gathering dust on its shelves, including 34 authorized by lawmakers this spring. The sums involved dwarf the $2 billion a year the corps typically receives for construction, aside from disaster funding.

As a result, “we will be constructing water projects to solve past problems for the next 40 years” as the money is slowly made available, said David Conrad, a water resources policy specialist in Washington.

The wait list is symptomatic of a larger problem hindering efforts to deal with rising seas: the U.S. government’s inability to confront the issue head-on.

Engineers say there are three possible responses to rising waters: undertake coastal defense projects; adapt with actions like raising roads and buildings; or abandon land to the sea. Lacking a national strategy, the United States applies these measures haphazardly.

Sea level rise has become mired in the debate over climate change. And on climate change, the politically polarized U.S. Congress can’t even agree whether it’s happening.

The stalemate was on display in May, when the administration of President Barack Obama released its updated National Climate Assessment. The 841-page report was five years in the making, with input from more than 300 scientists, engineers, government and industry officials and other experts, a 60-member advisory committee and more than a dozen federal departments and agencies. It was among the first major assessments of climate change to move from predictions of disaster to point out the effects that can already be seen: record-setting heat waves, droughts and torrential rains.

At or near the top of the list of the most pressing concerns is “the issue of sea level rise along the vast coastlines of the United States,” Jerry Melillo, a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and chairman of the advisory committee, said at a briefing on the report.

Within hours of its release, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, Republican chairman of the House science committee, decried the report as nothing more than “a political document intended to frighten Americans into believing that any abnormal weather we experience is the direct result of human [carbon dioxide] emissions.”

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, responded: “There is no time left to deny the reality of climate change, or to turn a blind eye on the impact it is having on our country.”

Congress actually recognized global warming way back in 1978 with passage of the National Climate Program Act. The law aimed to “assist the Nation and the world to understand and respond to natural and man-induced climate processes and their implications.”

But after three decades and more than $47 billion in direct federal spending on climate change research, Congress hasn’t passed a major piece of legislation to deal specifically with the effects of rising sea levels.

“In the U.S., you have best data set on what’s happening in the world, and yet it’s not used in public policy,” said Robert Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering at the University of Southampton in England and a contributor to the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "You say you don’t believe in global warming. But sea levels have been rising for 100 years in Baltimore.”

ROCKET SCIENCE

The irony is evident at Wallops Flight Facility.

NASA scientist William Krabill and his team have flown research missions from there aboard aircraft with laser technology to measure changes in the Greenland ice sheet, 1,000 miles long, 400 miles wide and up to 2 miles thick. The data they have collected since 1991 has produced evidence that the ice covering Greenland is melting. “Any glacier we have visited in Greenland over the last 25 years is thinning,” Krabill said. “It’s thinning faster five years ago than when we visited 25 years ago.”

They’ve found the same thing is happening to Antarctica’s ice sheet – seven times larger than Greenland’s. Their discoveries underpin predictions of rising seas for decades to come.

The scientists don’t have to look far to see the consequences of rising seas. Wallops Island is gradually being inundated. Yet this bastion of climate research has been slow to apply the science of sea level rise to its own operations. Officials here are embarking on expansion in the face of increasing assaults from the sea.

The Arctic research program’s aircraft is safely ensconced in a hangar on the mainland. But a billion dollars in assets – 50 NASA structures including three sub-orbital spacecraft launchers, as well as a commercial spaceport and a Navy surface combat training center – cluster on Wallops Island.

The launch pads sit at the south end of the island, “the most vulnerable part,” said Caroline Massey, assistant director of management operations at Wallops. Moving them farther north would put them too dangerously close to the people of Chincoteague, she said.

But Wallops Island has been losing an average of 12 feet of shoreline a year. A seawall three miles long and 14 feet high intended to protect the launch structures hasn’t stopped the flooding. Rather, it has allowed wave action to consume the natural beach that once served as a shoreline buffer.

CLOSE TO HOME: NASA scientist William Krabill has used Wallops Flight Facility to conduct research on the climate phenomena that are contributing to the inundation of nearby Wallops Island. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In January 2009, a federal interagency assessment of the mid-Atlantic coast said that both Wallops and nearby Assateague islands may have crossed a “geomorphic threshold” from a relatively stable state into a highly unstable condition – one in which rising seas could trigger “significant and irreversible changes.” The islands could shrink, move or break apart.

Ten months later, construction started on a $15.5 million rocket assembly building and a $100 million launch pad 250 feet from the pounding surf on the south end of the island.

In early 2010, Wallops officials proposed a $43 million project to extend the sea wall by about 1,400 feet and build a new, 4-mile-long beach to better protect their growing assets on the island. As required by law, they released a draft environmental impact statement on the plan.

Reviewers from state and federal agencies criticized the 348-page document for failing to adequately take rising sea levels into account in the project design and impact, or to temper future plans for expansion. Even NASA’s own technical review team noted the “short shrift” given to the problem.

Wallops officials responded by nearly doubling references to the effects of sea level rise in the impact statement. But in the official record of the decision, which announced Wallops would proceed with the project, sea level rise isn’t mentioned anywhere. Joshua Bundick, Wallops’s environmental planning manager, explained that he distilled the issues “down to only the highest points,” and sea level rise wasn’t among them.

Before work began, Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011. The storm surge did $3.8 million in damage to Wallops and closed it for weeks, Massey said. Work was finally finished in August 2012. Two months later, Sandy ripped out large hunks of the wall, sparing the buildings but washing away a quarter of the 3.2 million cubic yards of new beach sand. An additional 10 percent has eroded away since then, Massey said.  An $11 million redo, paid out of the Sandy relief fund, began in July, and Wallops officials are considering adding another launch pad, she said.

“In the U.S., you have best data set on what’s happening in the world, and yet it’s not used in public policy.”

Robert Nicholls, professor of coastal engineering, University of Southampton, England

As NASA stays the course at Wallops, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service is sending a different message to the town of Chincoteague next door.

The island community of 3,000 attracts more than a million tourists a year.

The big draw is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island, just east of Chincoteague. Its 14,000 acres of wild beach, wetlands and loblolly pine forest provide habitats for the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel; the piping plover, a threatened beach-nesting bird; and up to 150 Chincoteague ponies, feral animals descended from a herd brought to the island in colonial times.

Most visitors come for the mile of ocean-facing public recreational beach, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. Visitors can drive with all of their gear right up to the edge of the beach to park in a 1,000-space crushed-shell lot.

The only way to get to the beach is to drive through town, and many visitors eat, shop and sleep there. Tourism accounts for about two-thirds of the jobs in town, state and federal records show.

The problem is that the beach has been retreating at an average rate of 10 to 22 feet a year amid bigger and more frequent storms. The cost to American taxpayers of repeated destruction of the parking lot and causeway from rising sea levels would only increase, Fish and Wildlife officials said.

In 2010, the agency came up with a proposal: close the existing recreational beach and relocate it a mile and a half north, where the shoreline was retreating at a third of the pace. The new site would have a smaller parking lot to limit disturbance to wildlife, and visitors would be shuttled from a satellite lot in town.

“It’s incumbent on us to look further down the road,” said Hinds, the refuge manager at the time.

Chincoteague was incensed. Town leaders pointed to a survey in which 80 percent of visitors said they would not continue coming to the beach if they had to park in town and take a shuttle.

Residents also feared that Fish and Wildlife would let the southern end of Assateague Island erode away if the beach were moved. The southern tip of the island shelters a nascent shellfish aquaculture industry and buffers Chincoteague from storm surges.

A series of angry meetings with local Fish and Wildlife officials resolved nothing.

In 2012, Chincoteague got a hearing on the proposal at the U.S. Capitol. Thornton, the county supervisor, testified that local residents feared for their jobs. In a recent interview, Thornton, who owns a campground in Chincoteague, said she thinks the federal government is using climate change as a ploy in a “long-term plan to get everyone away from the coastline.”

She blames the government, not rising sea levels, for the beach’s flooding problems. The refuge hasn’t taken steps to protect the shoreline, such as replenishing the beach with sand, she said. “There’s going to be nothing left to protect us,” she said.

The agency compromised somewhat, releasing an official draft plan in May that would relocate the beach to the less unstable site, but keep the parking area at its current size, as long as there’s enough land to do so. Building a new parking lot, access road and visitor station would cost $12 million to $14 million. As many residents feared, this plan would not replenish the sand at the southern end of Assateague or at the new site as they erode.

A public hearing in Chincoteague on June 26 failed to settle the matter. Thornton is calling for more study before officials at Fish and Wildlife make a decision. Once a decision is made, Fish and Wildlife will probably have to seek federal funding from Congress to proceed with relocation.

Hinds, the refuge manager who shepherded the original proposal, retired last year. The stalemate over how to cope with the rising tide in this tiny town, he says, doesn’t bode well for the rest of America. “What do you do then,” he said, “when you start talking about New York City?”

Edited by John Blanton