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North Ferry adjusting to higher tides

REPORTER FILE PHOTO

Imagine the day when you have to get off Shelter Island and there are no ferries.

No, North or South ferries are not going out of business. But the two companies are planning measures to deal with climate change that is already affecting the Island.

For the immediate future, the problem is not critical, but the ferry companies are preparing for higher tides than normal.

According to the federal government, sea levels are up nearly a foot since 1900. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, seas are projected to rise as much as 6.25 feet by the end of the century.

Twice in recent months, North Ferry had to shut down its boats to deal with docking difficulties because of rising tides. The shutdowns were only for an hour to 90 minutes, said Stella Lagudis, general manager of the Heights Property Owners Corporation, which owns North Ferry.

But concern by the company about higher tides caused its Greenport bulkheading to be replaced; the new bulkheads will be about a foot higher than the old ones, Ms. Lagudis said.

In addition, North Ferry officials have solicited permits to allow the company to change its ramps to prepare for higher tides.

The hope is that new ramps will be in place on the Greenport side within a year and then work will start on the Shelter Island side, Ms. Lagudis said.

South Ferry Company President Cliff Clark acknowledged that his boats and docks are less affected than the North Ferry fleet because — at least on the Shelter Island side — Mashomack Preserve’s undeveloped shore helps protect them from storms coming in from the northeast. He has plans to meet with New York State Department of Transportation officials to discuss what might be done to raise roads on the North Haven side and deal with flooding on the Shelter Island side.

Weather is cyclical, Mr. Clark said, speculating that frequent storms of late could continue, but could also abate over a 20- to 50-year period. He doesn’t see a day when people won’t be able to get on or off the Island.

Significant signs of climate change

Jeremy Samuelson, director of The Nature Preserve’s Mashomack Preserve, said there has to be a comprehensive plan for responses to climate change already visible on the Island. Twenty years ago there was concern about more frequent and more intense storms, Mr. Samuelson said.

Today, people are seeing major events that result from climate change. “These will impact our lives significantly,” he said.

In a coastal setting like Shelter Island, there’s more flooding and an increase in saltwater intrusion into wells that provide drinking water because of the elevation of water tables. And there’s a loss of salt marshes that have played an important role in absorbing water and filtering it, he said. Soil health is also being affected, changing the soil’s composition and determining what can grow here and what can’t.

The acidity of ocean water is having an effect on sea life, Mr. Samuelson said. “We don’t have the luxury of continuing to do some things in the same way,” he warned. If people wait to respond to the changes, those solutions will be harder to achieve and cost more money, he added.

A community-based approach

A study of Long Island waters shows the Peconic Bay region to be the healthiest, but Mr. Samuelson and other experts are already seeing stress here. Not so long ago, researchers working since 2007 tracking changes in the marsh at the front end of Bass Creek began noticing unexpected changes at the back end, where fresh water flows into the system.

The changes took the form of areas where marsh grasses have disappeared, reducing the wetlands’ ability to serve as finfish and shellfish habitats, and to absorb higher tides associated with sea level rise.

Ignoring problems that are appearing now will inevitably affect people’s investments on the Island and the livelihoods of those who fish its waters, Mr. Samuelson said. It’s not productive to pit people’s investments against one another, but to expend money and effort to protect all of the Island’s natural resources. He calls for a “collaborative, community-based approach to dealing with climate change.”

“One of the mistakes we make most often is reinvesting in our infrastructure without upgrading it in light of our current crisis,” Mr. Samuelson said. “We have to give each other a way to say ‘yes’ to doing the right thing.”

He approves the focus on potable water, calling it “the right place to be engaged,” but added that “we don’t yet understand the full breadth of how climate change will impact the Island.”

Mr. Samuelson quoted poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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