Grossman Column: Getting to work on rising sea levels

The Suffolk County Legislature last week unanimously passed a measure establishing a Coastal Resiliency and Sea Level Rise Task Force. It would be composed of 21 members, some from the county government, a member from each of Suffolk’s 10 towns and state and federal government representatives, among others.

Legislator Al Krupski, (D-Cutchogue), who introduced the measure with Rudy Sunderman (R-Shirley), said “we immediately need to get together” on the important issue.

The bill begins by noting that “sea level rise has led to accelerated coastal erosion worldwide and is of particular concern to Long Island, with threats of destruction to Suffolk County’s 980 miles of coastline … One of the county’s main draws to tourism is its many beaches and waterfront properties, which would be ruined by coastal erosion if these environmental changes are not addressed.”

Meanwhile, “without any policies in place on the county-level, many local municipalities are struggling to combat the accelerated erosion and sea level rise.”

“A task force should be created,” it states, “to develop regional coastal resiliency policies to assist municipalities when making decisions that could affect Suffolk’s coastline in the future.”

Although waters surrounding Long Island and Shelter Island rose by four inches in the past 40 years, if climate change continues as it has, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation projects that in the next 40 years a rise by 11 to 30 inches can be expected. 

This would be a threat to every low-lying part of Suffolk, and there are many, including, of course, low-lying portions of Shelter Island.

The task force would be chaired by the head of the legislature’s Public Works, Transportation and Energy Committee. It would include the legislature’s presiding officer; the county executive; the county’s commissioner of public works, “one representative from each of the ten Suffolk County towns;” a representative from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and also one from the state’s Department of State (which has shoreline responsibilities). And it would include, too, a representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County; from the Peconic Estuary Program; The Nature Conservancy; and the state Department of Transportation.

The task force “shall hold regular meetings” at least 10 times over the course of a 12-month period, and “issue a written report after a comprehensive study on the challenges facing the county with respect to sea level rise.”

This report would be submitted to each of the 18 members of the Suffolk County Legislature, the legislature’s clerk, and county executive “within one year of the effective date of this resolution, for review, consideration and appropriate action.”

What can be done in Suffolk to counter rising sea levels? 

“A mix” of actions will likely be urged, said Mr. Krupski, who has long experience with shoreline issues. He is a fourth-generation Suffolk farmer first elected in 1985 to the Southold Town Board of Trustees, which has jurisdiction over the town’s waterfront, and served on the board for 20 years, the last 14 as its president. He then became a Southold Town Board member until being sworn in as a Suffolk legislator in 2013. 

In some areas, elevation of structures and roads would probably be recommended. In some areas, moving back from the shoreline would likely be outlined.

Places in Suffolk “are so different,” Mr. Krupski said. Thus “we need local persons” to consider what can be done, why each Suffolk town will have a representative on the task force.

But needed as well are representatives from other levels of government and other entities. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the legislator said diplomatically, may not be “as flexible as local governments” in its approach to coastal matters. The Corps has long pushed for building hard structures along the shore. Still, it is critical that “we all work together,” said Mr. Krupski.

Further, the task force will consider what people in Suffolk affected by storms that cause flooding should do in the immediate time period after they hit. 

As to the main cause of climate change and consequent sea level rise, this will not be a target of this specific task force. But, Mr. Krupski said, it’s clear that it’s a “fossil fuel problem.” And Suffolk County, he said, must do its part in a transition from fossil fuels to green renewable energy technologies, led by solar and wind—power sources that do not emit greenhouse gases and cause global warming and sea level rise.