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Battling against the tide: Town accomplishments, and calling for more

Record heat waves followed by extreme storms. Driving rain in 18-hour stretches and destructive winds. Towering-high tides overwhelming the land. Wades and Crescent beaches gone. Marshes and creeks only memories. Nightmarish infrastructure failures. Ferries shut down. Freshwater wells salted out and surrounding bays flooded with poisons.

That was a prophecy that Shelter Island Town Attorney Laury Dowd gave to the Town Board in January 2015 after attending a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conference. Eight years later, we can see the forecast in a clearer light, with last week’s storms flooding the Island’s coasts at high tides, bringing floods, road closures, and beaches such as Shell and Crescent at optimal tides with no sand, just bodies of water.

This is becoming part of the everyday life of Shelter Island.

Consequences from rising seas are dire, if action — the correct action — is avoided. When the water table goes up, saltwater intrudes into the aquifer. Cesspools and septic systems are flooded when the sea level rises. As for the surrounding bays, nitrogen entering them from cesspools means a habitat for shell and fin fish to produce and thrive is in peril.

Will it get better?  Researchers from the NASA Sea Level Change Team predict that by 2050, the sea level along the U.S. coast could go up a foot above waterlines today, and NASA says the possibility is real that “coastal communities are bracing for increases in both catastrophic and nuisance flooding in coming years.”

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, that January day in 2015, noted: “We’re all late to the game.”

There have been those here who have continued to sound the call to action, and there is movement to put together plans to protect the Island and its residents from being overwhelmed by the force of nature. One question, considering being late to the game, is that, like many other situations, the problem seemed to start slowly and then accelerate all of a sudden. Former Town engineer John Cronin — an official who was out in front of the issue for a decade and more — said this was “generally true, but not because it sneaks up on you. The manifestation is more rooted in storms and tidal cycles that conceal the fact within other natural events.”


Early on, Mr. Cronin and former Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr. began following the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Sea Level Projections for Long Island, and, Mr. Cronin said, saw that 2050 prediction.

He believes the Town Board should re-examine hazard mitigation plans and “examine any revisions to base flood elevation values via FEMA and the National Flood Protection program. This can be coupled with the online publication of at-risk properties in a given jurisdiction.”

Last month it was announced that Shelter Island had received a $190,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for a study on plans to ensure ferry service in an emergency.

The aim, current Town Engineer Joe Finora told the Town Board, is to plug holes in existing plans that limit how to respond to rising sea levels due to climate change, as well as sudden storms. The ferry companies have taken steps to improve their ability to get people on and off the Island in emergencies. But with rising sea levels and the expense involved in raising ramps and providing other mitigating steps, the study is vital, Mr. Finora said.

General Manager Stella Lagudis of the Heights Property Owners Corporation — which owns North Ferry — said that in the recent past, the high-water level would have shut down North Ferry had it not been for work completed to raise the east dock on the Shelter Island side and the north dock on the Greenport side. That made it possible to operate without having to pause boats for what could be hours, she said.

At the same time, Ms. Lagudis knows the work done to date has been expensive and more is needed for the future. She said she welcomes cooperation with the town in getting grant money, which will pay for a study to identify needs and propose solutions to address problems.

Once a plan exists, money will have to be sought to fund actual construction to provide long-range solutions to deal with rising sea levels, Mr. Finora said.

In December 2022, a new tide-monitoring and flood-warning station was unveiled at South Ferry. The water quality monitoring equipment was purchased and installed with Suffolk County capital funds. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Peconic Estuary Partnership (PEP) cooperated to bring the station to South Ferry in cooperation with the ferry company’s management.

The station expands the existing USGS network of flood-resilient tide gauges and continuous water-quality monitoring in a vulnerable area of the central Peconic Estuary. It brings to three the number of USGS Continuous Monitoring Stations. The other two are in Orient and Riverhead.

Monitoring of tides will help the Island and the other East End towns adopt mitigation measures to safeguard local communities.

Town officials are aware of the urgency to act to protect the Island, Mr. Finora said. “The town is focusing on infrastructure upgrades in areas with known vulnerabilities  — raising bulkheads, raising roads, adding drainage — and improving resiliency to critical mainland connectivity,” he said, meaning ferry service and sub-sea transmission of electricity. “The town is in contract to study and develop improvements at the North and South ferry terminals to improve survivability and ensure service in high water events, and is also partnered with the Department of Energy in a federally-funded program to improve energy resilience and stability on the Island.”

One place where sea level rises are devastating Shelter Island’s coast has been easy to see — Reel Point. At the mouth of Coecles Harbor, the Point is not just a picturesque piece of sand and scrub, but a protective barrier from ocean waves and high seas for Coecles Harbor. The harbor is ringed by many homes and businesses lining its shores, including Coecles Harbor Marina, Clark’s Marina, The Ram’s Head Inn and CH Marine Yacht Builders. Failure of the Point could destroy these businesses and many private properties on Ram Island and the Pandion luxury residential development on the former St. Gabriel’s site.

The cost in dollars, if Reel Point is lost, would be measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

Mr. Cronin and Mr. Card, when they were in office, along with former Councilman Jim Colligan, sounded the alarm years ago, and persistently called for protecting the Point.

Their voices were heard by former Congressman Lee Zeldin (R), who fought to bring federal dollars to the project, and present Congressman Nick LaLota (R) is continuing the fight to keep the federal government’s eyes on Reel Point.

Currently, Mr. Colligan said, “The only good news is that the Suffolk County Public Works Department will continue its annual major dredging project this month. The town is also in a monthly dialogue with Congressman LaLota’s office concerning Congress’ approval of funding for the Army Corps of Engineers new study at Reel Point. They’re in possession of the ‘1st Coastal Feasibility Study,’ which was completed five years ago, recommending that the town pursue a ‘natural/living shoreline’ approach at Reel Point.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “A living shoreline is a protected, stabilized coastal edge made of natural materials such as plants, sand, or rock. Unlike a concrete seawall or other hard structure, which impede the growth of plants and animals, living shorelines grow over time … providing wildlife habitat, as well as natural resilience to communities near the waterfront. Living shorelines are sometimes referred to as nature-based, green, or soft shorelines. They are an innovative and cost-effective technique for coastal management.”


Measures have been taken to avert an ongoing crisis, according to officials, and more are on the way. One idea that should be taken seriously, according to Mr. Cronin, is to mandate that the town’s Ferry Study Group “more carefully asses ferry efforts to remain operational. Only on Shelter Island do we abdicate thorough monitoring of a privately held regulated monopoly whose mission includes critical transport.”

Mr. Finora, who succeeded Mr. Cronin in the town engineer’s office, asked about ongoing programs to meet the moment of seal level rises. “The town is engaged with local, regional, private, and government experts to better understand how climate change will impact our area and our community, “he said. “Projects like the North and South Ferry Flood Mitigation, and the partnership with the Department of Energy, showcase the depth and breadth of the town’s current effort. Internal opportunities to best prepare for climate impacts is using Community Preservation Funds on strategic coastal buffer properties — sites that have natural resiliency features like wetlands and beaches, or are within known floodplains. These acquisitions can reduce development of sensitive shorelines, and also allow for natural buffers where losses from erosion and sea level rise are expected and less impactful.”

Mr. Colligan agreed with Mr. Finora’s ideas that protecting wetlands is paramount, through code changes another strategies. He also noted that utilizing the Peconic Estuary’s Partnership’s “Program Climate Resiliency Assessment and Action Plan’ will help, since the PEP uses science based data that aid  municipalities in develop what they term” Vulnerability Assessment and Climate Action Plan.

Finally, those helping to craft the town’s Comprehensive Plan, Mr. Colligan said, must ensure that the Plan addresses climate change and sea rise. “It’s extremely important that this plan goes beyond simple acknowledgment of climate change, but that it includes concrete action items.”

Time is not running out, those working on the problem insist, even if lately, high tides have been running deep into Shelter Island’s coastline.