An elite but often-underwater beach town at the Jersey Shore is looking for its own solutions to back bay flooding, deciding it can't wait for state and federal officials to agree on a fix.
Bay Head is studying options to prevent, or at least reduce, incidents of so-called “sunny day” flooding caused by tides and rising sea levels, as well as major storm-related floods.
New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have proposed a massive $16 billion plan to address back bay flooding along the shore. That plan relies on inlet gates, barriers built across the center of some bays, and elevating nearly 19,000 homes.
But Bay Head, a wealthy, Republican-led enclave whose location at the northernmost tip of Barnegat Bay gave the town its name, feels it needs to act sooner than 2030, the earliest the ambitious project could begin construction.
A fairly unremarkable storm that passed offshore at the end of October left Bay Head inundated with what residents called the most intense flooding since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, when the borough was devastated. Water remained on streets in some places for five days in the recent storm.
“I couldn't get back to my house,” said Carol Tassini, 84. “I had to turn around three times. It was the worst I've seen it in a long time.”
Longtime Mayor Bill Curtis said flooding has been part of living in Bay Head his entire life. But recent events have raised the alarm.
“It's about time we tried to do something, because it's getting worse,” Curtis said. “We decided enough is enough."
A preliminary plan unveiled Tuesday at a town hall meeting suggested a mix of short and long-term steps the borough could take. One recommendation borrows a proposal from the state and federal plan, installing a flood gate on Scow Ditch, a narrow body of water that connects Barnegat Bay to the south with Twilight Lake to the north.
The town also is considering building an earthen berm around the edges of the lake to keep its waters from spilling over into neighborhoods during high tides or bad storms. The berm would be covered with plants and trees to form the kind of “living shoreline” that most environmentalists advocate.
Rick McGoey, a member of Bay Head's environmental commission who gave the presentation, said “nuisance flooding” occurs in town between 12 to 18 times a year; major flooding occurs 6 to 7 times a year. But those frequencies are sure to rise, he added.
The town has not put a price tag on its repair plans, but officials cautioned it will be significant. Bay Head will seek first-round funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a more detailed study, and the mayor said he envisioned the town might be able to finance some of the work, like the earthen dam around the lake, on its own.
Bay Head, where the average house is worth more than $1.1 million, is home to some Republican heavy hitters, including Lawrence Bathgate II, the former GOP national finance chairman under presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Former Gov. Chris Christie has a summer home here, near one owned by Bon Jovi keyboardist and Broadway playwright David Bryan.
The town realizes that climate change and sea level rise are very real problems, McGoey said.
“A lot of people don't believe in climate change, but conditions around the world are causing it to go up,” he told the audience. “Storms are more severe, you're getting stronger winds. All of that is contributing. The important thing is, what are you going to do about it?”
McGoey said Bay Head would need to rely on the $16 billion state and federal plan to prevent “catastrophic” flooding like what occurred during Sandy.
Since Nov. 2016, the Army Corps has been looking at ways to reduce or prevent flooding along back bays in New Jersey and elsewhere. Governments in Massachusetts, California, Florida and Maine are among those that also have grappled with the issue.
Such flooding caused major damage on the East Coast during Sandy, although more attention was paid to damage from ocean waves pounding on the beachfront.
By contrast, back bay flooding is gradual and insidious, creeping up on areas fronting on bays or places with tributaries that swell with flood water and inundate homes and businesses.