Climate Change Debate Reaches Every Corner of the First State

Not a single Delaware resident lives more than 12 miles from a tidal body of water.

Sarah Cooksey (left), administrator of DNREC’s Coastal Programs, and Susan Love, a coastal planner, examine horseshoe crabs  along the Delaware Bay east of Dover.

Four years ago, when Delaware’s Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee met for the first time, it had all the makings of an ideological steel cage match.

The committee’s task: assess Delaware’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and recommend ways to prepare for resulting problems. As with almost every environmental issue, the politically-charged terms “global warming” and “climate change” hung heavy in the air. Therein lay the potential for fireworks: the committee’s 24 members represented a broad range of  “stakeholders,” and included several who took opposing sides on global warming and whose goals and beliefs are often at cross-purposes. 

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On the left you had the “warmers”—the Delaware League of Women Voters, The Nature Conservancy, and the Delaware Nature Society—who believe global warming is real and that man probably is a contributor to the problem. On the right were the “deniers”—the Delaware Association of Realtors, the Home Builders Association of Delaware, and the Positive Growth Alliance—who generally dismiss global warming and reject the idea that human behavior contributes to it. Also, they generally view government and its environmental regulations as impediments to the free enterprise system. 

Says the man who convened the committee, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara: “I wanted robust debate.”

Mission accomplished, Mr. Secretary. 

There were plenty of disagreements, according to Committee Chair Sarah Cooksey, “especially when it came to voting on recommendations.” Thankfully, though, no parliamentary throw-downs occurred during three years of committee meetings. That was thanks in large part to the leadership of Cooksey, administrator of DNREC’s Coastal Programs, and some of her staff—most of whom, it should be noted, have been trained in negotiation and conflict resolution.

After a few ground rules were set, Cooksey says, “everyone was polite.” And every committee member embraced the seriousness of the business at hand, eventually satisfying O’Mara’s other wish—findings that represented “rock-solid science.” 

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Impetus for the committee came from a 2007 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international organization with ties to the United Nations. That study found that as the Earth gets warmer, so too do ocean temperatures. Ocean water then expands and causes the average level of the ocean to increase, and as land-based glaciers and ice caps melt, the melt water empties into the oceans and adds to the average level. 

Delaware is especially susceptible to this phenomenon. Calling it “the most coastal of the coastal states,” Cooksey points out that it borders the Atlantic Ocean, the Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake Bay. That’s 381 miles of shoreline. At only 60 feet above sea level, Delaware has the lowest average elevation of any state. What’s more, its economy and quality of life are linked to its shores, expanses of tidal wetlands and its farm fields. 

Rising seas can have a severe effect on all that, causing loss of low-lying land and structures, saltwater intrusion into groundwater and surface water, and increased coastal flooding during significant storm events, which are becoming more frequent. Downward vertical movement of the Earth’s crust is another contributor to sea level rise.

According to the committee’s report, a combination of these factors is occurring in Delaware, resulting in a rate of sea level rise that is about twice the global average of 0.07 inches per year, or about 7 inches over 100 years. 

And rising seas are not just a concern for the state’s coastal areas. Already, towns like New Castle and Delaware City and the Southbridge section of Wilmington are regularly flooded by far less than Sandy-sized storms. In fact, no resident of Delaware lives more than 12 miles from a tidal body of water. As a result, says O’Mara, “Every Delawarean should be aware of and preparing for climate impacts, from extreme storms to sea level rise.”

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The committee took its guidance from the report of a technical workgroup established by DNREC in 2009. That workgroup found that by the end of this century, acceleration of sea level rise could cause the level of Delaware’s oceans, bays and tidal rivers to rise between 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) and 4.9 feet (l.5 meters) above present levels. 

Cooksey’s committee thus considered three scenarios in its study: sea level rises of 0.5 meter, 1 meter, and 1.5 meters. Not surprisingly, some committee members considered these numbers unrealistically high. More on those objections later.

Despite the members’ differences, the committee, led largely by Cooksey and Susan Love, a coastal planner on her staff, dedicated countless hours to the task. Their work, which was almost totally federally grant-funded, produced three documents comprising an imposing amount of information, data and recommendations.

The first two reports—a 200-page vulnerability study, accompanied by a 105-page mapping index—were presented in July 2012. Based on the three scenarios, the report concluded that between 8 and 11 percent of land statewide is within an area that could be inundated with water at high tide by 2100. Those areas include:

• Between 61,000 and 74,000 acres of permanently preserved lands, including wildlife areas, parks, and conservation easements—37 to 44 percent of the state’s total.

• Between 3,000 and 17,000 single-family homes, apartments and manufactured homes—1 to 5 percent of the state’s total.

• Between 116 and 484 miles of roads and bridges—1 to 5 percent of the state’s total.

The committee also identified saltwater intrusion into groundwater and surface water as a significant issue, as well as rising water tables and the risk of damage from coastal storms. The report noted that with each of these potential problems come “secondary effects, including reduction of employment opportunities, and releases of contaminated material from industrial sites,” among others. 

The executive summary cautions: “Although the direct impacts from sea level rise inundation will be felt primarily in areas near tidal water, every Delawarean is likely to be affected by sea level rise, whether through increased costs of maintaining infrastructure, decreased tax base, loss of recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat, or loss of community character.”

A little more than a year later, in September 2013, the committee issued its final report, containing 55 recommendations, many of which did not get a unanimous vote from the committee. They were winnowed down from an original list of more than 100 and were presented at well-attended public meetings for review and comment. The 100-page document is available online at

The recommendations avoid making suggestions for specific locations or municipalities. Instead, they focus on statewide data gathering, analysis of the data, and technical assistance to local governments and other entities.

The report lists four basic adaptation strategies: avoid, accommodate, protect and retreat. 

Avoidance limits new development or infrastructure in vulnerable areas. This strategy also allows for protected wetlands to naturally migrate landward in response to rising tides.

Accommodation strategies include elevating structures, drainage modifications, and floodgates.

Protection includes construction of structures such as jetties, living shorelines, and beach nourishment. 

Retreat involves natural shoreline migration through land conservation and acquisition and removing structures that prevent shoreline movement, such as dikes, berms, and bulkheads. 

Developing a dike safety program was one recommendation in the report, and already there has been action there, according to O’Mara. “We have moved some capital budget into strengthening infrastructure. Between New Castle and Delaware City, we’re doing five dikes as well as some work on the impoundments in some of the wildlife areas.”

He also cites stormwater and drainage projects in Wilmington’s Southbridge section. “We freed up $4 million to kick-start that project. We’ll take stormwater and redirect it to the wetlands to the west, and it will eventually be discharged into the Christina River,” he says.

Soon after the recommendations were released, Gov. Jack Markell issued an executive order requiring all state agencies to take sea level rise into account when designing and locating state projects. The order also requires agencies to develop strategies to make state facilities and agency operations better prepared to deal with climate change and sea level rise.

O’Mara was delighted with the committee’s work. “When you look at the level of detail [in the three reports], I challenge you to find another state in the country that has gone to that level,” he says. 

As with most environmental studies, however, not everyone was pleased. Three committee members submitted dissenting opinions. Somewhat surprisingly, one came from the liberal League of Women Voters. Committee member Chad Tolman, who is Climate Change chair for the league, backed a recommendation requiring that all homebuyers be fully informed of the risks of sea level rise and storm surge, as well as the cost and availability of federal flood insurance.

The committee stepped back from this approach, citing the individual homeowner’s responsibility, and instead developed a website that illustrates current flooding and future sea level rise inundation risks.

Dissenting opinions were submitted by two conservative organizations—the Positive Growth Alliance and the Home Builders Association of Delaware. In his letter, the PGA’s Richard Collins said his group had “many deep concerns about both the recommendations … and the sea level rise predictions we were forced to accept as fact.” He called into question the computer models used to formulate the predictions, and alluded to politics and “powerful special interests with an agenda of stopping development.”

“Part of this Sea Level Rise report,” he wrote, “could be utilized by these groups to prevent others from using their private properties.”

He also found fault with more than a dozen recommendations, while praising those aimed at improving monitoring and predicting sea level rise and human response to it.   

The HBADE’s objection focused on the report’s possible negative impact on the state’s economy. The letter refers to “unscientific and faulty models of measurements” that “stigmatize our Delaware coastal areas and cost citizens of Delaware greatly for an event that may not happen over the course of 87 years.”

Another objection came from a member of the public, John Nichols, a financial adviser and “citizen activist” who attended and spoke at many committee meetings. He calls sea level rise “a tempest in a teapot” based on computer models “that have been proven to be pretty wrong.” He claims it’s “a hard thing to measure” and “it has stabilized lately.” The committee’s work, he says, was not aimed at the danger of sea level rise but at “reducing the consumption of energy that we use in the United States. The people in DNREC are trying to reduce energy consumption, and this is one way to do it.” 

In a follow-up email, Nichols writes: “The recommendations from the … committee will put vast swaths of land off limits to development, deprive landowners of their development rights, place more land in the public domain and thereby curtail the use of fossil fuels. This will further dependency on government, not individual self-reliance and prosperity.”

“It’s 100 percent politics,” says Nichols, “not science.”

Cooksey respectfully disagrees. “We tried to take a science-based approach,” she says.

Susan Love cautions that it’s important to understand that “the results of the vulnerability assessment are not meant to be ‘predictive’; rather they are meant to help us understand the extent of potential vulnerability so that we can begin working to reduce the vulnerability of those resources most likely at risk.” She also notes that no one can predict human response to issues like sea level rise.

Both Love and Cooksey refuse to get entangled in the global warming controversy. Ever the diplomat, Cooksey says, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Then, despite herself, she adds, “It would help [the environment] if less carbon was released into the air.” 

Love is equally circumspect, but she does offer insight into perhaps the most important result of the committee’s work: “Five years ago, no one was talking about sea level rise. Now it’s part of every conversation.”    

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