There isn’t a lot of traffic out on Bennetts Pier Road. This low-lying stretch of blacktop country road in Milford Neck is about 1 1/2 cars wide at low tide, when the water laps just a few inches shy of the shoulder.
About 200 feet before you reach the Delaware Bay, the blacktop disappears under a sand dune—more like a barrier island—that separates the delicate habitat of the tidal marsh from the open waters. On the other side of the dune, what’s left of Bennetts Pier Road is being swallowed by the sea.
“Twelve years ago, you would have seen a really robust natural dune system that protected this whole area,” says Kate Hackett, executive director of Delaware Wild Lands Inc., the environmental nonprofit that owns most of this 3,500-acre parcel of coastline extending south from here to Big Stone Beach.
In recent years, however, the shoreline has retreated, pushed westward against the marsh by rising seas, in pursuit of higher ground. As the saltwater encroaches farther inland, the salinity is poisoning forests, farmlands and other freshwater resources, including the drinking and irrigation wells that are commonplace infrastructure among the flat, sandy plains of southern Delaware.
This is known as saltwater intrusion, and the dominoes of its slow devastation have already started to topple.
As high tides have swelled even higher, low-lying communities, from the estuary to the beaches, have been the first to feel the impact, like canaries in a coal mine. Sea level rise is at first a nuisance—a few inches of standing water on roadways at high tide, like at Old Corbett Road just south of Odessa. But when a major rain event or nor’easter coincides with multiple tide cycles, the deluge is unable to escape back out to sea; water accumulates inland, filling rivers, marshes and floodplains until roads disappear entirely.
“It doesn’t take much,” says Harry Ward, mayor of Slaughter Beach. “If we get a 2-foot rise above a normal high tide, our roads are going to be flooded. Route 36 in the north will be flooded, and then it usually takes two more tide cycles before Slaughter Beach Road on the other side is flooded. And it doesn’t take much longer before we have properties with water up to their doors.”
“Everyone who has lived in Southbridge has a flood story,” says Marie Reed, president of the Southbridge Neighborhood Association and a lifelong resident of Wilmington. Her family home in Southbridge has flooded for as long as she can remember. She recalls family emergencies with her father in the basement calling for “all hands on deck,” the oldest siblings pulling buckets of water up the stairs. And that’s when the sump pump was working.Sixty miles north in Wilmington, the neighborhood of Southbridge copes with a similar dilemma. The community is surrounded on three sides by a bend in the tidal section of the Christina River, which floods the streets so regularly that state and federal officials have invested millions of dollars into the restoration of 14 acrews of wetlands to improve stormwater management.
When Hurricane Sandy slammed Delaware in October 2012, floodwaters invaded homes and submerged cars, devastating the community. “You couldn’t get into Southbridge and you couldn’t get out,” Reed says. “We had to be evacuated.”
This is the reality facing the nation’s lowest-lying state, where even a moderate rise in sea levels could prove catastrophic. If sea levels increase a little under 2 feet by 2100—a scenario with a 95 percent probability, according to the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee—then Delaware will lose roughly 8 percent of its land area, or a little over 110,000 acres, including nearly all of the state’s protected wetlands.
If sea levels increase beyond 2 feet and saltwater contaminates drinking water, septic systems, landfills, brownfields and other polluted sites, then Delaware will be staring down the barrel of an unprecedented water crisis.
Sea levels have been rising off the coast of Delaware for more than a century and will continue to do so at about twice the global average because of a geological phenomenon known as “subsidence,” meaning the section of Earth’s crust beneath the mid-Atlantic states is sinking at a rate slightly greater than 1 inch per decade, or about 1 foot per century.
Imagine our tectonic plate—the portion of Earth’s crust on which Delaware sits—as a seesaw: At one end is Greenland and its massive ice sheet, and at the other is the Delmarva Peninsula. The incredible weight of the ice sheet, estimated to be 10,000 feet thick in some places, has compressed the crust beneath, thereby pushing down its side of the seesaw. However, as global temperatures have increased and the ice sheet has melted, the weight on the seesaw has shifted and Greenland is springing back up.
“We’re sinking,” explains Brenna Goggin, an environmental advocate who served on the Delaware Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee under former Gov. Jack Markell. Goggin worked for more than a decade at the Delaware Nature Society before joining River Network in 2019. “Most people think that rising sea levels are going to impact just the coastal areas, but that’s not true. Any tidal waterway will be impacted because high tides will become higher.”
Delaware’s coastal communities already experience several days of high-tide flooding annually, and the problem is forecasted to grow. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that Lewes could see upwards of 30 high-tide flooding days annually by 2030 and as many as 135 by 2050.
“The ocean is now at the brim, clogging stormwater systems and routinely flooding U.S. coastal communities with saltwater—often with no storm in sight,” NOAA oceanographer William Sweet recently said in an interview with Delaware Public Media. “This is high-tide flooding. This is sea level rise.”
The reality here in Delaware, however, could be far worse. As carbon emissions continue unabated, and as global temperatures rise and the ice sheets melt, sea levels off the coast of Delaware may rise by as much as 5 feet by the year 2100, according to a 2017 recommendation report by the Delaware Sea Level Rise Technical Committee and the Delaware Geological Survey at the University of Delaware.Even if the world’s nations achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as stipulated by the goals outlined in the Paris Climate Accord (from which President Donald Trump has pulled the U.S.), oceans will continue to rise by as much as 3 feet before 2300, according to new research published in the journal Nature Communications.
The scale of such a crisis is difficult to fathom. NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management released a Sea Level Rise Viewer at coast.noaa.gov/slr/ that illustrates graphically how oceans will invade coastal communities. Its predictions are shocking.
Once Delaware’s marshes disappear, the coast from Bowers Beach to Lewes will become a chain of barrier islands, separated from the mainland by hundreds of feet of open water. Dozens, if not hundreds, of residential properties in Lewes and Bethany will be inundated by rising seas, while many more will be cut off from the mainland when roads become impassable. The Mispillion River’s tidal estuary will migrate inland, along with the marsh, until it reaches downtown Milford, where nearly all riverfront property between Northeast and Southeast Front streets will be inundated.
In Wilmington, most of the port and the nearby neighborhood of Southbridge will disappear beneath the tidal estuary of the Christina River, as will portions of the riverfront. Frawley Stadium may still be dry, but the parking lot won’t be of much use unless you’re commuting to the game in a boat. Seventh Street Peninsula will have to be renamed Seventh Street Island.Imagine all those brownfields and all that contamination—100 years of dangerous carcinogens—slowly released back into the environment, likely leading to a cascade of ever-worsening environmental disasters.Five feet of sea level rise is also the point at which the truly nightmarish scenarios become reality. Delaware’s notorious industrial wastelands in the coastal zone will regularly experience high-tide flooding. This area includes 35 brownfield sites—about 25 percent of the state’s total—and 54 percent of other contaminated sites currently monitored by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
“We’re ground zero here in Sussex County,” says Maria Payan, an environmental advocate with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project. The geography of southern Delaware, she says, is likely to exacerbate cleanup efforts. “We’re on nothing but sand, sand and more sand. There’s a really high water table because we’re in the coastal zone, and you have really shallow wells, which is just the perfect scenario for the transport of pollutants.”
Once an environmental disaster of this magnitude impacts a community’s drinking water, relocating becomes much more difficult. Who is going to buy a house where they can’t use the water? Or own a farm where they can’t till the land? What’s the point of even owning land that will be regularly inundated in our lifetimes? Some families will lose everything except what they can stack in the back of a U-Haul.
“Keep in mind that the effects of climate change are going to be disproportionately borne by the most vulnerable members of our communities,” says Goggin. “As our coastline changes, those who can afford to rebuild or move will have that opportunity, but those who cannot will be left behind.”
The nightmare scenarios are still just that: existential threats existing only in NOAA computer simulations and the recesses of our minds responsible for environmental disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow. Even so, the situation along the coast is deteriorating. Decades before the worst effects of global sea level rise are predicted to strike, warning signs abound if you know where to look.
Back in Milford Neck, Hackett is standing on the remains of Bennetts Pier Road with Delaware Wildlands field ecologist Andrew Martin, who is documenting plants and wildlife with an extended-lens camera. Habitat change, they tell me, is already underway.
“Mudflats,” says Martin, pointing to a stretch of beach that appears to be covered in sludge. Not long ago, the sludge was part of the marsh. In its dash for higher ground, the shoreline and its habitat of dunes and beach has rolled right over the marsh, just like it did to Bennetts Pier Road. “The marsh drowns once it’s exposed to open water. What’s left is just eroding away.”
Farther back from shore where the marsh meets the coastal plain, there’s further evidence of sea level rise: a ghostly forest of snags—hundreds of dead trees poisoned by the intruding saltwater—that divides the freshwater habitat from the tidal marsh.
Not far beyond the ghost forest, farms are also showing signs of stress. Saltwater intrusion causes the plants to wilt, like a disease spreading among otherwise healthy crops. Crops, if they grow at all, are shrunken and deformed.
Hackett is reluctant to divulge which farms are currently testing for salinity in the groundwater out of concern that the information will negatively affect property values. She also concedes that a lot of farmers around here don’t believe in climate change, even when the evidence is sitting in their own fields during high tide. When speaking with farmers about saltwater, Hackett prefers to characterize what’s happening as “changing conditions.”“Delaware has a lot of farmland that is no longer supporting traditional agricultural crops” like corn or lima beans, which feed the chickens on the state’s poultry megafarms, says Hackett. “We are starting to see some really significant salinity levels on those coastal farmlands. Farmers in southern Delaware now have to test the water they are using for irrigation to make sure they’re not drawing saline water out of the ground and spraying it onto their fields.”
The dead zones in the farms around Milford Neck suggest otherwise. Crop failure is not an anomaly. The same areas are failing year after year.
Saltwater intrusion has been poisoning Frank Webb’s farm for nearly 20 years. He’s been working the land around Milford Neck his entire life, just like his family before him, dating back 150 years or so.
As a young man, Webb purchased a little more than 200 acres adjacent to the family farm. Nearly 50 of those acres are now considered “nonproductive,” because the soil has become too salty to grow crops.
“It’s pretty tough when you start looking at your farm that, 30 years ago, all of it was productive, and now you’re taking that big chunk out of it,” Webb says. “It makes a very significant economic impact.” He estimates that hundreds of acres of freshwater habitat in Milford Neck alone, including land owned by Delaware Wildlands, is currently affected by saltwater intrusion. “There’s no line drawn in the soil that shows which parts are productive and which are not. When you plow the ground, it all looks the same.”
Soil remediation—the process of removing and replacing the affected soil—would be prohibitively expensive but also entirely pointless because any improvement in salinity levels would be undone after the next flood, a reality as inevitable as the tides. Nor is it economical for Webb to claim losses on his crop insurance, which is only suitable in the event of a total loss, usually as a result of an extreme weather event.Webb’s options are extremely limited.
Webb has also investigated growing alternative crops, such as a particular soybean variety, that are supposed to be more tolerant of the salinity.
“What happens is, the vegetative plant will grow, and it looks like maybe you’ve got something to work with,” Webb explains. “But the plant is completely non-fruit-bearing because of the salt.”
Other alternatives include just about anything that isn’t farming. Webb could intentionally flood entire sections of the farm to attract waterfowl and then rent the grounds to hunting parties. He could sell the land to developers. After all, it’s just a little flooding in the low-lying areas. The ground may not support crop production, but it could be decades before serious flooding overtakes neighborhoods.
The preference among scientists and environmentalists, however, looks something like a strategic retreat: Reduce agricultural production on coastal farms to allow the marsh to migrate further inland, and in doing so preserve—hopefully—the benefits provided by the marsh, including its ability to act as a sponge and absorb storm surge.
“Living shorelines are one way to stabilize the shore and stop it from eroding while using natural materials,” says Chris Bason, executive director at the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays. “It’s an alternative to kind of the default method of shoreline stabilization, which is to dump a bunch of rocks and essentially kill the life of the shoreline.”
A strategic retreat, however, would mean that state and local governments would need to more aggressively limit development in coastal areas. That also means tight regulations on erecting new residential structures and businesses, moving schools and critical public infrastructure, and various other unpopular policy positions.
“A lot of it is political will,” says Goggin. “We have issues with telling people where they can and cannot live, or where they cannot build. Unfortunately, those decisions need to be made. There are some areas where people should not be living because of their vulnerability to sea level rise.”
“The impacts [on] our way of life and our infrastructure are going to be tremendous, so we really need to be doing a whole lot more,” says Bason. “Delaware is taking steps in the right direction, but it’s baby steps when you look at our geography. We really need to be making more ambitious policy changes.”Despite the looming danger, the appetite for coastal properties continues unabated. The beaches are booming. Homes are being built in flood zones at twice the rate of non-flood zones, according to a 2019 report by the research group Climate Central and the real estate site Zillow, and Delaware ranks fifth in properties likely to be inundated by a major storm by 2050. In Bethany Beach, a real estate developer is building homes on stilts directly over a marsh where environmental regulations for years forbade traditional development.
Unfortunately, the political will for ambitious regulations appears to be waning at exactly the moment when it’s needed most, and environmental advocates worry that their concerns have lost out to economic development by the administration of Gov. John Carney. Just this year, DNREC was criticized by environmental groups for failing to collect nearly $1 million in fines imposed on Delaware City Refinery for releasing toxic chemicals into the air and illegal dumping in the Delaware River.
Moreover, among Carney’s first priorities upon entering office was to amend the landmark Coastal Zone Act, which limited heavy industry to 14 “grandfathered” sites within 2 miles of the coast. The amendment, first proposed by the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, was lauded by pro-business groups as a “modernization” of the decades-old law but panned by environmentalists as a green light for heavy industry to revive operations at contaminated sites. A coalition of environmental groups penned an open letter urging state legislators to kill the legislation and support further environmental studies, but their effort failed.
“We had a lot of momentum under the Markell administration,” says Goggin. “While Carney has been a proponent for the Paris Agreement and very clear that climate change and sea level rise are going to be an issue in Delaware, he hasn’t really picked up the torch from the prior administration.”
While Carney dithers, the progressive wing of the Delaware Democratic Party is growing impatient. The campaign of Madinah Wilson-Anton, a Democrat running for state representative in the 26th District, recently released a Green New Deal for Delaware. In it, she calls for the state to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, the creation of “Green Banks” to spur investment in renewable energy, and an amendment to the Delaware Constitution that guarantees a right to clean air, pure water and a healthy environment.
“We released this Green New Deal plan because it’s time to start taking climate change seriously in Delaware,” says Wilson-Anton. “We are the lowest-lying state in the country, and yet we consistently fall behind even with a Democratic majority in both houses. Big problems require big solutions, and the status quo is not going to get that done. The facts and the science are already there. This plan is just making sure our politics are on the same page.” In the meantime, Webb doesn’t seem very interested in a strategic retreat. For now, he’s content to stay in Milford Neck and in the family business. It’s not that he’s opposed to leaving the coast; he’s just going to ride it out as long as he can.
“It’s all you can do,” he says.
Published as “Delaware is Sinking” the January 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.