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Facing the effects of climate change on the North Fork Times Review hosts local discussion on global topic

BY TIM GANNON

On more than one occasion, Shelter Island’s North Ferry Company has had to briefly shut down operations to deal with docking difficulties caused by rising tides. Applications in Southold Town for coastal erosion protection devices are on the rise. And flooding and puddling have become more prevalent in some neighborhoods in the last five to 10 years.

These were among the impacts of climate change discussed at a forum May 22 at Vineyard Caterers in Aquebogue. “The Effects of Climate Change on the North Fork” was the fourth in a series of 10 panel discussions on newsworthy topics affecting Southold and Riverhead towns, hosted by Times Review Media Group.

“I’ve been immersed in the subject of global warming for at least 10 years,” said panelist Mark Haubner, vice president of the North Fork Environmental Council. “Climate change presents us with some of the most immediate and observable impacts that we can see for ourselves on the North Fork.

“We have collectively changed the composition of the atmosphere, and our oceans are swelling due to the amount of carbon we are producing,” he said.

Mr. Haubner was joined on the panel by Southold Town Trustee John Bredemeyer, North Ferry general manager Bridgford Hunt, Marie Beninati of Southold VOICE, Kevin McAllister of Defending H2O and Joyce Novak of the Peconic Estuary Program. County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) contributed to the discussion as an audience member.

“Climate change is critical,” said Ms. Beninati, a realtor and chair of Southold VOICE, a not-for-profit organization that addresses waterfront issues from the perspective of property owners.

Mr. Bredemeyer said the agenda for the town Trustees’ May meeting was 18 pages.

“There were 13 applications that dealt specifically with the impact from increasing sea level rise, and the more frequent storms we see,” he said.”

Damage along the waterfront is something Trustees are dealing with on a near daily basis. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

He added that a third of the work before the Trustees relates to coastal erosion and “coastal erosion protection in dealing with writing wetland permits in this changing climate.”

“Of our 13 inspections this month,” Mr. Bredemeyer said, “we ended up having three bulkhead inspections, several groin inspections, several retaining wall inspections and we had several applications where rising waters will impact the development and ultimately the plans for home sanitary systems.”

Mr. Haubner said sea level change is only one of the effects of climate change. “A tornado in Ronkonkoma this year woke my daughter up,” he noted.

“We live on a planet that supports us, not the other way around,” he said. “If our air and our waters and our lands are healthy, so are we.”

Mr. Krupski, a farmer, said he’s heard anecdotally from other farmers that spring seasons are now colder and wetter than in the past, and that the fall extends further.

“Now, you don’t get a hard freeze until Christmas or the first of the year,” he said.

A North Ferry boat docks in Shelter Island Heights last August. (Credit: David Benthal)

Rising seas and the ferry

Having to interrupt ferry operations because of sea level rise “is getting to be more usual,” Mr. Hunt said.

He’s worked for North Ferry Company for about 30 years. When he started, the ferry would stop operation for a hurricane or the occasional no-name storm, which he estimated would occur every two or three years.

“What happens more recently is we will get an east wind and the tide will come in and it will linger and stay to the point where we cannot connect our ramps with the boat,” Mr. Hunt said. “The boat can dock but the angle of the ramp is so high that cars can’t get on and off, and the short side approach is under water.”

Mr. Hunt said the North Ferry, which operates between Greenport and Shelter Island, recently had two back-to-back outages, including one that interrupted a wedding on Shelter Island. Outages or near outages of ferry service are occurring more and more regularly, he said.

“The wedding guests were climbing down a steep ramp and were wading through 14-inch water in their finery to get to the wedding,” Mr. Hunt said.

Bridg Hunt (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

The ferry applied for a bulkhead permit five years ago and began working on the project in Greenport this past winter, so it wouldn’t impact service.

“We are raising the shore side connection by 14 to 16 inches and we are extending the length of the ramps,” he said.

The bulkhead work has stopped for the warmer season and will begin again in January, according to Mr. Hunt. When the work in Greenport is completed the same changes will be made at the Shelter Island terminal.

Another project North Ferry plans to pursue is implementing a system to restrain the boats, so they can be taken out of gear when they’re at the dock.

“Right now, we use 30,000 gallons of fuel [annually] to hold the boats in position when we’re loading and unloading,” Mr. Hunt said. “We can mitigate that carbon footprint by just attaching the boat to the dock.”

Kevin McCallister (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Water quality issues

Mr. McAllister said that rising water temperature also negatively impacts water quality.

“With respect to climate change and, of course, greenhouse gases, we are principally talking about carbon dioxide,” he said. “With the subtle, subtle changes in water chemistry — and this is coming from the true scientists that are researching this — we are moving toward ocean acidification, which could, over the long term, have a pronounced impact on our shellfish.”

Mr. McAllister, who was Peconic Baykeeper for 16 years, said the proliferation of harmful algal blooms in the bays — such as the brown tide in the 1980s and the red tide in more recent years — are all linked to climate change and subtle changes in water chemistry.

About 12 years ago, a “rust tide” hit Flanders Bay, killing shellfish and hundreds of diamondback terrapins, Mr. McAllister said.

The Peconic Estuary has seen a four-inch rise in sea level over the past 40 years, he said, and New York State is predicting that sea level will rise another 11 to 30 inches over the next 40 years.

“That’s monumental,” Mr. McAllister said. “Obviously, the location of these shorelines will be changing, as nature will want to change it, and what we will have to grapple with is salt water intrusion” into drinking water.

“We are seeing the propensity of more flooding in areas — you probably see it around your neighborhoods — and now all of a sudden in the last five or 10 years are noticing puddles and persistent puddles.”

Downtown Riverhead is one area that sees significant flooding with each named storm. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

He said septic systems were designed to be above groundwater level for both function and treatment. When these are immersed in groundwater, the commingling of water exiting into surface waters is likely to result in high contamination, he said.

In some locations, he said, “it’s untenable to stay there and we’re going to have to figure out a strategy for exiting.”

Dr. Novak, program director for the Peconic Estuary Program, said the estuary was designated as an estuary of national importance in the early 1990s.

Funding for PEP comes from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and is matched by the state and county.

The PEP covers the five East End towns plus Brookhaven Town.

Dr. Novak said it’s challenging to work with different agencies because they all have different desires, needs and outcomes that they want to see.

“We are in the process of developing a critical land protection strategy,” she said. “This is looking at the entire watershed. It’s looking at places where wetlands are a natural and most effective coastal resiliency tool.”

PEP also is finishing an assessment of hardened shorelines, such as groins and revetments.

“The new numbers are frightening, in the sense of the amount of hard shoreline [that has] cropped up” since 2002, Dr. Novak said.

The strategy PEP comes up with, she said, “will be as a tool for the municipalities in the county to target areas for protection or reclamation, which is something that will need to be looked at.”

Damages from a storm along Hashamomuck Cove in Southold. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

What’s next?

Ms. Beninati said she wears three hats: as a realtor, as chair of Southold VOICE and as an owner of waterfront property.

She said climate change is “not about politics. It’s sad when people make it about politics. It’s what’s really happening — and my focus, and I’m not a scientist, is pragmatic. What can we do?”

The shoreline is eroding, she said. “The water is higher. We’re definitely seeing storms that are the effect of climate change. It’s a reality.”

Ms. Beninati said a Cornell scientist working with the Peconic Estuary Program described rising sea level as “a slow thing. Maybe two inches over 10 years, and it is not being addressed because it’s a slow thing.”

She said Southold VOICE is committed to addressing these issues now.

Marie Beninati (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Jack Gibbons of Cutchogue, a retired Mattituck High School teacher and Navy veteran, said the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change projects that by 2100, sea level globally will increase by one meter, or a little over three feet.

Last Monday, he added, an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences cited another study that found the global rise in sea level is more likely going to be two meters.

“It also states that on the East Coast, we should expect twice as much sea level rise as the global average. So we’re really looking at a major problem here,” Mr. Gibbons said.

Barbara Kurek of a group called Citizens Climate Lobby, noted pending legislation aimed at dealing with global warming. There is a bill in the state Senate called the Climate and Community Protection Act and a federal measure known as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.

Neither has passed yet.

The federal bill would impose a “carbon fee” on fossil fuels in an attempt to get energy companies to move toward cleaner types of energy.

The state bill requires a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and sets a timeline for achieving 100 percent renewable energy economy-wide by 2050.

The book Drawdown was recommended by several audience members. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

Several CCL members in attendance at the forum mentioned a book called “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” which describes 100 ways to fight global warming.

There are new “Innovative Alternative” septic systems that remove higher percentages of nitrogen, but which cost about $20,000 to $25,000, according to officials.

Ms. Novak said Suffolk County received about $30 million from the state to initiate the septic improvement plan, which makes grants available to homeowners who seek to install the new systems.

The grants can go as high as $30,000 per homeowner, she said.

Mr. Krupski said the county is currently trying to determine where these new systems should be installed.

“In other words, in what areas are [traditional] septic systems doing the most damage,” he said.

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