How I Learned to Love Sea Level Rise while New Jersey’s Land Sinks under our feet

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This is the first article for local publication in NJ I wrote after returning from New Orleans as State Communications Director for Repower America. It was published in the TriCityNews on January 21st 2010. TriCityNews only publishes in hard copy, so I reprinted it here, since it’s become suddenly relevant again in the last month. Originally published as: ‘Reshaping Asbury Park: Climate Change, Local Agriculture and Economic Development in a Hazardous World – or How I Learned to Love Sea Level Rise while New Jersey’s Land Sinks under our  feet’

So perhaps I’m crazy.  After a decade in Minnesota where stores sell t-shirts emblazoned with umbrella-carrying penguins and the slogan “Minnesotans for Global Warming” I spent a chunk of 2009 in Louisiana where a football field’s worth of land disappears into the sea every 15 minutes.  

So now I’m finally home in coastal Monmouth County in New Jersey – the Atlantic Coast state most threatened by sea level rise according to Geology, a science journal that reports on such things. New Jersey also happens to be the only eastern seaboard state with the same subsidence problem as Louisiana — the sinking of land due to geologic factors.  Luckily New Jersey doesn’t suffer from the severity of the problem that Louisiana does — destruction of wetlands from oil and gas production and massive losses of land-building sediment from the mighty Mississippi, but New Jersey’s coastal lands are slowly sinking even as overall sea level rises.  

Monmouth University began to address this issue last Friday with a conference on climate change impacts on the Jersey shore. The conference was organized to shed some light on the hazards facing our coastal communities.  The presenters went to great lengths to emphasize that we not only face long-term threats from rising sea levels, but that we also face recurring threats from ordinary tidal flooding and storms simply because of our location in a coastal zone.  Acting DEP Commissioner Mark Mauriello’s comments that “we’re in a very vulnerable place, our job is keeping it on people’s minds” should make us think twice about what we do along our beloved shore.  During lunch, I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting next to Bernie Moore, a long-time DEP administrator who spent forty years with the agency.  His private comments mirrored Commissioner Mauriello’s public comments; that many of the issues we are discussing today – mitigating flood hazards, dealing with routine tidal flooding, the issue of riparian rights in fluid coastal zones, are issues that the DEP and their predecessor agencies have been dealing with for forty plus years.  

The key issue both then and now seems to be a lack of political will to address these critical coastal issues in a responsible manner based on scientific realities.  To be clear, scientific reality does not exclude economic opportunity.  By following a simple principle of ecology – all systems are interrelated — we can start to create a future that builds on our area’s uniqueness by taking advantage of our remaining farms, fields, and streams.

New Jersey is a unique state as many people from around the country are fond of telling us.  But our uniqueness arises not only from our culture but also from our history and our geography.   We’re the Garden State and for much of our history we provided tables in New York, Philadelphia, and other eastern states with corn, tomatoes, peaches, blueberries, cranberries, potatoes, eggs, and poultry.  

After moving back to New Jersey I was amazed that many of the small local farms, pocket farms really, still dotted much of the New Jersey landscape.  Many are gone, but many do remain and it’s still very easy to pick up some fresh, in-season produce. For me, local farms and fields are part of great childhood memories with my grandparents.  I remember pulling off the Parkway on the way to Asbury Park and seeing nothing but farms, fields, and streams as we drove to the boardwalk.  So to honor both their memories and the Garden State’s agricultural legacy I created a small blog called Pocket Farms – Keeping Jersey Fresh.  Subtitled Agriculture and Local Markets in the Garden State, the blog is designed as a resource center for those interested in local agriculture and a place to explore farmers markets, local farms and unique agricultural initiatives like the proposed Upper Freehold Historic Byway.

This is not just an exercise in idle nostalgia.   Local agriculture can play a critical role in helping to mitigate climate change, diversifying New Jersey’s economy, creating jobs and redeveloping communities like Asbury Park.   While living in New Orleans I began to note significant similarities between Asbury Park and New Orleans – a rich cultural history, people with passionate, almost mystical connections to the city, poverty, educational challenges and a need for good local jobs that encompass more than tourism. In Asbury Park there may be opportunity to build new food processing businesses that use local agriculture and employ local people to supply our homes, hotels, B&Bs and restaurants with locally farmed, locally produced foods.  

We have an opportunity to recreate a sustainable Jersey Shore ecology that stretches from the farms to the beaches and that benefits farmers, small business owners, workers and students alike.  All it takes is political will and a willingness to face scientific reality now rather than later.

Cross posted at Pocket Farms — Keeping Jersey Fresh

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