The vanishing shoreline of Delaware Bay

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2006.)

People used to live here on Moores Beach.

Today, the houses are gone. The roads are gone. The people are gone, too.

Moores Beach is now little more than rampant marshland, full of cord grass and sand and unencumbered reeds in southeast Maurice River Township, Cumberland County. The road south to the Delaware Bay turns from asphalt to sand to mud well north of the beach, leaving the last houses on Moores Beach Road far behind. Calling this place a beach is just habit; the beach is history.

“Moores Beach?” Natural Lands Trust manager Steve Eisenhauer says as he steps from his pickup truck at the Harold Peek Preserve in Millville. “That’s a lonely place.”

It wasn’t always lonely.

In the early 20th century, this was a booming vacation community, one of many along the Delaware Bay. There were three streets, a gas station and dozens of homes. Hundreds traveled to this bayfront community to enjoy the beach.

That’s all gone, a victim of hurricanes and the erosion they brought. The disappearance is not unique.

The region is dotted with communities like this, tiny villages that prospered during the oyster and glass industry booms and faded into obscurity beneath the bay’s constant tides. Thompsons Beach, Money Island, Port Norris, Seabreeze – these were boom towns in the 1920s, places where Philadelphia’s wealthy gathered and illegal whiskey flowed. Some, like Fortescue and Gandys Beach, still prosper to a degree.

At others, such as Bayside in Greenwich Township, one can see evidence of history the bay has swallowed up. Fishermen once harvested caviar and shipped it out on trains straight from the Bayside docks. The railroad tracks are still there, just under water. Wooden posts still rise from the water, but they no longer support a pier.

Nature has claimed its prey all along this shore. Heavy storms smashed shorelines, sea level rise brought the water inward and tidal erosion slowly weathered away dirt and grass. Humans have fought these incursions with mixed success, much as they have elsewhere in New Jersey and the U.S.

But their fights have been different from similar preservation efforts along New Jersey’s Atlantic Coast. There, the federal government spends millions of dollars a year on beach replenishment. Along the bay, a visitor can easily find discarded concrete blocks once used by locals to build makeshift dikes and bulkheads. Yes, the state and federal governments have kicked in for some erosion-control projects here, though in most bayshore spots, the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t have jurisdiction. Locals say it’s never enough, particularly considering they’re losing much more shoreline than the more economically prosperous beaches stretching from Ocean through Cape May counties.

Statistical evidence supports this: Over the past 500 years, shorelines along the western bayshore have lost between 500 and 1,000 feet, according to engineers and baywatchers.

“The amount of shoreline lost on the bay really dwarfs the amount lost along the ocean coast,” said Jeff Gebert, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Yet people who love these communities continue to fight. Some still call it home.

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Bill Pace has fought and loved the Delaware Bay all his life.

He spent much of his childhood here, watching the tides come in and lap the shores off the coast of his family’s weekend house in this isolated bayside community of Seabreeze on New Jersey’s southwest tip in Fairfield Township. Fifty years later, he still has his house and the beautiful sunsets, and that cute girl he met as a teenager here is now his wife. Seabreeze still feels like home, albeit a raw, temperamental and starkly beautiful one.

“Sometimes it’s like a lake, and you can’t see a ripple,” Pace said. “Then without notice, the wind kicks up from the northeast, and all of a sudden, you have four-foot swells.”

The bay has been trying to claim these homes for years. Erosion and sea level rise have wiped away Beach Avenue, putting the waterfront road under water. In the 1950s, families here built makeshift bulkheads from wood and concrete that held for a few decades, but in the end, the bay always won. The bulkheads are gone, the thin shoreline littered with remnants of the failed defense effort. High tide now laps at the front of three bayside homes. Houses stand on stilts.

Several years ago, Fairfield Township officials began pushing for a restoration of the area. About $1 million in state funding was secured five years ago to build bulkheads against the bay, restore Beach Avenue, and build a parking lot and boat launch in hopes of drawing fishermen.

The project languished, however, until last year, when Fairfield Township Mayor Craig Thomas and Seabreeze residents found an ally in influential state Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland. Some feel the state Department of Environmental Protection simply didn’t want to do the project. Others blame Fairfield’s occasionally dysfunctional municipal government for causing the delay.

“I don’t think the DEP wants to spend money anywhere unless it’s Ocean City, Atlantic City, or Wildwood,” said Joyce Satthersthwaite, a Pennsylvania native who plans to retire next year to her weekend house in Seabreeze. “They don’t care about these small towns where people live.”

DEP officials dispute that, pointing to state-funded erosion-control projects from East Point to Seabreeze. After several recent delays, the project is set to start this month.

“The choice in Seabreeze was, do you do the project and protect what’s there, or do you buy out the people who are there?” said Ben Keiser, supervising engineer in the DEP’s Bureau of Coastal Engineering.

That’s a question that’s been asked before. Moores Beach and Thompsons Beach in Maurice River Township are examples of the answer: You buy the residents out.

______

As recently as the 1990s, people still lived on Thompsons Beach, but storms and erosion had eviscerated the once-vibrant community. The summer community that arose there was a relatively young one, but, like Moores Beach, Thompsons Beach had been a historical center for salt hay farming, with the hay serving as a profitable cash crop. Farmers diked the coastline as far back as the 1700s to hold back the bay. When farmers began abandoning the area during the last century, those dikes lost their regular maintenance and failed. By then, the bay had eroded all the marsh leading up to the dikes, leading to an increased inrush of water once the last wall gave way.

“Those dikes on the bayfront actually increased erosion,” said Jeff Pantazes, manager of estuary enhancement for Public Service Electric Group.

PSEG stepped into the picture a decade ago and bought the properties from the last homeowners on Thompsons Beach. It was the latest in a series of wetlands restoration efforts PSEG performed in response to concern over aquatic deaths caused by the company’s nuclear plants along the Delaware River in Salem County. PSEG restored the wetlands, engineering the area to simulate natural marshes. What was a beach is now broad marshland, complete with an observation tower that occasionally draws tourists.

Thompsons Beach is unique, however, in that a private interest transformed the area into a beautiful natural environment. Moores Beach has been left to go wild on its own.

What’s interesting is that, to the southeast, erosion has had minimal impact.
Scientists at the Richard Stockton Coastal Research Center have been trackingerosion data at four bayfront spots in Cape May County – Reeds Beach, Villas, Higbee State Park and Cape May Point. Since 1986, the shoreline has remained constant, according to Stewart Farrell, the center’s director and a professor of marine science at Stockton College. The year before, the shore saw major changes when Hurricane Gloria hit New Jersey harder than any hurricane in the last three decades.

“But when it came across the Delaware Bay, it drove all the water into places like Thompsons Beach and just trashed it,” Farrell said. “It wiped out Reeds Beach.”

This leads Farrell to believe much of the region’s erosion is episodic, caused by big storms. In fact, the Cape Shore’s coastline has remained relatively stable for the last 100 years, according to Gebert, of the Army Corps of Engineers. The difference could be that Cape May’s bay shoreline runs north to south instead of east to west, as it does west in Cumberland County, Pantazes said.

______

When people start counting off reasons for the rapid western bayshore erosion, they sometimes run out of fingers. Some point to sea level rise, which has been over one foot in the last 100 years. Or they point to natural tidal forces. Then there’s land use by humans since European settlement of the region nearly 400 years ago. Many draw the same convenient comparison.

“This is a miniature New Orleans,” said Eisenhauer, who oversees several nearby nature preserves for the Natural Lands Trust.

Eisenhauer’s analogy refers not merely to the Gulf Coast’s tidal wetlands, but also to the comparison between the Mississippi and Maurice rivers.

Near the mouth of the Maurice, a narrow road connects the village ofHeislerville with Matts Landing, which houses several marinas on state land. The road is so narrow that it fits only one lane of traffic each way, flanked by two two-foot strips of grass. Take another step, and you’re in the river.

Right now, this is what keeps the river’s channel where it is. Engineers and watermen agree: If the river breaks through, the Maurice’s path will veer off and abandon the fishing ports of Bivalve and Shellpile across the river.

The Maurice River Cove has other complications. A stretch of land called Basket Flats once divided the bay from Bivalve and Shellpile. It’s now eroded so much that there’s nothing left above water. In the 1990s, the state paid to sink barges there, along with a wall of riprap – which is essentially a wrap of protective concrete – to serve as an artificial reef. The plan failed. Water rushed in and split the barges from the riprap.

Local residents say the project would have fared better had the DEP listened to their suggestion that the riprap completely surround the barges or simply lose the barges and rely on riprap. Keiser clearly remembers township officials working with the DEP, however.

“The state created the problem. Poor engineering,” said Port Norris oysterman Barney Hollinger, a former Commercial Township committeeman and current head of the DEP’s Shellfish Council for the Delaware Bay. “They should’ve listened to us. We would’ve told them not to use the barges.”

Upriver, commercial and residential development in Millville has drastically increased, likely leading to more runoff.

Diked farms once lined the Maurice. At one remaining diked farm upriver, the water level is actually several feet higher than the farmland separated by a dike.

Snow geese have flocked to the river valley in recent years, eating clear a meadow near Matts Landing. Last year, the DEP was forced to close oyster beds after fecal coliform – likely from geese contaminated oyster beds in the bay. That “pollution line” – or “summer line,” as some call it – has now extended farther south than has ever been recorded.

State engineers are looking at the issue and discussing doing a 10-year study with the Army Corps of Engineers. At the same time, they realize some action needs to be taken soon, or this perfect erosion storm will leave the fishing industry based in Bivalve and Shellpille “high and dry,” as Hollinger said.

The question is who’s going to pay for the work. Estimates have placed the MattsLanding needs at $20 million and Basket Flats at $5 million. Bill Dixon, supervising environmental specialist for the DEP Bureau of Coastal Engineering, said the DEP would do the work if Commercial Township picked up one-fourth of the cost for Basket Flats, as is typically done on such projects.

“But the problem with the bayshore, there are small communities, not a lot of ratables,” said Keiser. “They can’t afford that type of payment.”

Commercial Township can’t. Even if the town could, its leaders refuse. Township Committeeman George Garrison and Hollinger say the DEP should pick up the full tab because it’s responsible for the failed Basket Flats project, while Matts Landing is state-owned.

Meanwhile, biologists at Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory in Bivalve and the nonprofit Partnership for the Delaware Estuary have been discussing an innovative solution: Brace the bay’s tidal rush with oyster reefs — essentially piles of oysters. In other places, such as Georgia and the southeast, oyster beds are piled so high with oysters that they serve as natural erosion control, according to Dave Bushek, an assistant professor of marine and coastal sciences at Rutgers.

But with no money in hand, that remains just an idea, discouraging even the bay’s most strident supporters, such as Danielle Kreeger, science director for the Partnership.

“We’re facing the reality that no matter what we do, we’re going to lose the fight,”Kreeger said. “No funding.”

To many, the bayshore’s plight is the same old story for southern New Jersey and the state government.

“It goes back to South Jersey always getting excuses rather than results,” said U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2, echoing many bayshore natives. “We always get the short end of the stick.”

“If this had been federal jurisdiction,” LoBiondo added, noting the huge Army Corps commitments along the Atlantic Coast from Cape May to Ocean County, “they would see much more results.”

State officials say that’s not the case.

And if it’s not, should the state pay millions of dollars to protect rapidly eroding shorelines? Or should government officials save the money and let “nature take its course,” as it has in Moores Beach and Thompsons Beach?

“So, the tale of loss of salt marsh is a yawn. Who cares?” said Farrell, the Stockton professor who once sought to buy a house on the bay in Fortescue. “Nobody has any houses. Nobody has any businesses. The hay farmer is long dead.

“They can stabilize the shoreline with structures, but it would be very expensive. But again, who cares? Maybe in Seabreeze, they care. In Fortescue, they care.”

Hours © Daniel Walsh 2020
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