Column: Climate change unfolding right before us

Tide levels in Peconic Bay are higher nowadays, and this is having profound repercussions in a number of critical areas.

For example, the company that owns the North Ferry, which provides service between Greenport and Shelter Island, is working on raising the level of its passenger dock on the Greenport side — where cars drive to board the ferry — by 16 inches to accommodate already higher tides as well as those expected in the future.

That company, the Heights Property Owners Corporation, will also lengthen the ramps cars drive onto to reach the ferry. The ramps need to be longer because low tides are also now more extreme. Once the work is completed in Greenport, the company will do similar work on Shelter Island.

“We are doing this to be proactive and get ahead of it,” said Bridg Hunt, the ferry’s general manager. “We have seen changes and we have to deal with these changes and anticipate what is coming.”

In recent years, Mr. Hunt said, high tides have been routinely higher and storms — named and unnamed — have funneled massive amounts of water between the two forks at higher levels on a more regular basis, pushing it up into narrow creeks and onto land. That’s why the company has to raise its dock level and why it has had to temporarily suspend service twice in recent months to deal with docking issues during very high tides — once for as long as 90 minutes.

There are places in our area where higher tides have pushed sand, beach gravel and shell material into critical wetland habitats, threatening to choke them. In one spot on the north shore of East Marion, the Grayson storm of January 2018 sliced down the embankment in front of one property, scooped out more than 37,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel and deposited it in Long Island Sound.

“It looked like a giant blade simply sliced down the embankment,” said Southold Trustees president Mike Domino.

Mr. Domino said the Grayson storm removed a total of more than 117,000 cubic yards of material along 24 miles of Long Island Sound beachfront. All that material was essentially dragged into the Sound.

The Peconic Bay system comprises approximately 155,000 acres. Just an inch of rain adds 4.2 billion gallons of water to that system; a five-inch rainfall brings in another 20 billion gallons. Add higher tides resulting from a nor’easter during a heavy rainstorm, plus runoff from soaked ground, and that number rises even higher.

Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 is considered a talking point in terms of high tides, but the January 2019 nor’easter that hit our area brought water levels comparable to Sandy, according to town Trustees vice president John Bredemeyer, “overtopping bulkheads and destroying environmental plantings behind them that were designed as permanent features.”

Mr. Bredemeyer pointed out several areas where the impact of higher tides can be seen:

• In Orient Harbor, the natural barrier between the harbor and Peter’s Neck Creek has “migrated landward in several areas upwards of 75 to 100 feet, overtopping the historic ridge of upper marsh that is the barrier protecting … the wetlands.”

• Orient Beach State Park has “sustained a massive loss of several hundred cubic yards of beach aggregate … adjacent to Park Road … Loss of beach height ranges up to five feet are seen in the park.”

• Sand migration “within Hallocks Bay is now increasingly filling intertidal wetlands there.”

• Grayson “uniformly cut the toe of the typically vegetated and stable Long Island Sound bluff from Orient to Laurel … destroying brand-new bluff stairs and bulkheads designed to last in excess of 30 years.”

“What we are seeing is on an almost daily basis,” Mr. Bredemeyer said. “The tide is higher and it comes with less encouragement from storms.”

To Mr. Hunt, whose company’s business is on the water, these higher tides “are less episodic and more of a trend … We’ve had hurricanes and nor’easters where this happened, but now less wind brings the ramp to that extreme height [where ferries can’t be offloaded.]”

Greenport Village Trustee Mary Bess Phillips, whose family is in the fishing business, said, “Years ago in a storm my front yard would not be flooded. Now, with each storm, it is coming up on the yard. Stirling Harbor is a prime example of what is going on.”

She said Silver Lake — a pond between Main Road and Moores Lane that is connected to Peconic Bay by what’s called Moores Drain — is being threatened by higher tides.

“It can’t drain because the tides are so high,” Ms. Phillips said.

She added that she’s worried higher tides will endanger the village sewer system. “If the water is higher than the drains, nothing will get out and that could impact the system,” she said.

The Southold Trustees are a permitting agency. They do not write code or make policy. But they see, with every application and every post-storm inspection, what is going on around them.

“I understand anecdotal evidence and a scientific metric,” Mr. Domino said. “We are certainly seeing more storms, stronger storms and more flooding per cycle in areas that historically flooded during major events.

“The Trustees recognize the need for a comprehensive, regional approach,” he added. “The ferry people are doing the right thing. But it won’t solve the larger issue. An ad hoc approach doesn’t work. This is beyond an individual issue. We all have to get together on this.”

Photo caption: The North Ferry pulls into a dock on Shelter Island. (Credit: Julie Lane, file)

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