Time and Tide: Will the erosion of Maryland’s Critical Areas Act mean even bigger trouble when the next Isabel comes along?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 22, 2003

Tropical Storm Isabel’s short visit exacted a pricey tribute on the Baltimore region’s shoreline. Thousands of homes were damaged and hundreds destroyed in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Well water in many low-lying communities remains contaminated from the polluted floodwaters. Piers, boats, and boat-lifts were battered, broken, or carried away, while sea walls failed in some places, allowing Isabel to scour away chunks of earth from people’s properties. Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point facility lost its multimillion-dollar power plant and had to close down production for six days. An Anne Arundel sewage-treatment plant also lost power, sending a hefty dose of untreated waste into Cox Creek near the city line. Baltimore City’s tourist-drawing waterfront choked on inventory losses, building damage, and missed business from Isabel’s historic tidal flood, which here and there breached the 100-year flood line. In all of Maryland, estimates of total losses from Isabel are in the hundreds of millions of dollars and climbing.

Given Isabel’s high cost and human suffering, it seems almost quaint to survey her effects on Baltimore County’s North Point State Park, a 1,300-acre tract of marsh, woodlands, fields, and bay-side frontage on the Dundalk peninsula between the Patapsco and Back rivers. But Steve Takos Sr., at 80 and after five surgeries in the past eight months, has good reason to visit on this sunny October afternoon. He first came here in 1937 as a duckpin-setter for a nickel a game, and later took tickets for amusement rides. That’s when it was Bay Shore Park, a resort on a trolley line that drew throngs from around the region to play on the water. One way or another, Takos has been working here ever since. When Beth Steel owned the property from 1946 to 1987, he served as a guide for Sparrows Point executives on lunch-hour hunting and fishing trips. Today, he’s a volunteer park ranger. His long past with the property now compels him to see how it fared in the flood.

“Holy Moses! I’ve never seen it this bad,” Takos exclaims as he stands at the foot of Ferry Grove Pier, where a cluster of waterfront buildings once sat, receiving visitors and trade from the Eastern Shore. Isabel tossed around the scattered remnants of the long-gone structures like so many grains of sand, creating high dunes of rock, brick, and Belgian block stretching back into the woods. Nestled among the mounds are hefty chunks from the shattered sea wall and pier, a section of which collapsed in a jumbled mass of cement and twisted rebar. “Thousand-pound boulders were just picked up and thrown” by the wind-driven waves, Takos marvels, adding that “this may have been worse than the storm of 1933,” which tore down the trolley line’s trestle bridge over nearby Shallow Creek.

Takos has already checked out the pounding the 1,000-foot-long fishing pier took (it’s closed indefinitely) and how storm-driven flotsam knocked the support posts of the restored trolley house out of whack. But he’s mystified by what he finds further up the park’s shoreline. Large trees toppled over a retreating bluff onto a newly expanded beach, where roughly 30 yards of high ground fell into the bay. A butte of sandy earth topped with grass and stones, eight feet high and five feet in diameter, was left standing like a sentry on the gouged-out shore. At its foot, a segment of old “corduroy road” was excavated by the bay’s storm-churned waters. Constructed of large timbers set side by side, the road served mule-drawn carts bringing building materials for the Bay Shore trolley line a century ago but has been buried for decades. The sudden reappearance of the corduroy road pleases Takos: “That’s one good thing [Isabel] did. I always said the tracks ran right through here, and there they are.”

He points to where a drowned section of Bay Shore’s sea wall pokes up through the tide a hundred or so yards offshore. Once a stout, six-mile-long barrier, he explains, the wall has since become an increasingly fragmented line of broken cement and rocks that here descends into open water, forming a shallow bay behind it. “There was all high land up to that sea wall,” he remarks while standing on the edge of the bluff. “Lost all of it in 60 years.” Takos has been around over the decades to watch firsthand as the bay swallowed up the land here. With Isabel’s help, it took another big bite.

The day after Takos’ visit to the park, on Oct. 10, a storm of another sort came down from the state’s highest court and took a bite out of the law designed to protect the bay’s shoreline. The 1984 Critical Areas Act governs development in almost 700,000 acres within a 1,000-foot strip around the Chesapeake Bay’s Maryland shoreline and virtually bans new construction inside a 100-foot buffer zone closest to the water–the so-called “critical areas” where new construction is reviewed, guided, and in some cases stopped altogether. In its final word on the case of Lewis vs. Department of Natural Resources, the seven-member Court of Appeals declined to reconsider a July decision that the three dissenting judges say hobbled the act. Unless the state legislature repairs the damage to the law–and it is expected to try in the coming session that starts in January–planning boards in the 16 bay-side counties and 45 municipalities affected by it can expect to see property owners try to exploit the Court of Appeals decision with new building proposals. Already, “it’s seeping into arguments that we are hearing on the local levels,” says Martin Madden, a former Republican state senator from Howard County who in late spring was named chair of the Critical Areas Commission charged with implementing the law.

North Point State Park’s eroding waterfront has a lesson to teach about the Critical Areas Act: Government may try to legislate development along the shore front, but nature bats last. Scientists expect the coming decades to bring more frequent and stronger storms for the Mid-Atlantic, as the bay rises in step with global sea-level rises. If the experts are right, North Point’s history serves as a graphic harbinger of what ultimately can happen to shoreline development: buildings and piers smashed by the sea, once solid ground eaten away and reclaimed by flooding and erosion. By paving the way for more bay-side development, the Appeals Court’s decision on Lewis virtually assures that more property owners will face those inexorable natural forces in the future, likely losing homes, improvements, and raw acreage in the bargain.

“The [Critical Areas] Act says it’s good to move people out of that buffer area for the bay’s sake,” says J. Court Stevenson, an ecologist and sea-level rise expert at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences near Cambridge. The law, he points out, theoretically gives the Chesapeake more of a chance to rebound from its various environmental ills by discouraging human activity directly on its shoreline. But, he adds, rising seas and violent storms “show that it’s also good to move people out of the buffer for people’s sake.”

Crafting a passable critical-areas bill back in 1984 meant pulling a few of its teeth. Thousands of undeveloped parcels were legally partitioned into buildable lots before the law took effect and grandfathered in, Madden and the Critical Areas Commission’s executive director, Ren Serey, explain in an interview, but there is no way to estimate how many or their combined acreage. And the law designates 5 percent of land as a “resource conservation area,” subject to a low development density of one dwelling per 20 acres, to be reclassified by local planning boards in a “growth allocation” process to allow more intense uses. The law’s untapped–and largely unknown–potential for future shoreline development is enormous. The only way to slow that growth is for legislators to change the law.

The law’s built-in weaknesses are the source of much browbeating from people who expected it to have done more to rein in waterfront development as its second decade begins. State Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat and member of the General Assembly’s joint Committee on Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas, voiced this sentiment with great frustration at a July 7 committee hearing: “How do we allow them to do these things? I thought that’s what we were all about, making sure that kind of development didn’t happen anymore. I thought that is what we were here for.”

“You all need to get some teeth,” chided Calvert County Democrat Del. George Owings III at the hearing. He told the story of how novelist Tom Clancy cleared a wide swath of trees down to the waterfront of his Calvert County property, “and got a tiny little fine.” “Just pay the fine and take the view, that’s what’s happening here,” Owings said.

Madden had an answer to that. “Enforcement is spotty, inconsistent, and deteriorating,” he told the joint committee. “It’s easier [for property owners] to pay a $500 fine and freely develop the property.” His solution: “We will probably look for penalties in the area of $10,000 instead of $500. We will also work to allow the local governments to refer to the commission on a voluntary basis a violation that they feel maybe they just don’t have the ability to handle because they are overwhelmed with other issues.” Madden also pointed out that the commission has no powers to strengthen its rules or enforcement powers: “The legislature has to do that.”

Madden didn’t have an answer to a big-picture gripe from the committee’s co-chair, state Sen. Roy Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat: “The truth of the matter is, what has happened with the bay cleanup is that it has stalled. Million-dollar homeowners support the bay cleanup without understanding their own contributions to the problem.”

The contributions Dyson referred to are actually codified as “findings” in the critical-areas act, making it a matter of law in Maryland that human activities like building and tree-clearing and their cumulative effects harm the bay, while minimizing such activity aids in the bay’s restoration. But Dyson’s allegation of hypocrisy among wealthy waterfront property owners underscores one of the law’s most noticeable impacts: rising property values in the critical areas.

The ink had hardly dried from then-Gov. Harry Hughes’ pen before the land rush started on properties within its yet-to-be-drawn border. Prices started going up immediately, and they’ve never stopped. As a result, wealthier people have been supplanting middle-class waterfront owners. “McMansions are springing up where bungalows used to be,” an Anne Arundel County planner puts it. With the monied property owners come lawyers. From 1984 until 1999, the Critical Areas Act went largely unhindered by adverse court decisions. Then, before the Lewis decision came down, three cases hit the Court of Appeals in succession, and the unanimous rulings of the court knocked open loopholes for more development. As a result, the General Assembly in 2002 revisited and strengthened the act.

Enter Edwin Lewis and his lawyer, Raymond Smethurst Jr. of Salisbury. Working for apparel-industry giants Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren had been good to Lewis, an avid hunter who’s long enjoyed the Eastern Shore at his waterfront estate. In 1999 he added to his idyllic holdings, buying up nearly 300 acres of Wicomico County marshland. In the middle of it is a five-acre hummock, a rise in the marsh with trees growing on it, where in early 2000 Lewis proceeded to build a hunting lodge, four cabins, and a shed–all of it without permits and all of it inside the 100-foot critical area buffer zone.

Construction was almost over before anyone noticed. Once the authorities caught up with Lewis, Smethurst stepped in, bringing his experience working for those accused on the Eastern Shore of breaking land-use laws. Lewis didn’t purposefully break the critical-area rules, Smethurst explained. Then Lewis sought a zoning variance to allow the lodge and one cabin to remain in the buffer area. When it was denied, Lewis had Smethurst appeal it all the way up to the top–and won, because the court ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show the project harmed the environment.

To Ren Serey, who’s been the executive director of the Critical Areas Commission since 1995, the Lewis ruling was a serious blow both to the commission and to zoning laws generally in Maryland. First off, he explains, it shifted the burden of proof from the property owner to the government in assessing the potential harm a project may cause. Thus, instead of requiring property owners to show local planning boards why their projects would not cause harm, it’s now up to the government to show why the project would cause harm. “That’s new,” says Serey, “and in our viewpoint, a significant burden on local government, both in and outside the critical areas, because now they, not the applicant, have to prove the question of harm.”

The ruling also flouted “the self-imposed hardship rule,” Serey argues. Now, the fact that something has already been built without permits, and that the remedy–removing the structure–would be a “self-imposed hardship,” can be used to argue that it should be allowed to stay. “The court even said,” Serey continues, “that the fact that Mr. Lewis actually started constructing these cabins benefited everybody because he could use their construction to prove that he wasn’t causing harm.” Finally, Serey contends that the court overlooked the findings of the legislature about the cumulative human impacts that harm the bay.

Appeals Court Judge Alan Wilner minced no words in his dissenting opinion on the Lewis case, in which he was joined by two other judges. “This was not just a disagreement over a point of law,” he writes of the 4-3 ruling. “In my view . . . the majority Opinion was deliberately designed, and, unless the General Assembly acts swiftly and decisively, may be effective, not only to dismantle the critical areas program but to seriously weaken fundamental zoning and land use controls generally.” Wilner further wrote that the decision was as “an invitation to the very kind of lawless behavior that occurred in this case–ignore the law, destroy the habitat and build where the law does not permit, do it all in secret, and then claim hardship.”

The majority opinion on Lewis plays down the case’s broader impact. But within days after the Lewis decision came down on July 31, Madden recalls, “we had a hearing in Anne Arundel County where a local zoning examiner had a complaint by some neighbors that a person was building their house much larger than had previously existed within the sensitive buffer area. And it was pointed out that this person had already built it, so to tear it down would be a big inconvenience, but it is a self-imposed hardship, so be it. And the hearing examiner made the comment that, ‘Well, until three days ago, I would have thought that was the case.’ I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of that.”

The build-first, ask-questions-later mentality is alive and well along the bay. Serey doesn’t know the total number of violations found annually, but says construction without permits is a regular occurrence and that they are usually discovered after a neighbor complains. If the Lewis ruling ends up encouraging lawlessness, as Judge Wilner predicts, and if the fines imposed for breaking the act aren’t increased, the mentality is likely to bloom, resulting in even greater investment in bay-side improvements. To Court Stevenson, the University of Maryland sea-level expert, the whole trend is ass-backward.

Stevenson is standing on what he thinks may be one of the highest points in Dorchester County, the waterside lawn of the Horn Point Laboratory near Cambridge. At the bottom of the grassy slope heading down to the banks of the Choptank River is a sea wall, with a tumble of large rocks behind it. Isabel’s flood tide breached both the wall and the rocks, allowing the bay to scour out large patches of earth and grass along the steep riverbank. Stevenson has worked here since 1972 and says he’s never seen a storm do this.

“We really can’t say what will happen with these storms,” he muses, “so that’s why talking about futures is dicey.” But he does know that the seas are warming measurably on on the Atlantic, which is fueling more hurricanes to hit the Mid-Atlantic coast. “We’re now prone to storm activity that 100 years ago we wouldn’t have seen, with hurricanes just lining up from Africa,” he says. “Isabel did this, and it wasn’t even technically a hurricane anymore. Get a category 2 or 3 hurricane in here, and really get a surge in here–instead of seven feet, say, get eight feet–and there’s going to be wholesale damage.”

So the damage from Isabel, Stevenson hopes, will be read as a warning sign to keep new development out of harm’s way. And, in planning circles, that’s exactly how Isabel was interpreted. “There was a large difference between what was forecast in terms of flooding and what ultimately came to pass,” Baltimore City planner Peter Conrad explains. “In some areas of the city and elsewhere, the water came above the 100-year tidal flood line on the maps used to determine the flood zone for insurance and permitting purposes.”

Ultimately, after a lengthy public process that has yet to begin, new maps could move that line farther inland. “We may add another half-foot or foot of elevation on all new construction” in the city’s flood-prone areas in order to reduce potential storm damage in the future. This “will take several years,” Conrad says, but its impact on shoreline development could be significant. “From the city’s perspective,” he concludes, “we want to encourage development along our tidal area, but we need for it to be safe for 50 or 100 years.”

Stevenson’s research has for years now been focused on trying to help planners like Conrad figure out what more storms and flooding could mean in the context of rising sea levels. The observed rise at the Baltimore City tide gauge is 13 inches from 1903 to 2003, but Stevenson says “most of us believe that we’re seeing an acceleration, and that the rise could be two or even three feet in the next century. Unless we get the greenhouse-gas problem under control–because that’s what’s really driving the rise, the warming atmosphere due to greenhouse gases–it’s just going to get harder and harder and harder in low-lying areas.

“But you’ve got to watch yourself when talking about this stuff,” he jokes. “If you start worrying about this too much, people start to wonder about your sanity.”

Stevenson reaches down and uses his index finger to draw in the sand a profile of a house, the shore, and the sea. “Here’s what Jim Titus says we should do,” he begins. Titus is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s top sea-level expert, and has long been involved with how the issue pertains to the Chesapeake. “He says let the tide come up, move the houses back, and then buy shore front easements to protect the land in between. But it’s not clear where the money for all those easements will come from. I think it’s more likely that people harden the shoreline to keep the sea-level rise out, with sea walls or bulkheads. And that causes all sorts of ecological problems.”

“There are choices that sea-level rise confronts us with,” Jim Titus explained during a seminar at a national coastal-zone management conference held at the Baltimore Convention Center in mid-July. “But they boil down to this question: Are we going to hold back the sea, or are we going to let our wetlands migrate inland?

“In Maryland, property owners can hold back the sea where they choose to hold back the sea,” he continued. “The general policy seems to be to encourage armoring [the shoreline] and discourage coastal development.” But, he pointed out, conservation easements in Maryland–legal arrangements that, for a price, take away development rights from property owners–don’t affect the right to armor the shoreline, so there would have to be a change in the law to use easements to allow inundated wetlands to re-establish themselves further inland. “We simply haven’t yet completely decided what we intend to do,” he concluded.

Kerry Kehoe, who recently came to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to direct its coastal program, shares Titus’ and Stevenson’s concerns about how to handle sea-level rise. But he also foresees people’s reactions when they get warning signs that the seas are coming too close to home. “Storm surges and flooding will send a message to get out of there,” he predicted at the coastal conference. “The physical impacts will start to make it obvious–erosion, flooding, higher water tables causing contaminated drinking-water supplies.” Along the undeveloped Chesapeake shoreline, Kehoe points out that “there are still plenty of potential wetland-migration areas” where bulkheads have not been constructed. “The bad news is those very same areas are under substantial development pressure–that’s where people want to live.”

That’s also where the Critical Areas Act was intended to limit growth and development. But, in Stevenson’s estimation, the law’s constraints have had limited–and sometimes dubious–effects. “I think it’s had an impact,” he says with a note of irony. “I’m not so sure it’s all positive, though.” The first thing that comes to mind is the land rush back when the law first passed, which created all those untold thousands of grandfathered tracts. Then there’s the issue of wealth and class: Rising land values in the critical areas mean the waterfront is less and less available to the working-class people who have traditionally lived along the bay. And finally, he points out–and Serey and Madden confirm this–the fact that the 1,000-foot critical-area line doesn’t move inland with sea-level rise, but remains based on wetlands maps drawn in 1972. Although the 100-foot buffer line does shift with rising sea-level, property owners are entitled to bulkhead back to the 1972 tide line.

“The act largely ignores the unavoidable issue of sea-level rise,” Stevenson contends, “and ultimately that’s going to reduce the amount of land subject to it.”

“In the long run,” Stevenson says of the Critical Areas Act, “it had a lot of good ideas, good concepts” about what harms the bay and the human role in that harm. But he says it “hasn’t really delivered” the goods in terms of lessening human impacts. “I don’t know exactly, but it seems to me it hasn’t stopped much development, even in the buffer zone.” He’s waiting for local governments to use up their growth allocations–something that Madden says is years away–because then, presumably, much of the new construction on vacant shoreline will cease. “When the growth allocation really runs out, that’s when I’ll be happy,” he says

Madden, though, defends the act’s impacts. Despite the grandfathering and the growth allocations, it still has significant muscle, he says, and the legislature is always free to strengthen however it sees fit. “We’re going to look for Senator Dyson and Delegate [Barbara] Frush to take the lead on that, based on our recommendations.” Dyson and Frush, the oversight committee’s co-chairs, did not return phone calls about possible critical-areas legislation to be introduced in the coming session.

In the meantime, Madden explains, about 2,000 projects go through critical-areas review each year, a process that sends the commission’s staff through a proposal’s details with a fine-tooth comb, looking to make sure the design and construction minimizes harm to the bay. And that process, along with the more stringent requirements in the buffer zone, has made for more sensible, if not less, development.

“It is going to be interesting,” Madden says, “to compare the damage from Isabel to affected properties that were built after the critical area law took effect, as opposed to properties that existed prior to that. Because I think you’ll find that the development that took place after the critical area law, where we protected the buffer as much as possible while still accommodating growth, had much less damage than pre-existing properties that were built within the buffer right up to the shore. There are good environmental reasons to have a buffer . . . but I think Isabel shows that there are good, sound economical reasons to have a buffer also.”

The question is, how protected is that buffer after the Lewis ruling? And if it is in fact gutted, will expensive, newly developed properties soon face the fate of the thousands of homes hit hard by Isabel–and, in the long run, the fate of Bay Shore Park. Sea-level rise and hurricanes will ultimately rule the shape and scope of future shoreline development, but for now, repeats Madden, shoring up the Critical Areas Act is “up to the legislature.”

Aquageddon: A disappearing island shows what rising sea levels mean for the Chesapeake Bay

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Apr. 17, 2013

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My trusty handheld GPS helps keep me safe while kayaking, letting me know precisely where I am on a map. But bringing it along on kayaking trips, it turns out, can serve more than my own personal safety: It’s also a useful tool to map the land-devouring effects of sea-level rise in the Chesapeake Bay.

On April 21, 2007, I kayaked around James Island (pictured), at the mouth of the Little Choptank River, in Dorchester County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The outing, for which I made camp at the nearby Taylor’s Island Family Campground, was part of my research for an article about exploring the Chesapeake Bay’s vanishing islands (“Wetlands,” Feature, May 23, 2007), about 40 of which oceanographer William Cronin had chronicled in his 2005 book, The Disappearing Islands of the Chesapeake.

As Cronin pointed out, sea-level rise in the bay had been estimated at 3 feet per millennium until about 1900, but then, over the course of the 20th century, a 1-foot rise was observed-an acceleration that washed away at least three notable islands and was eating away at the rest.

As I circumnavigated James Island in 2007, hugging the shoreline as closely as possible while dodging fallen pine trees partially submerged in the murky water, my GPS recorded my route, laying it out like a bread-crumb trail on its map. In the end, I’d mapped the contours of the island’s shore-or, rather, the coastline of its three islets, since James is no longer a single island.

 

In 1914, J. Fred. Hunter of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) studied several of the Chesapeake’s fast-eroding islands near the Choptank and Little Choptank rivers, including James Island. After chronicling the land-loss facts based on available evidence, Hunter hazarded a guess: James Island “should disappear in about 150 years,” while adding the blanket caveat that “numerous other factors may enter to disturb the present conditions and rate of erosion.”

Interestingly, should James Island’s land-loss rate of the past six years continue apace, Hunter’s prediction that it will have vanished by 2064 would prove quite prescient. If it continues to lose about 67 percent of its acreage every six years, by 2064 only a third of an acre would remain.

Since I can’t paddle over land, and wasn’t willing to trespass on the Oyster Creek farmland to walk the edge of its cliffs with my GPS, it’s anybody’s guess how much of its acreage has been lost-and how much more will calve off into the bay in the future. But more will; as James Island’s destruction continues, the shore it protected from the waves will take ever-worse beatings and more direct hits by wind-driven waves.

Meanwhile, Hunter’s caveat in making his prediction about James Island’s disappearance-the “other factors”-recently entered into play. The fact that the Chesapeake region’s land continues to subside, thanks to a combination of long-term regional settling of the Earth’s crust after the glaciers last melted, starting about 18,000 years ago, and the more recent drawing down of groundwater as population swelled, only compounds the sea’s accelerating encroachment on land. And that encroachment, based on recent science, is becoming more and more worrisome.

In a paper appearing last June in Nature Climate Change, USGS researchers identified a 1,000-mile long “hotspot” on the East Coast between Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and just north of Cape Cod in Massachusetts – which includes the bay – where sea-level rise has accelerated at three to four times the global average over the last 20 years. This discovery was followed in October by a Geophysical Research Letters paper by a two-man, British-American team of oceanographers who found that the bay’s sea-level rise may have sped up from 1 to 3 millimeters per year in the 1930s to 4 to 10 millimeters per year so far in the 2000s. If the 10-millimeter high end holds true in the future, then the bay’s water will rise a little bit more in the next 100 years than it did in the 1,000 years prior to 1900.

In short, scientists recently started to detect a “hockey stick” shape to the sea-level-rise curve for the Chesapeake Bay, which would spell faster-arriving impacts from the already-expected inundation resulting from climate change. No wonder, then, that James Island’s land loss has been appreciably faster in the last six years than in the preceding period back to 1848. It’s just one example of a near-endless litany of anxiety-inducing repercussions that faster-rising seas are expected to have on the bay.

Stevenson, who says he first came to live on and study the bay in 1972, says that “when I first started talking about sea-level rise, people thought it was just sort of flat-it was increasing but it wasn’t accelerating. But now it is inflecting upwards, and that spells trouble. You just get much more erosion since the water level is higher and higher in the flood plain, and the wave attack is much, much higher, and places that once were underwater only a few hours a day get inundated much more of the day, so they just keep getting this wave action that just keeps beating on it. If sea level is inflecting upwards, then it’s all just going to happen a lot quicker than we had seen in previous centuries of sea-level rise. And that, in a nutshell, is what a number of us who are concerned about sea-level rise are worried about.”

Not surprisingly, such worries have been getting high-level attention.

On Dec. 28, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed an executive order that, had it been read at the time by Marylanders trying to enjoy a holiday break from their routines, would likely have caused some to choke on their eggnog.

It’s purpose was dry enough-that state agencies incorporate the risk of inundation from coastal flooding and sea-level rise into all planning for future state-capital projects, that agency construction projects be built at least 2 feet above the 100-year flood line, and that additional recommendations for safely building or renovating state structures in light of sea-level rise be devised quickly. But its preamble-the “Whereas” section-cited the recent USGS “hotspot” study to tick off a list of current and anticipated problems sea-level rise entails. Among them were:

-“The State of Maryland is currently losing approximately 580 acres every year to shore erosion.”

-“Alarmingly, thirteen Chesapeake Bay islands once mapped on nautical charts have been lost.”

-“Future changes in sea level threaten to increase the State of Maryland’s vulnerability to storm events, causing more shore erosion and severe coastal flooding, inundating low-lying lands, submerging tidal wetlands and marshes, and resulting in additional salt-water intrusion, and high water tables.”

-“The State of Maryland has approximately 450 existing State-owned facilities and 400 miles of roadways within areas likely to be impacted by sea level rise over the next 100 years.”

-“Billions of dollars of investments in public infrastructure will be threatened if the State of Maryland fails to prepare adequately for climate change.”

In the neighboring state of Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell (D) got into the act in January, with a “state of the state” address that envisioned a future so threatened by rising seas-and especially the hurricanes that come with them-that the time has arrived to do triage on what can and cannot be protected. Calling last fall’s Superstorm Sandy a “wakeup call,” Markell said that Delaware must start “strengthening dikes and dams, conserving wetlands, improving drainage, or nourishing beaches,” but “the need for this infrastructure exceeds the resources available,” so the state must have a “frank conversation” about how to “prioritize and finance projects, so that we protect what we can and make realistic choices about what we cannot.”

There have long been such frank conversations about restoring the bay’s vanishing islands with dredging spoils, 3 to 4 million cubic yards of which are scooped out of the bay’s channels each year to keep the Port of Baltimore accessible to ships. Since 2006, James Island has been one of the islands selected to be built back up this way, as part of something called the Mid-Chesapeake Bay Island Ecosystem Restoration Program, which would provide new uplands and wetlands as wildlife habitat and also recreate a buffer to help protect the Little Choptank River coastline from ongoing loss of land. But other than studies-many of them have been conducted, providing a wealth of details about James Island’s history, ecology, and geology-there’s been no further action.

The project is “unfortunately stalled,” says Maryland state Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-District 37B), who represents several bay-facing Eastern Shore counties and strongly supports the program. The reason, she says, is that it relies on “federal money that has not been dedicated other than to planning.” Still, she stresses the need to “shore up those islands” to provide a buffer for communities and landowners to the east.

“The longer we put it off,” she says, “the more expensive and harder it is to rectify.” She says that on Hooper’s Island, just south of Taylor’s Island, “gravesites have been going into the water” and notes that “it’s amazing, the cliffs that have been created” by the gouging action of the waves hitting the shore.

At Taylor’s Island Family Campground, owner Bruce Coulson has a front-row seat to the damage wrought by sea-level rise. He and his group, the Dorchester County Shoreline Erosion Group, have long promoted ways to reduce the force of the waves pounding the shoreline in these parts so the bay’s increasingly ravenous appetite for nearby land will be slowed. He has good reason: The bay’s been stealing away his land-though not as fast as it’s been taking it from other nearby landowners, thanks to the huge chunks of concrete he’s placed along his shoreline. Each weighs 15,000 to 20,000 pounds, he estimates, yet the waves of Superstorm Sandy still managed to move them. Of the 15 acres of land that once comprised this parcel, 11 remain. “The other four is out there in the bay,” he says.

The land loss on Taylor’s Island and other parts of the Little Choptank River waterfront, including a lot of farmland, “just keeps adding pollutants and nutrients and sediments to the bay,” he says. “It’s terrible. It’s chewing off everything. You can sit there and do all you want to clean up the bay, but until you control something like this, you’re just not doing the job.”

One option, he says, is offshore breakwaters to reduce the force of the waves hitting the shoreline. Do that, he says, and coastal property owners might stand a chance to establish “living shorelines” that are being promoted as an environmentally sustainable alternative to lining the shore with heavy rocks. If there were breakwaters, which he estimates would cost about $70 million, based on studies from the late 1990s, “then you can probably put in your living shorelines up and down the bay, but you’ve got to stop that force from coming at you first.”

Another idea Coulson tosses out concerns the imminent problems at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River, which since the 1920s has been holding back huge volumes of sediment that otherwise would have entered the bay. It is nearing capacity, and when it does, new sediments coming down the Susquehanna will simply enter the bay unimpeded, unless something is done. “They’re talking about dredging it,” he says, “and I’m thinking, put it all on barges and dump it off at James Island.”

“If you put that island back in there, you’ve built a breakwater,” Coulson says. Without it, he says, “when James Island is completely gone, up here at Oyster Cove it’s going to really nail us with the northwest wind. There’s farmland that’ll go, but what’s next is the road, and then the county’s going to have to spend a lot of money.”

Until something is done, though, Coulson’s campground will continue to take a beating, protected by the concrete chunks. Erosion has gouged out a cove just south of his property, and during a visit, a stiff breeze was slamming waves relentlessly into the roots of the adjacent pine forest. The bay’s water was thick and gray with sediment, which was being carried northward in discolored tidal currents as downed pine trunks pounded around in the surf.

This is what active, everyday erosion looks like, and it’s not pretty. It looks like what it is: pollution. As the seas continue to rise, scenes like this will become more and more commonplace along the bay’s shores, eating away land and further undermining the bay’s health.

Stevenson knows Coulson and says he “has a lot of good common sense, and he’s a good observer.” But Stevenson is not as sold as Coulson is that rebuilding James Island or building offshore breakwaters is a solution. “I don’t think we can solve it,” Stevenson says of the inexorable erosion caused by winds and waves carried by rising seas. While agreeing that the active loss of large amounts of farming may be a serious pollution issue for the bay-“there’s a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous associated with farmland,” he says, “and 30 acres has a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous that’s going into the bay, as well as the sediment itself that makes the water murky”-he’s essentially gloomy about the whole problem. “We might be able to protect some things and slow it down,” he says, “but I don’t think there’s a fix.”

The bleak outlook seems uncharacteristic for a man whose career has been dedicated to finding smart ways to reverse the long decline of the bay’s ecological health. Yet there it is: “I think that we’re just going to get submersion of land,” he says. “And we’re just going to see more open water.” He holds out a depressing fact for consideration: “We’ve looked at how much marsh is being formed versus how much we are losing-for every 10 acres that we’ve lost, we’ve only gained one over the last 30 years. I’m pessimistic.”

The very real prospect of climate change driving sea-level rise at a quickening pace, and more so in the bay than most other parts of the world, has Stevenson very worried, and he wonders about the wisdom of attempting to concoct technological fixes for the symptoms rather than treating the disease, which he says is clear: the rise in greenhouse-gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, in the modern era. “If you really look at the expense for the whole Eastern Seaboard and maybe part of the Gulf Coast” for preparing for more rapidly rising sea levels, “it’s maybe better to do something about containing greenhouse gases. But that argument doesn’t seem to have much resonance.”

Major hurricanes – not like Isabel in 2003 or Agnes in 1972, but ones like the one that stormed up the bay in 1938 and is etched in the Eastern Shore’s collective memory – are what make Stevenson “pull my hair out with worry,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time” before one hits, he says, “and it really will be formidable. There’s a lot of places that now exist that won’t. Baltimore is not immune either, with the surge amplified as you go up the bay. It may come in at 3 to 5 feet at the mouth of the bay, and reach 10 feet as you get up to Baltimore. Sea-level rise keeps adding to your base water level, and then you get the storm and what used to be a problem is now a mega-disaster.”

The technological fixes for that kind of threat are truly huge public-works projects, he says, and he has at times brought them up, “arguing that maybe we really start to think about a tidal gate” across the Patapsco River. “That’s what it’ll take, if you really want to keep the infrastructure that you’ve got around the Baltimore harbor, especially if we get this acceleration in the sea-level rise,” he continues, “but it’s billions of dollars for something like that, and then you have Annapolis and Norfolk to worry about too.

“We’re on the edge of a major change, I think, and it’s almost getting to be inevitable,” he continues. “Even the bay cleanup, I think, is at risk, because you see all the pollution just from the erosional processes that we’re going to have to take care of, even more so than in the past, and I don’t know if we can really spend that much money on it. I don’t know what the willingness to pay is to keep the bay in good shape, as global warming and sea-level rise really has a major, growing impact, and I think it’s going to get harder and harder to control the forces we’re unleashing.”

Like most people, Stevenson says he “would like to leave something for the next generation, and I always thought that we could make a big dent here, in terms of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.” In the early 1980s, when the bay cleanup program really got into gear, “I thought at that point, Well, they’re probably a little trigger-happy, trying to do too much too quickly. But I thought we had a chance to make a dent. After 30 years, I’m not so sure right now. I think sea-level rise is going to bite us in the ass.”

By the time that happens, James Island will likely have already been bitten out of existence. As long as it’s still around, though, its shrinking, sinking acreage can serve as a reminder that, at the very least, people and leaders around the bay need to prepare for an increasingly inundated future.