MILTON, Del. -- More than 180 homes sit squeezed on a spit of land between the Delaware Bay and what was until 2008 Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge's main freshwater marsh.
Today, the marsh is an expansive, brackish pond. A series of storms, culminating in last year's Superstorm Sandy, punched breaches through the dunes protecting its freshwater vegetation, destroying 4,000 acres of habitat -- and the flood protection it provided the private Prime Hook Beach community.
Driving down a narrow road bridging the former wetlands, Al Rizzo of the Fish and Wildlife Service eagerly pointed out wild birds wading through the muddy water -- a great egret here, a passel of ruddy ducks there.
But Rizzo was less eager to talk about the homes at road's end, where residents say a federal government plan to spend $40 million to restore the refuge, near Milton, is starting years too late.
And while Delaware officials insist that flood protection will be only a side benefit of the federal restoration, a local environmental group argues it is the homes themselves -- not the wetlands -- the government is working to save.
As sea levels rise and storm surges intensify, disputes like the one surrounding Prime Hook over how public resources should be used to protect private coastal properties are playing out up and down the Atlantic Coast.
"It's the land of the damned," said Rizzo, charged with overseeing the restoration project. "But we're trying to change that. I think people realize we're trying."
Erosion, litigation and 'the horror'
Since the breaches formed in the dunes protecting the marsh, a high tide is enough to send waters surging in, pouring over the road and into backyards and basements.
"I don't know if I can put it into words, the horror of it all," said Diane McConnell, a retired Philadelphia lawyer who purchased a $550,000 Prime Hook home six years ago. She pays a $5,000 insurance deductible each time her home floods, which she estimates has happened 10 to 15 times.
"I feel absolutely trapped," McConnell said. "I can't leave because I can't sell the house."
Prime Hook homeowners are furious FWS has taken more than five years to repair the dunes. Along the road splitting the community's two lines of houses, visitors soon notice yellow signs that read: "FIX THE BREACHES. STOP THE FLOODING."
Something was done to fix breaches in 2011 -- it just didn't go well, kicking off the debate over how the refuge's resources should be used to protect the nearby houses.
In 2010, FWS announced a plan to use refuge sand to repair the dune line but was delayed by a lawsuit filed by the Delaware Audubon Society and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The groups asserted that protecting private property was beyond the mission of the refuge.
PEER and Delaware Audubon lost the case, however, and in October 2011, bulldozers scraped up a new 4,000-foot sand berm onto refuge land and private Prime Hook property.
But a high tide broke through the berm in less than a week. Before October's end, PEER reported that four more breaches had formed, convincing Delaware Audubon the problem can't be fixed.
"There are some areas where we can protect and buy time, and there are some areas that we can't," said Delaware Audubon President Mark Martell. "What we have to get more serious about is understanding when you cross the threshold."
Reinforcing an earlier plan
Caught between Audubon and the homeowners, Rizzo, who was hired as project leader this June, is under intense pressure to get the job done right this time.
As he explained to a standing-room-only crowd in Milford in early November, the current plan aims to do more than fill the breaches. FWS will also replace the ruined freshwater marsh with a saltwater marsh behind the repaired dunes, filling the damaged area with a dense mat of native grasses that have proved more resilient to storm surges and sea-level rise in other parts of the refuge.
The $20 million dune fix is funded through the Interior Department's $475 million in Sandy disaster relief appropriations announced in May. The $19.8 million marsh project is funded as part of Interior's $162 million for coastal climate resiliency projects announced in October (E&ENews PM, May 7; Greenwire, Oct. 24).
Rizzo explained that if waves again break through the dunes, the marsh, when established, will help absorb the surge, offering some protection to both the homeowners and the farmlands behind the refuge, now plagued by saltwater intrusion.
Prime Hook homeowner John Robinson said after attending the presentation that this method seems like a "sensible approach."
"When everything gets put in place, I think it will protect our community," Robinson said.
But David Carter, Delaware Audubon's conservation chairman, called it a "poster child for maladaptation."
"Why would you put it in a high-hazard area that is going to be very difficult to maintain, and is that a smart public investment?" Carter asked. "This is all about protecting a road and protecting some landowners."
Restoration for the birds, or the homes?
But officials now stress the importance of saving the refuge's habitat, insisting that any flood protection the restoration grants to homes is an ancillary benefit. This is partially because restoration won't completely solve the problem, they say.
"During the most extreme storms, during the heaviest precipitations, there will still be flood impacts," said Collin O'Mara, secretary of the environment and energy for Gov. Jack Markell. "It's a much more resilient system, but it's not a catch-all to some of the challenges they have been facing."
However, Carter and Martell argue the $40 million would not have been made available if the Prime Hook community didn't exist.
Delaware politicians seem unclear on this point. In 2012, the Delaware congressional delegation highlighted the homeowners in a letter to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"Time is of the essence in moving forward with a plan for this refuge," wrote Sen. Tom Carper, Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. John Carney, all Democrats. "Some of the changes to the Refuge include ... significant flooding of sensitive habitat, the community of Prime Hook Beach and the community's sole access road."
But when asked whether the $40 million was provided to help Prime Hook homeowners, a Carper spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that wetlands are "one of the best and most cost-effective defenses against rising sea levels and coastal flooding" but did not mention the Prime Hook community.
"The purpose of using federal funding to restore the marshes at Prime Hook is to preserve these vital wetlands and protect the countless species that rely on this habitat," she wrote.
Rizzo also emphasizes the project is to help wildlife, not people: "If it was just a matter of us protecting the community," he said, "we would have put in a sea wall. Marsh restoration is not cheap."
Long-term federal project?
Audubon believes Delaware's leaders should instead allocate the $40 million toward buying out Prime Hook homeowners. The restoration project, Carter argues, simply grants the community a false sense of security, postponing what he believes is inevitable.
"And that is, when the time comes, how will we relocate those guys? And I think that's going to happen in decades."
Carter, who until 2011 was the environmental program manager for Delaware Coastal Programs, argues a hurricane could wipe out the sand barrier protecting the not-yet-established marsh grasses, leading to the need for frequent, costly repairs.
Rizzo also acknowledges this possibility but says it has already been worked into the budget. "Let's face it: We're working in a dynamic environment," he said.
He also concedes that sea-level rise could shorten the new marsh's life span. According to an FWS document, sea levels on Delaware's coast have gone up by 13 inches over the last century, and over the past 64 years, the refuge's beach has receded about 500 feet.
Christopher Sommerfield, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Delaware, said this will continue. "The natural progression of that entire shoreline is going to move landward and upward with time and with sea-level rise."
Based on FWS's modeling on sea-level rise, Rizzo estimates the restored marsh should last 30 years after completion. But abandoning the damaged marsh "isn't a viable alternative," Rizzo said, arguing that giving 4,000 acres of habitat another three decades of life is "really a small investment for a public resource."
Sommerfield agreed. "There are some things that have to happen in just the right way for this restoration to be successful," he said, but added that it's worth the trouble. "If those inlets do open up ... we stand to lose a lot of real estate."
Sitting in the refuge offices, where maps of the damaged marshland and engineering plans cover the walls, Rizzo dismissed the idea of using the $40 million to buy out homes.
"Congress gave us a mandate. Our options are somewhat limited," he said. "Should the money be spent in a different direction? That was Congress' decision, not ours."