Several shovel-ready projects being funded by the stimulus bill could be scuba-ready within the century.
Highways, housing and a school receiving some $60 million under President Obama's massive economic recovery plan face increased flooding -- or complete submersion -- within the lifetime of his daughters, environmental groups and scientists warned yesterday.
Take Highway 87 in Texas. The paved strip pokes south like a pin along Bolivar Peninsula, a finger of land that parallels the mainland before ending in the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston. The road is set to be improved using $12 million from the emergency spending spree that is meant to resuscitate employment and spark a financial comeback.
But the peninsula could be an island in 90 years or so, submerging parts of the road and leaving the dry sections accessible only by boat, according to one model showing a 3-foot rise in seawater.
Orrin Pilkey, an expert on sea level rise at Duke University, said barrier islands "will be toast" at that new depth.
"The best answer has to be moving buildings back and retreat," he added in a recorded message played during a conference call with reporters.
The foggy visions of seawater overtaking beaches, streets and communities in 100 years are colliding with the pressing need to put people back to work and finish anticipated projects. Just ask Anne Willis if she thinks Bolivar Peninsula could disappear.
"Oh, no. I don't think so," said Willis, president of the local chamber of commerce. "I've heard those stories. They might be wrong. I mean, we were here in 1900."
Hoping 'they raise this highway'
Highway 87 is prone to flooding. A natural dune with vegetation once blocked the water, Willis said. But that has disappeared, and the artificial replacement isn't as effective, sometimes allowing the road to be submerged along one section. She worries about being trapped on the peninsula during a hurricane.
"We're just very, very vulnerable right now because there's nothing to protect us," Willis added. "What I'm hoping is they raise this highway. They've needed to do that for years."
The stimulus spending is filtering down to the states as new scientific findings on sea level rise are emerging. The 2007 findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which predicted a rise of 7 to 23 inches by century's end, are considered outdated.
New research suggests that the oceans could rise by as much as 1 meter, or 3.28 feet, by 2100 due to melting in Greenland and Antarctica (ClimateWire, March 11).
While the stimulus bill emphasizes "green" jobs related to renewable energy and energy efficiency, it has also raised questions about exacerbating urban sprawl and emissions through the construction of highways and, now, fueling projects that might face either sporadic or steady submersion.
"The stimulus project includes shovel-ready projects, which will literally be underwater," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "I think the real tragedy is there's so little planning for sea level rise anywhere."
'It's low, what can you say?'
Ocean View Avenue in Norfolk, Va., curves along a portion of the city that juts out into the Atlantic. More than $2 million from the stimulus will be invested in improvements. But some doubt it's enough to address long-standing problems related to flooding.
"It's low, what can you say? There's some areas that are at sea level," said Barclay Winn, a Norfolk city councilor. "We're fighting it all the time."
He admits the city is "low everywhere." But that doesn't mean he considers the idea of retreating from his home -- now or ever -- a realistic option.
"I think that's a little drastic," he said.
The stimulus could also provide $14.25 million for renovations at Norfolk's Sewells Point Elementary School; $1.8 million for new buses and improved facilities in Ocean City, Md.; and $30 million for a sprawling community development named Hunters Point Shipyard in San Francisco, according to the group of environmentalists and scientists that called attention to the projects yesterday.
All of them face threats of partial or complete flooding in future decades, the group says.
A former Navy base may go to sea
Hunters Point, a former Navy base, has been in the works for years, and taxpayers have already helped the Navy appropriate $400 million for efforts to clean up the site. It expects to spend another $500 million over the next several years.
A spokesman for the developer, Lennar Corp., which is based in Miami, declined to comment on the potential impacts of sea rise.
"We don't comment on individual communities," said Marshall Ames. "We have hundreds across the country, and it's just too challenging to try to keep the media up to date on the comings and goings of each community."
A White House spokesman declined to address the potential implications of investing taxpayer dollars in projects that might be washed away. But he did say that Obama is working with Congress to pass legislation addressing the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to rising seas.
That could be enough to preserve the projects, said Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. If the United States quickly "joins reality" and reduces its emissions, the pictures of reshaped shorelines could be altered for the better, he said.
"The projects, I believe, should go forward," Tidwell said. "But we should understand that if they go forward without serious federal legislation to cap carbon, then they're doomed."