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Boulders Are Not the Way

Wed, 01/12/2022 - 17:36


Early risers out on Montauk Highway or Route 39 have probably seen the 18-wheeler trucks carrying boulders in an eastward direction. These are material for an ongoing seawall expansion at Montauk Point designed to prevent the Lighthouse from sliding into the Atlantic Ocean. They can also be seen as a symbol of things to come.

Congress authorized the construction of the Lighthouse in 1792 under President George Washington. The work was completed in 1796; the site has ever since served as an important navigation point for both local boaters and shipping destined for New York, New Jersey, or the Connecticut ports. It is now owned by the Montauk Historical Society. Thousands of people visit each year, contributing by far the greatest share of the society’s museum admission income of close to $1 million in 2019.

Some 200 years after it was completed, however, the Light was in peril, and efforts to shore up the sheer bluff over which it stood began. Eventually, a stone seawall was installed, and now, in a $30 million United States Army Corps of Engineers undertaking, the bulwark is being extended. Surfcasters and surfers alike have said they were concerned about how the wider and smoother-surfaced seawall could change things. The far larger boulders being placed now might not provide the same craggy habitat for prey species that can draw the treasured striped bass in close. Two of the best surf breaks on the East Coast could also be affected by changes to the underwater contours, as well as shifts in the way wave energy is refracted during a heavy swell. These concerns aside, public officials up and down the line from Town Hall to Capitol Hill have favored the Lighthouse’s ongoing protection.

Going forward, the expense and the boulders should be seen as the exception and not the rule for responding to coastal erosion. Sea level rise driven by anthropogenic climate change is making life on the shore rapidly more precarious. Already it is clear that the appetite for giant public works spending to stave off the loss of private property is weakening; a much-delayed Army Corps project to “reformulate” much of the Long Island oceanfront is focused on locations with more significant infrastructure than the South Fork. Downtown Montauk, where additional work has been proposed, has turned out to be a lower priority in the minds of federal officials. Despite this, there remains a tendency for local communities to stand and fight in the way being tried at Montauk Point. This has been a stumbling block on the path toward a viable long-term program of managed retreat. Though waterfront property owners might cast a covetous gaze on the truckloads of heavy stones headed east, the financial and environmental cost of armoring the shore elsewhere would be too high. Instead, they and local leaders must accept that they will never fully be able to withstand the tides.

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