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DNR policy could influence state land purchases, construction

By MARGIE HYSLOP

Staff writer

Climate change soon could alter the rules regarding the construction of state buildings and roads.

New directives that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources already is using could influence how and where agencies build and manage infrastructure, especially projects vulnerable to sea level rise, DNR Secretary John R. Griffin told a congressional committee this fall.

Olivia Campbell, DNR’s legislative director, said a draft of proposed rules went to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for him to consider issuing as an executive order. A draft for such an order has been received from Griffin’s office and is being reviewed, O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said Monday.

The department, which Griffin said has been working with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science since the early 1990s to research the impact of sea level rise, is attempting to acquire “key pieces of land that allow for the landward migration of wetlands,” according to a written copy of testimony Griffin presented to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

DNR is “shifting away” from conserving land that is less than 2 feet above sea level because of predictions that such land likely will be under water in 50 years, Griffin told the committee.

“There have been small land holdings that we have not pursued [that otherwise] might have been purchased to complete a larger complex of land,” Griffin said in a recent interview, explaining what the policy has meant in practice.

DNR is engaged in a balancing act as it tries to provide public access to waterways while it plans ahead to do the best it can with public resources, Griffin said.

DNR’s internal policy, titled “Building Resilience to Climate Change,” is serving as a foundation that could define what other state agencies will do, if the governor decides to follow DNR’s lead and put much of its policy in an executive order.

The Maryland Port Administration, State Highway Administration and Historic Trust already are assessing what risks face the harbors, docks, highways, buildings and sites that they manage so they can form strategies to adapt, Griffin told the committee.

About 450 state-owned facilities and 400 miles of state highways are in areas that will be vulnerable to flooding from sea-level rise or coastal storms in the next 100 years, according to Griffin’s testimony.

Adapting will require federal, state and local governments to continue to lead and share information, Griffin said.

Perhaps no place in Maryland is that more evident than Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County.

During the past eight decades, the refuge has lost about 5,000 acres, roughly a third of its original area.

The biggest factors affecting the refuge now are relative sea-level rise, land subsidence, or sinking, and wind and wave action. The latter have become stronger as the loss of marsh land creates larger sections of open water where wave and wind energy build, wildlife refuge manager Suzanne Beard said recently.

The federal government owns the land above mean, or average, high tide, but the state generally owns what lies below mean high tide, Beard said.

The refuge has not calculated how much land it has lost as high tide has reached farther onto the shore, she said.

“It hasn’t been an issue,” said Beard, who added that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a “strong partnership” with the adjoining state wildlife management area.

“They are as interested in restoring marshes as we are,” Beard said.

mhyslop@gazette.net