- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The water is rising and St. Mary’s County is sinking.
In the next 37 years, the sea level in the Chesapeake Bay may be 2 feet higher than it currently is, according to a University of Maryland study.
This would put parts of Point Lookout and Scotland under water. It would submerge parts of St. George Island and Piney Point. Sections of the White Point area of Leonardtown and the Golden Beach neighborhood on the Patuxent River would be in trouble.
This 2-foot rise in sea level would directly threaten 461 existing homes in St. Mary’s, a county government analysis figures. A rise of 4 feet, forecast for the next century by that University of Maryland report, would touch 1,055 homes.
Predictions of just how much the water will rise may be subject to debate, but the fact that it will happen isn’t. It has already occurred. Between 1937 and 1999, a tidal gauge at Solomons Island reported a sea level rise of more than a foot, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. And it is continuing there at the rate of 3 millimeters a year.
Climate change and the consequent melting of ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica make sea level rise a worldwide phenomenon, but the rate in the Chesapeake Bay is two to three times the global average.
This is partly because of what is called subsidence. The land in the bay region is sinking because of the movement of continental tectonic plates, and also because water is being pumped out of underground aquifers. “Aquifers compress when you don’t have water in them,” Sue Veith, an environmental planner with the county government, explained recently.
The rise of the waters and sinking of the land is not going to be reversed by anyone in St. Mary’s County. But there are good reasons for people here to prepare for it. And not just people who live in homes that could have water lapping at their foundations. Septic systems may become inoperable as marshland expands into low-lying areas.
As sea level rises, storm surges will cause greater damage to homes and infrastructure. Some roadways may be submerged and washed away unless they are elevated.
As it turns out, the extent of the damage may be mitigated by the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Program, which limits development within 1,000 feet of the shoreline in order to cut down on bay pollution.
A by-product of those rules is that it keeps many new structures from being built close enough to the 536 miles of St. Mary’s County shoreline to be directly threatened by sea level rise.
There are also some direct initiatives intended to limit the damage. New building lots cannot be created in existing floodplains, and new homes must be elevated above any potential storm surge in order to get federal flood insurance.
In the future, disclosure may be required to alert prospective homebuyers if a house is in a storm surge area or vulnerable to sea level rise.
As the years pass, the state and county governments will be challenged to cope in other ways as well, and so will property owners.