Interview with Glenn Harbeck
Director of Planning Development and Transportation for the City of Wilmington.
What are some of the biggest issues you see in regard to coastal climate change?
To the everyday individual on a month to month or a year to year basis, the biggest issues that we see relate to storm water management and drainage. They lead to bigger issues like flooding, especially since we are relatively high compared to the surrounding areas we become like an island cut off from everything else.
That’s probably the thing we see the most often, is issues with drainage. Then on a little more of an infrequent basis we do get major storm events. In the 90’s we had s series of about 6 major storms with Fran and Bertha and others that were extremely damaging.
So do you think we can expect to have more storm events as we move forward similar to the big ones in the 90’s?
We’ve definitely had a few like Hurricane Florence in 2018 that was typical of a storm in the 90s, but we haven’t been hit back to back to back like we did in the 90s. Certainly we have still had big storms recently just not of the same degree that the storms in the 90s were.
In your opinion, were the storms in the 90s a chance occurrence or were they due to human driven climate change?
In my short life time, and only about 40 years in Wilmington, its hard to see in just 40 years if there are truly climate change patterns or if these are simply weather cycles. However, clearly worldwide science tells us that climate change is occurring in terms of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and sea level rise as icecaps melt. On a small scale within these local areas though, it is hard to tell how much these changes are occurring.
What sorts of things has Wilmington done to prepare itself for storms like these and what measures still need to be put into place?
I feel that we have a pretty strong flood plain management program. Our flood plain standards exceed those that are required by the federal government by the federal flood plain management program so we definitely have extra clearance for floodplain protection of structures by at least a foot. We have had some issues in the past years with hardening of shorelines and eliminating natural buffers that are more effective than the manmade ones. Our best possible protection is to keep those shorelines as natural as possible. We run into a lot of people who want to bulkhead their shorelines and that is probably the worst thing to do.
Have you experienced any shoreline losses due to sea level rise or erosion?
We have really not seen this in the City of Wilmington, but we can along our barrier island communities in Kure Beach, Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, our coastal beachfront communities have definitely experienced erosion of their shorelines. This just hasn’t been the case in Wilmington since we do not have as many exposed beaches, we have coastal tidal shorelines that are not subject to as much erosion because they are so natural. Where we run into problems is when people decide to bulkhead these areas and then experience that erosion.
Do you have any recommendations for ways to protect these areas? Is the answer just to leave them as natural as possible or is there some degree of engineering we can do to enhance the natural shoreline and make them more effective?
There are a lot of really good practices to enhance shorelines using natural things like planting shoreline vegetation, putting in oyster bars, or anything that can dampen the wave action against the shore. The natural enhancements can also be great to filter out sediment or any lawncare chemicals and fertilizers or things like that. People love to see nice green grass going right on down to the water but its really not a very good practice.
Have you seen any water quality problems as a result from runoff?
There is a very clear pattern of our watersheds flowing into our coastal water and tidal creeks, and where there is more intensive development is where you find degraded waters. Where you should be seeing good quality water, you end up seeing poor quality water because of runoff picking up waste from lawns, animals, roads, rooftops, parking lots ect. that has caused degradation of our water quality in some of our most highly developed watersheds.