PHILADELPHIA — The night Meghan Wren got stranded by floodwaters and had to sleep in her car, she knew it was time for a reckoning.
She had been driving to her waterfront home along the Delaware Bay in South Jersey. As she crossed the wide marsh in the dark, the water rose quickly. It became too deep — ahead and behind. She had to stop and wait.
To her, no longer were climate change predictions an abstract idea. Sea level has been rising, taking her waterfront with it.
“This isn’t something that’s coming,” she later told a group of bay shore residents and officials. “It’s here. We just happen to live in a place that will affect us sooner.”
Wren lives on tiny Money Island — more a peninsula of bayfront land with about 40 small homes and trailers in Cumberland County.
Just visible across the grassy marsh is Gandys Beach with 80 homes. Farther south, Fortescue with 250 homes. All three are steadily disappearing.
On the Atlantic coast, beach replenishment masks the effects of sea-level rise. But along the low-lying bay shore, veined with creeks, the problems are striking.
With each nor’easter, more of the beachfronts erode. More of the streets and driveways flood. Septic systems, inundated with salt water, are failing.
“We’re seeing beyond the normal damage,” said Steve Eisenhauer, a regional director with the Natural Lands Trust, which has a 7,000-acre preserve in the area. “We see the problems getting worse.”
In the last century, sea level in the bay has risen a foot, gauges show, partly because the warming ocean is expanding and polar ice is melting. Also, New Jersey is sinking.
All the while, humans have been pumping more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The planet’s average temperature has increased.
“All those links are very strong,” said Pennsylvania State University’s Raymond Najjar Jr., an expert on climate change in Mid-Atlantic estuaries.
“The reason the sea is rising as fast as it is in the Delaware Bay is human-induced climate change,” he said, echoing many experts.
Sea level is rising faster now than in the early 20th century, and scientists expect it to rise even faster in the future.
The three towns’ beachfronts and marshes have always been nibbled away by ship wakes, storms and more typical erosion — but sea-level rise, combined with more frequent and intense storms, makes them all worse.
Can these three communities, all within Downe Township, adapt to climate change?
Or is there a point beyond which no amount of money can stop the sea? Should everyone relocate?
It’s been done. After a $1.8 million seawall in nearby Sea Breeze failed a year after being built, the state bought out the 23 remaining households three years ago for $3.3 million. Tiny Thompson’s Beach and Moore’s Beach are gone, too.
These are special places, where people look out their windows and see eagles soaring. The bay turns red at sunset. Salt marshes thick with aquatic life stretch for miles.
With marinas in Fortescue and Money Island, they are among the last places in South Jersey where people can access Delaware Bay — vital for generating support to preserve the rich habitat.
But, like Wren, residents sometimes see white caps in their driveways.
Downe officials have come up with a $50 million plan to not only shore up the shore, but also add amenities across the township to draw tourists who could revive the economy.
The plan, which would cost the equivalent of $31,500 per resident, calls for bulkheads and truckloads of sand, restrooms, picnic benches, nature-viewing areas, and a township visitor center.
Officials identified nearly 30 “potential” funders — from agencies to nonprofits. But many feel the project is a long shot.
Meanwhile, bumper stickers are plastered on homes: “No retreat. Save the Bayshore communities.”
“I refuse to give up one house, one lot, one piece of land,” said Robert Campbell, Downe’s mayor. “These towns are 200 years old. … It’s a special place. We’ve got to preserve it.”
Their survival is also fiscally crucial; they represent half of Downe’s tax base.
He and others blame flooding not on sea-level rise but on the decline of dikes once used for salt hay farming; (Scientists say the dikes blocked the tides from naturally bolstering mashes with sediment.)
Campbell also blames the state for being too tough in issuing permits for bulkheads and jetties.
After Hurricane Irene struck in 2011, the town put up temporary bulkheads. The state issued violation notices.
Now, those structures need restoration, too.
Wren thought she would have more time.
She imagined that the changes “would be far enough in the future that I could figure out how to manage it” — maybe by working from home during floods. Not anymore.
She and her husband, Jesse Briggs, subscribe to an alert system for when higher-than-usual tides are predicted.
But in December, an alert went out at 3 a.m. When Wren woke up, it was already too late. Her Prius was swamped. Now, she drives a hybrid SUV that is 6 inches higher.
She thinks it was hubris for humans to build on the shore. And “it seems like folly to be trying to control nature” now.
But she’s lived on the water her whole life. Briggs is captain of the A.J. Meerwald. They named their son Delbay — for Delaware Bay.
“I can kind of see it from all sides,” Wren said of the debate over Money Island and its neighbors. So far, it comes down to this: “If the township decides to keep the infrastructure, I’m committed to keeping my house.”
Ultimately, the question may not be how to keep the waterfront intact but how to get to the towns in the first place.
A new sea-level rise mapping tool from Rutgers University shows that with 1 more foot of rise — easily possible before century’s end — the roads through the marshes would be underwater at high tide.