State of the Beach/State Reports/PA/Erosion Response

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Pennsylvania Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access54
Water Quality54
Beach Erosion9-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill4-
Shoreline Structures5 2
Beach Ecology2-
Surfing Areas14
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Erosion response is a measure of how well a state's policies and procedures limit the extent of shoreline armoring, unsafe coastal development, and costly beach nourishment projects, and conduct preemptive planning for sea level rise. Evaluation of this indicator brings attention to the states that are taking proactive roles in natural beach preservation and hazard avoidance. Through the formulation (if not already in place), implementation, and strict adherence of the specific criteria within the indicator, states can overcome two fundamental obstacles to alternative erosion response practices outlined by the Oceans Studies Board (2007):

  1. A lack of knowledge and experience among decision-makers regarding alternative options for shoreline erosion response, the relative level of erosion mitigation afforded by the alternative approaches and their expected life time, and the nature of the associated impacts and benefits.
  2. The current legal and regulatory framework itself, which discriminates against innovative solutions because of the complex and lengthy permitting process that almost always considers these options on a case-by-case basis.

For example, are statewide oceanfront construction setbacks used to site new development, and are these based on the latest erosion rates? When existing development is damaged during a storm, does a state prohibit reconstruction or provide incentives for relocation? Before permitting shoreline stabilization does a state require: that there is demonstrated need via geo-technical reports with content standards; that alternatives to armoring including managed retreat/relocation are fully explored; and that potential adverse impacts and cumulative effects are taken into account? Does the state conduct sea level rise vulnerability assessments and develop adaptation plans to mitigate impacts? If a state can answer 'yes' to most of these questions, then its rank is high. If the answers are mostly 'no' then its rank is low.

Also see the "Policies" discussion of the Shoreline Structures section of this report for more information on Pennsylvania's erosion response.

Possible quantitative measures for this indicator include the number of new structures located within setback areas, number of damaged structures reconstructed in identified erosion zones, number of instances where alternatives to 'hard' shore protection were employed, the number of shoreline structures permitted under 'emergency' provisions, and the number of permits for shoreline structures reviewed, approved or denied. We have found that such information is rarely available.

Policies and Guidance

NOAA's 2006 evaluation of Pennsylvania Coastal Program states:

"The major coastal hazards facing the Commonwealth are bluff recession and shoreline erosion in the Lake Erie coastal zone. The coastal program has long provided technical advisory assistance to bluff property owners at no cost in an effort to fully inform residents of the dynamic processes of bluff recession and shoreline erosion. In general, this consists of an on-site inspection and verbal and written recommendations for shoreline protection, surface and groundwater control, bluff stabilization, and use of vegetation.

The Commonwealth’s Bluff Recession and Setback Act (BRSA) was passed in 1980 and requires that new residential, commercial, and industrial structures be constructed outside of designated bluff recession hazard areas. (The statutory authority of the Act only applies to Lake Erie.) Regulations developed in 1980 implement the BRSA and control the location of new structures and improvements to existing structures located in the bluff recession hazard area. The regulations were based upon a 1975 study of shoreline erosion and flooding in Erie County. Coastal municipalities with designated active bluff recession areas were required to enact local ordinances. Eight municipalities along the Lake Erie coast have designated bluff recession hazard areas and have enacted new or amended existing ordinances to incorporate the setback requirements. The City of Erie was not included in the 1975 study and was thus not subject to BRSA regulations. The PCZMP continues to provide financial and technical assistance for local administration and enforcement of the BRSA.

During the period covered by this evaluation, the PCZMP conducted an updated study to identify bluff recession hazard areas. Based upon the study, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will make recommendations concerning designations to the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), which is the entity that actually promulgates rules for the DEP. The coastal program staff indicated that the City of Erie will now be included in terms of applicability of the BRSA and implementing regulations. The PCZMP anticipates submitting a program change to OCRM in 2007 to address newly promulgated and adopted regulations implementing the BRSA.

The PCZMP also developed a guidance document during the period covered by this evaluation that addresses the criteria and methodology for the proper and consistent placement of groin structures along the Lake Erie shoreline. The guidance document is used by DEP personnel in review of Chapter 105 permits authorized by the Pennsylvania Dam Safety and Encroachments Act. The guidance applies to all Lake Erie shoreline property owners applying for a permit to construct groin structures below the ordinary high water mark for the purpose of beach maintenance or shoreline erosion, to property owners who have existing, unpermitted groin structures, and to owners of permitted structures seeking to modify those structures."

Pennsylvania's Coastal Resources Management (CRM) Program prepared a draft Assessment and Strategy in June 2010. From that document (slightly edited):

"In 1980 PA adopted the Bluff Recession and Setback Act and Rules and Regulations (Chapter 85) to regulate development along Lake Erie by establishing a Bluff Recession Hazard Area (BRHA) where new development is prohibited and improvements to existing development is restricted. The regulations were formally updated in 2009. PA CRM has established a network of bluff recession monitoring control points along Lake Erie to develop and update bluff recession rates that are used by local municipalities to enforce construction setbacks within the BRHAs. These recession rates are scientifically updated every four years with the intent of quantitatively measuring the risk of bluff recession undermining the stability of structures in the BRHA. Also, in 1997 CRM completed a SAMP on integrating the management practices of the Bluffs and Shoreline along Lake Erie. The SAMP addressed consolidating planning efforts with a main focus of facilitating a network of these local, county, state, regional and federal interests to achieve a productive balance of resource use and protection with the overall intent of creating a "better organized approach" to increase the effectiveness of management of Pennsylvania's unique shoreline and bluff areas adjacent to and overlooking Lake Erie.
During the assessment timeframe, Pennsylvania regulations were updated pursuant to the Bluff Recession and Setback Act, 32 P.S. Sections 5201 – 5215. The Act is intended to address bluff erosion and recession matters along the Pennsylvania portion of the Lake Erie shoreline. The rulemaking was initiated in response to a petition sent to the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) by Millcreek Township, Erie County, asking for clarification of the designation of Bluff Recession Hazard Areas (BRHAs) along Lake Erie. In response to the petition, the Department initiated a study of Pennsylvania’s entire Lake Erie shoreline in order to identify and update the number and location of BRHAs. As a result of this and other related studies and data, the Department clarified the locations of BRHAs and recommended adding the City of Erie as a municipality identified as having a BRHA. The regulations were finalized in 2009.
One of the most effective methods used in the past by CRM to remove threatened structures from the minimum bluff setback area was FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP); in particular the Upton-Jones Amendment providing for Catastrophic Loss Insurance. Before being withdrawn, the Catastrophic Loss Insurance provided a mechanism for CRM to remove or demolish insured structures on bluff properties with serious bluff recession that created “zones of imminent collapse.” Since many structures in the Lake Erie Coastal Zone were present before passage of the Bluff Recession Set Back Act (1980), there now remains a need for a similar state insurance program to remove structures before they are damaged by bluff recession."

Municipal Reference Document - Compilation of Field Interpretations and Department Guidance for Bluff Recession and Setback Act (1994) contains Bluff Recession and Setback Rules and Regulations, interpretations of the regulations, and bluff diagrams.

Pennsylvania Sea Grant's Living on Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Coast seeks to make potential buyers of shoreline property aware that dynamic and rapidly changing forces affect the property they're planning to acquire, and to educate them regarding bluff recession, shoreline erosion and flooding.

Climate Change Adaptation

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has a Climate Change Advisory Committee website that contains information about climate change adaptation in the state, with links to numerous meetings, presentations and reports. Included is Pennsylvania Climate Adaptation Planning Report: Risks and Practical Recommendations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a Climate Change Action Plan in December 2009, outlining strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change in Pennsylvania. Although adaptation was not included in its present scope, the plan indicated a further need to address climate change adaptation statewide.

As an initial effort to inform the statewide adaptation planning process, a small group of staff from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and The Nature Conservancy interviewed stakeholders from state and federal natural resource management agencies, research institutions, and environmental non-profit organizations. The goals of the interviews were 1) to better understand how the need to adapt to climate change will affect stakeholders’ missions and strategies, and 2) to understand stakeholders’ perspectives and gather recommendations on the challenges and opportunities presented by a statewide adaptation planning process. The findings from the interviews are presented in a report: Weathering Climate Change: Framing Strategies to Minimize Impacts on Pennsylvania Ecosystems and Wildlife.

EcoAdapt announced in November 2012 the release of the synthesis report, The State of Climate Change Adaptation in the Great Lakes Region. The report is the result of a survey of freshwater resource managers, planners, and practitioners in the region who are tasked with developing strategies to prepare for and respond to a changing climate. This synthesis provides: a summary of key regional climate change impacts; examples of over 100 adaptation initiatives from the region, focusing on activities in the natural and built environments as they relate to freshwater resources; fifty-seven case studies, detailing how adaptation is taking shape; and an overview of challenges and opportunities for freshwater adaptation in the Great Lakes region.

Climate Central has launched States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card, the first-ever quantitative assessment that summarizes the changing nature of key threats linked to climate change and the corresponding levels of preparedness for related risks in each of the 50 states. The goal of the Report Card is to help states improve preparedness by recognizing climate-change risks, building an action plan, and implementing this plan. Pennsylvania was one of five states that received a grade of “A.”

NOAA's Climate Ready Great Lakes consists of three modules designed to help create a Great Lakes region that is “climate ready.” Toward this end, these modules provide stakeholders and decision makers with clear information about Great Lakes climate, as well as what we need to adapt to, why, and how. This project was sponsored by the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network and the NOAA Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Team. Each module consists of a presentation (available in PowerPoint format) and supplemental materials, including worksheets, handouts, and evaluation forms. All of the supplemental materials are available here, or through the links here. The modules may be presented in their entirety, or users may wish to select a subset of the Powerpoint slides and support materials from one or more modules to suit their particular needs.

General Reference Documents

EPA's Risk-Based Adaptation website (under the heading of Climate-Ready Estuaries) provides several resources and tools to help users identify, analyze, prioritize and reduce their climate change risks.

An informative publication is Ten Principles for Coastal Development (2007) by the Urban Land Institute.

The Coastal States Organization (CSO) has published two reports relating to climate change adaptation. The first is Coastal Community Resilience: An Evaluation of Resilience as a Potential Performance Measure of the Coastal Zone Management Act (July 2008). (No link to this could be found.) Developed by CSO staff and CSO’s Coastal Resilience Steering Committee, the document demonstrates the value of resilience to coastal management and offers concrete recommendations for enhancing resilience at the state and local level. The second document is The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs in Adaptation to Climate Change (September 2008)(PDF, 732KB). The report includes detailed results of a 2008 adaptation survey designed to obtain up to date information on the status of adaptation planning, priority information needs, and the anticipated resource needs of the coastal states, commonwealths, and territories.

In April 2009, the Heinz Center and Ceres announced the release of their Resilient Coasts - A Blueprint for Action, to outline steps to reduce risks and losses in the face of growing threats. The Heinz Center and Ceres produced the blueprint with a coalition of leading insurers, public officials, risk experts, builders, and conservation groups. The blueprint is endorsed by many groups, including The Travelers Institute, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wharton School, and the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The blueprint includes policy changes and common sense actions that could reduce economic losses from future storms and rising sea levels by as much as half along U.S. coastlines. The blueprint outlines specific recommendations, including: enabling planning for climate impacts by providing the necessary science and decision-making tools; requiring risk-based land use planning; designing adaptable infrastructure and building code standards to meet future risk; strengthening ecosystems as part of a risk mitigation strategy; developing flexible adaptation plans; maintaining a viable private property and casualty insurance market; and integrating climate change impacts into due diligence for investment and lending. The coalition urges the Obama administration, Congress, local leaders and the private sector to see that blueprint actions are implemented through regulation, investment, education, and other means.

In January 2010 the National Association of Counties released Building Resilient Coastal Communities: Counties and the Digital Coast which highlights many of the Digital Coast resources that counties use to address coastal flooding, habitat conservation and land use. More resources, tools and data are available through NOAA's Digital Coast website.

More recently, NOAA Coastal Management has developed a Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer as part of its Digital Coast website. Being able to visualize potential impacts from sea level rise is a powerful teaching and planning tool, and the Sea Level Rise Viewer brings this capability to coastal communities. A slider bar is used to show how various levels of sea level rise will impact coastal communities. Completed areas include Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, with additional coastal counties to be added in the near future. Visuals and the accompanying data and information cover sea level rise inundation, uncertainty, flood frequency, marsh impacts, and socioeconomics.

StormSmart Coasts is a resource for coastal decision makers looking for the latest and best information on how to protect their communities from weather and climate hazards. StormSmart Legal is a new addition to the StormSmart Coasts Network that provides information about property rights, regulatory takings, and permissible government regulation in coastal areas.

In December 2012 NOAA's Climate Program Office released a report Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment. The report was produced in response to a request from the U.S. National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee. It provides a synthesis of the scientific literature on global sea level rise, and a set of four scenarios of future global sea level rise. The report includes input from national experts in climate science, physical coastal processes, and coastal management.

NOAA's Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth website is organized into 10 chapters describing different elements essential for communities interested in implementing coastal and waterfront smart growth. By clicking on the individual chapters, you can get a description of each Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth Element, how this relates to the Coastal and Waterfront Issues, Tools and Techniques you can use in your community, and Case Studies of successes. Each chapter contains a navigation box allowing quick access to the information and the ability to download the content of each page. A 2012 report by NOAA and EPA on Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth presents ideas shared by smart growth and hazard mitigation experts related to building hazard-resilient coastal communities.

EPA has a website devoted to preparing for rising sea level and other consequences of changing climate. The premise of the Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise website is that society should take measures to make our coastal development and ecosystems less vulnerable to a rise in sea level. The papers on this site demonstrate that numerous low-cost measures, if implemented, would make the United States less vulnerable to rising sea level. A more recent EPA website is Adapting to Climate Change, but was removed by the Trump administration.

Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities (USGS-NOAA, January 2013) emphasizes the need for increased coordination and planning to ensure U.S. coastal communities are resilient against the effects of climate change. The report examines and describes climate change impacts on coastal ecosystems and human economies and communities, as well as the kinds of scientific data, planning tools and resources that coastal communities and resource managers need to help them adapt to these changes. Case studies are presented for Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In December 2012 the Lincoln Institute released Coastal States’ Climate Adaptation Initiatives: Sea Level Rise and Municipal Engagement (Working Paper). This paper explores how states and municipalities interact to address sea level rise, providing an overview of the state of practice, some reasons for different levels of action, and some of the needs of municipalities. It includes recommendations for ways states can provide adaptation support to municipalities.

Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, (pdf, 1.2 MB) published in September 2013, discusses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' capabilities to help reduce risks to coastal areas and improve resilience to coastal hazards through an integrated planning approach. Federal, state, local, non-governmental organization and private sector interests connected to our coastal communities possess a complementary set of authorities and capabilities for developing more integrated coastal systems. The effective implementation of an integrated approach to flood and coastal flood hazard mitigation relies on a collaborative, shared responsibility framework between Federal, state, and local agencies and the public.

The National Climate Assessment is an extensive report released through the U.S. Global Change Research Program and produced by a large team of experts with the guidance of the Federal Advisory Committee. The report is put out every few years, with the most recent one being the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the next report expected to be released in 2018-2019. It includes numerous studies on the impacts of climate change on different economic sectors and geographic regions in the U.S. An important and applicable portion of the report is the Response Strategies section, which lays out actionable ways that decision-makers ranging from the federal government to private-sector companies can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

State of the Beach Report: Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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