Southern N.E.’s Coastal Landscape is Shrinking

An Aug. 13 tidal surge flooded this Wickford parking lot, across the way from Gardner’s Wharf Seafood. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)What is really being done to deal with this complex problem?

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

WICKFORD — At normal high tide, the Biggest Little has always become the Biggest Littler. Now, during a moon tide — the highest of high tides — parts of Rhode Island, such as the Brown Street municipal parking lot in this historic village, routinely flood. Rising seas and decades of poor land-use management are conspiring to reshape Rhode Island and, unless you have gills, the new state map will have much less appeal.

In fact, rising seas present myriad challenges for southern New England, such as saltwater intrusion, accelerating erosion and loss of critical tidal marshes. The Ocean State’s well-being is intimately tied to its 420 miles of coastline and the flow of the tides.

“We’ve made enormous investment in and on our coasts,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. “Resiliency planning is vital to our state’s future. Climate change has baked in a lot of the damage already. There’s going to be a little bit less of the Ocean State in the years ahead.”

The senator noted that the Newport tide gauge shows a 10-inch sea-level rise since the 1930s, and the mean water temperature of Narragansett Bay has increased 4 degrees.

Whitehouse’s concern about climate-change impacts kicked off an Oct. 2 “resiliency walk” along Wickford Harbor. The 2-mile walk began and ended in the Brown Street municipal parking lot, which the tour’s guide, Teresa Crean, noted would be flooded had the event been scheduled during a moon tide.

“We’re standing in a key spot,” said the community planner and coastal management extension specialist with the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant. “During moon tides, this parking lot is closed because of tidal inundation. Ducks would be floating here now.”

Instead, the large impervious surface was full of cars, plus some 35 people concerned about the sea creeping closer to homes, businesses and infrastructure. Crean told those gathered that the day’s tide was actually a foot higher than had been predicted.

Change is here, and more is coming, but is southern New England prepared to deal effectively with shifting sands, eroding coastlines, disappearing coastal wetlands and crumbling infrastructure? The evidence suggests this oceanfront region isn’t, despite an abundance of dust-gathering studies, the creation of task forces and commissions, empty proclamations such as declaring October “Salt Marsh Month” and bureaucratic bragging.

The ongoing transformation of southern New England’s coast is unstoppable. But when it comes to addressing the rising tides, reality is routinely ignored.

Elected officials, appointed officials, municipal planners, business owners, voters and beachgoers should all be demanding, “What are we going to do?” But far to few are even asking the question, and many seem content to let future generations figure it out.

During this past election cycle, for example, the issue of climate change in general and coastal erosion in particular were seldom discussed seriously in any southern New England political race or by any one campaign — a show of stunning ignorance in a region renowned for its beaches, coastal attractions, and dense shoreline development, both commercial and residential.

Smart, informed decisions are the best way to deal with the complex problem that is climate-change impacts. Unfortunately, best decisions are more difficult to make. The pushback against them is well funded and loud.

Instead, a largely dysfunctional political system creates a patchwork of regulations that are enforced on a whim, and recommends best practices that are entirely voluntary. Elected leaders avoid examining difficult questions, such as: When does it become more cost effective to relocate vulnerable properties or retreat from the coast? They continue to hesitate when it comes to making changes that actually matter.

Homes and businesses, such as Ocean Mist, along a stretch of street in South Kingstown are caught between an encroaching sea and Matunuck Beach Road. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)Hard decisions
Despite seawall construction, beach renourishment and other Band-Aid measures, Rhode Island’s shoreline has lost nearly 300 feet of beach in the past 50 years. Nearly half of the Ocean State’s coastline is unsuitable for hard-structure protections because of severe waves, flooding and erosion, according to the state’s Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC).

Seawalls and other hard structures also exacerbate erosion at adjacent beaches and neighboring properties. Seawalls are vertical structures often made of concrete or timber, and are driven into the ground to deflect oncoming waves. But this deflected force has to go somewhere. It typically accelerates erosion in front of the wall and/or to the sides. Eventually, erosion occurs behind the wall and the structure is rendered useless.

CRMC prohibits hard structures along Type 1 beaches, such as the exposed southern shoreline in communities from Point Judith to Westerly. Matunuck, Misquamicut and South Kingstown Town Beach, for instance, have lost some 400 feet of beach combined in the past four decades.

In June, however, the state agency voted 5-4 to uphold a 2012 decision, in which it approved a 200-foot-long steel and concrete wall to save a stretch of Matunuck Beach Road, which serves as the only road to many summer homes and waterfront businesses in South Kingstown. Most of the wall will be buried, and it will be capped with a sidewalk and a 3-foot cement wall.

The council’s majority said it had adequately considered the seawall’s environmental impacts. One of the CRMC board members who upheld the earlier ruling noted, “It’s the least-imperfect option of all the imperfect options we have.”

Ocean Mist owner Kevin Finnegan had appealed the original ruling, claiming the structure will damage his nearby property. His popular nightclub and eatery sits over Matunuck Beach, which has eroded significantly in recent decades. His building rests on wooden columns, and the back of his business abuts the road, leaving Finnegan with no room to retreat inland.

After that three-hour hearing in late June, the agency reminded him that he and other shoreline property owners in the area will receive notices that they must remove a wooden stockade-style fence they had installed without authorization behind their buildings.

At some point very soon, highly vulnerable areas along the southern New England coast will need to consider managed retreats, which allow the shoreline to advance inward unimpeded. As the shore erodes, buildings and other infrastructure would be either demolished or relocated inland.

In many situations attempting to stop erosion through structural or non-structural solutions is a losing battle, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The federal agency says shoreline protection efforts and their ongoing maintenance are costly and ultimately ineffective at preventing further erosion.

A managed-retreat approach is typically less expensive than structural stabilization projects that are often only temporary solutions, especially in high-erosion areas, according to NOAA. This approach also maintains natural shoreline dynamics and enables shoreline habitats to migrate inland as the shoreline erodes to prevent loss of wetlands and other intertidal areas.

Of course, as NOAA correctly notes, a managed-retreat response to sea-level rise and coastal erosion can be politically difficult to implement, especially where significant development has already occurred. Such a move may also cause depreciation of shorefront property values.

Despite armoring sections of the Wickford Harbor shoreline with riprap, the village is at risk of significant damage from 3 feet of sea-level rise. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)Rising waters
By 2050, anticipated sea-level rise will vary greatly along the 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline, but the trend is that the tide is getting higher and storm surges more powerful. Southern New England can already attest to both.

On Thanksgiving Day six years ago, a home on Plum Island fell into the ocean. A storm about 200 miles off the coast of Massachusetts generated intense, unforgiving waves that pounded the small barrier island. Five years later, eight more Plum Island houses were washed into the sea. Early this year, a section of rock wall designed to protect another island home didn’t. Powerful waves smashed the home’s deck into pieces.

The Army Corps of Engineers has issued a report noting that erosion along the Plum Island shoreline is claiming an average of 13 feet of sand annually. The report warns that another 26 homes will likely be lost by 2019.

Despite this knowledge and the fact the federal government opted out of funding any improvement and protection of Plum Island beaches three decades ago, the owners of the nine homes lost since 2008 were allowed to rebuild.

During a recent workshop entitled “Rising to the Challenge: Preparing for Sea Level Rise in Southern New England” the moderator asked a room largely full of planners and municipal/state officials if their cities or towns have plans to deal with sea-level rise? Few hands went up.

Most municipalities in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut are vastly unprepared for the long-term commitment needed to address climate-change issues such as disaster recovery and disappearing shoreline.

A two-day Southern New England American Planning Association conference held late last month at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence was designed to address such issues. The regional conference, entitled “Planning for the Next Wave,” featured dozens of workshops, including the one mentioned above, that focused on community resiliency, sustainability, urbanism and ethics.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Scheri Fultineer, head of the Rhode Island School of Design’s Department of Landscape Architecture, told attendees, “Rising sea levels, changing storm patterns and ecosystem degradation bring challenges to urban coastal regions that test disciplinary boundaries between the professions traditionally charged with planning for and designing our built environments.”

The impacts of climate change, especially along southern New England shorelines and riverbanks, are already being felt and most certainly will become more acute as the years pass.

Wickford and the Newport waterfront are at risk of significant damage from 3 feet of sea-level rise. Coastal roads in Narragansett and Jamestown are at risk of being underwater with a foot of sea-level rise.

A storm drain in the Watch Hill village of Westerly is flowing backward, pumping seawater into a parking lot twice a day during high tide. During heavy rains, storm drains are backing up at the approaches to two bridges along the Barrington-Warren line. The flooding is of concern because the water bogs down the main road that connects the towns.

Deborah Jones, the environmental planner for Groton, Conn., a city with 20 miles of coastline along Long Island Sound, said rising seas mean more water, higher temperatures and stronger storms. Jones, one of three “Rising to the Challenge: Preparing for Sea Level Rise in Southern New England” presenters, noted that Groton experiences more frequent flooding along its coast and rivers. She said brooks overflow onto Route 1, the city’s main east-west roadway.

A few years ago, to deal with climate change and rising seas, the well-meaning Groton Task Force on Climate Change and Sustainable Community recommended, among other things, that the city provide bicycles for staff to use to do inspections and that the city buy some available open space. No bikes have been provided and no open space bought, according to Jones.

Task forces are well intentioned and studies are valuable tools, but if their recommendations are ignored, what’s the point?

Rates of beach erosion along the Westerly shoreline are increasing, prompting the need to relocate some buildings, even those ‘protected’ by a wall of boulders. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)Let them build
Since the region’s shoreline is retreating, it won’t take a big storm to severely damage structures along the coast, according to David Vallee, the hydrologist-in-charge at the Northeast River Forecast Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Taunton, Mass.

He has noted that 2012 Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rhode Island coast, leveling dunes and destroying property, and the late-October storm wasn’t even a Category 3 or 4 hurricane. It was “just” a severe storm with a “massive wave field” and 4.5-foot storm surge, he said.

Sandy’s glancing blow caused an estimated $42 million in Rhode Island recovery costs.

Global warming — science says decades of growing greenhouse-gas emissions are largely responsible — is changing the jet stream, according to Vallee. He has noted that the Northeast is losing its east-to-west flow of weather systems, and there is now more north-to-south flows. The region’s weather is wetter, and flooding events have increased.

More than 50 percent of Americans, some 164 million people, live in coastal counties, and 1.2 million more are added annually, according to Hilary Kotoun, social impact director for Newport-based Sailors for the Sea.

“This places heavy demands on the unique natural systems and resources that make our coastal areas so attractive and productive,” she wrote in a recent essay. “Coastal ecosystems in the United States have long faced environmental struggles. It’s time we start preserving and restoring these vital habitats.”

The acting director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Suzette Kimball, has said, “Our nation’s coastlines are constantly changing landscapes that pose unique management challenges.”

Southern New England, for the most part, hasn’t been up for the challenge. Most cities and towns along its coast have failed to seriously address the problem of retreating shorelines. Most inland communities have failed to revamp land-use practices to better deal with increased flooding caused by more frequent and intense storms.

Evacuation-route signs don’t address the real problem, and development continues to be seen as a top job creator — often at the expense of ecosystems that help reduce flooding and buffer us from storm surges. Permeable pavers aren’t a substitute for lost natural areas.

But with state and local governments typically more concerned about developers being overburdened with requests for permits and information, it’s difficult to have meaningful conversations about actually reining in development. In many instances, just the opposite is happening.

Last year, in Rhode Island alone, developers introduced 14 bills seeking to ease building regulations. One of those bills, considered the biggest offering for developers in 2013, was the controversial “slopes” bill, which allows unbuildable sloped land to now be included in determining buildable lot sizes.

The controversial measure passed in both the the House and Senate, and Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed it into law, saying “he wanted to give a leg up to developers.”

The House’s lead sponsor of the bill, Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr., D-Bristol, had this to say during a committee hearing, “There is a lot of confusion surrounding this bill. It simply clarifies the building code for building officials.” He then added, “I don’t know much about the intricacies of the bill. I’d rather let the experts testify on them.”

His experts were, in fact, developers.

The bill was opposed by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Association of Conservation Commissions, Save The Bay, Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club of Rhode Island, the Burrillville Land Trust and the Cumberland Land Trust.

Eight town councils — Charlestown, Exeter, Little Compton, Hopkinton, New Shoreham, North Kingstown, Richmond, South Kingstown and Tiverton — adopted formal resolutions opposing the legislation.

The bill’s opponents cited concern that the legislation would unleash building on dwindling open space. But less-regulated growth again trumped climate reality.

A continued development-at-all-costs approach to economic growth will inevitably diminish one of the region’s top economic drivers: its coastline.

That reality leaves three key questions that need to be addressed. 1) Is enough currently being done by southern New England lawmakers to address climate-related coastal problems? 2) Is enough being done to protect the region’s citizens who are at risk from a rising sea? 3) Is enough being done to build the pubic support needed to implement difficult measures?

An argument certainly could be made that the answer to all three questions is a resounding no.

Twin River Casino in Lincoln has some 12 acres of parking, which included paving over more than 2 acres of a field at the edge of a wetland without town or state consent. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)Gambling with wetlands
Coastal wetlands are some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. They are largely responsible for southern New England’s valuable commercial and recreational fisheries. These ecosystems purify water, help reduce storm damage by absorbing wind and wave energy, and provide key wildlife habitat.

Coastal wetlands also are highly susceptible to the impacts of a changing climate. The region’s salt marshes are eroding at an accelerated rate, and projections have shown that Rhode Island alone could lose half of its existing coastal wetlands with 3 feet of sea-level rise.

Both coastland wetlands and their freshwater counterparts help prevent flooding, release vegetative matter that feed fish, and counterbalance the impact of humans by rejuvenating surrounding ecosystems.

How are we protecting these valuable ecosystems from mankind’s less-than-delicate touch? By thinking of them as isolated and independent habitats, and by failing to properly protect them.

In February 2007, for example, two officials from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) discovered a 308-space parking lot at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, then under different ownership, during an inspection for a separate 9.9-acre parking expansion. The 2.27-acre lot was previously a grassy field on the outskirts of the property.

The parking project wasn’t in any plans the DEM had seen, and it created a significant problem: runoff from the lot drained directly into a nearby wetland. A mound of construction fill within a restricted riverbank wetland area also was discovered during the site inspection.

Despite no application ever being filed for the project with the town or with any state agency, plus the illegal filling of a wetland area, the gambling operation received nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

Twin River had a berm installed to divert runoff from its unauthorized parking lot, and removed the haphazardly dumped fill pile. The smaller parking lot remained, and the other 9.9 acres was given the OK to be bulldozed in favor of 1,370 parking spots.

DEM said the 2.27-acre lot didn’t destroy any “critical” habitat, but the agency tasked with managing the state’s natural resources did note that runoff from the lot channeled into a small pond and wetland area that feeds into Olney Pond, the popular recreation area with a public beach at nearby Lincoln Woods.

“If we lose all of our marshes, we lose our valuable resources,” Janet Freedman, a coastal geologist with CRMC, said during the Oct. 2 resiliency walk.

No easy solutions
What can cities and towns do to adapt to these changing conditions? How can state government help? What can property owners and businesses do to protect themselves?

Some would argue the best way to start would be to move beyond the here and now and acknowledge that change can’t be stopped by hardening the shoreline and failing to respect Mother Nature’s design.

Outspoken environmental advocate Greg Gerritt has called public spending to protect the shoreline “magical thinking.” The Providence resident believes we should be spending less public money on adaptation and instead be encouraging retreat from coastal areas. He, like others, believes we can’t continue to allow rebuilding along the coast, and that we should be creating much larger coastal ecological buffers.

But, like the issue of human population growth, the topic of coastal retreat isn’t one society can easily talk about. In fact, the Ocean Mist bar and nightclub is ground zero, at least in Rhode Island, for the climate-change vs. property-rights policy struggle.

Nearby in South Kingstown, the owner of the remaining iconic Browning cottage has dug in, and back, since Sandy’s visit two years ago. The house was one of five large Queen Anne shingle-style summer homes built hundreds of feet from the beach in 1900. Hurricanes in 1938 and 1954 wiped out several of the large structures. Increasing beach erosion since the 1970s prompted the owners to move remaining buildings 50 feet inland. Damage from Sandy led to the demolition of two of the three remaining cottages.

Since the CRMC issued an emergency building permit in 2013, the last home has been pushed back 35 feet, a basement removed and the home elevated atop 16-foot columns made of cement and steel. A 4,500-gallon holding tank was installed in place of a septic system.

Rates of beach erosion are increasing, prompting the need to relocate some buildings along the coast of South Kingstown and Westerly, according to CRMC’s executive director, Grover Fugate. Twenty-six-foot-tall seawalls would be needed to hold back rising waters, he has said.

There is a growing need for public awareness and planning at all levels of government to deal with climate change and the encroaching sea. The time is now for the region’s elected officials to make difficult decisions, even if they upset those who refuse to look past tomorrow.

Meaningful, and not-so-meaningful, efforts to address important climate issues are constantly undermined by a popular special-interest refrain: this or that action will hurt businesses, homeowners and/or families — as if reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, addressing environmental degradation and adapting to sea-level rise will negatively impact society.

This year during several General Assembly hearings to simply enact a statewide ban on plastic shopping bags, lobbyists stormed the Statehouse to scare lawmakers into falsely believing such a ban would bankrupt businesses.

When it came to more significant issues, such as addressing sea-level rise, lobbyists again descended on the Statehouse. A lobbyist for the Rhode Island Association of Realtors told a committee that the cost of adaptation is already crippling property owners. She conveniently failed to mention that it’s also costing taxpayers.

“That’s the issue, the limited budgets (of property owners),” she said, failing to understand that the cost, on all fronts, will only continue to rise.

Important and complex social and economical issues will need to be properly discussed if we want to deal effectively with the fact southern New England’s coastline is shrinking. The best answers also will require sacrifice.

“To address these issue it will require behavioral changes and land-use changes,” Crean said at the end of last month’s resiliency walk. “We need to pay attention to this issue.”

Editor’s note: The University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center are holding a two-day symposium in early December at Salve Regina University to educate coastal-area business owners and local decision-makers on how to reduce the impacts of flooding on their businesses and their communities. For more information, click here.


Annual Whitehouse Forum Tackles Climate Change

By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Strategies for tackling the challenges of a rapidly warming planet were recently delivered from a range of perspectives at the fifth annual Rhode Island Energy & Environmental Leaders Day held at the Rhode Island Convention Center. This annual forum gives Rhode Island organizations a chance to engage with federal officials making policy in Washington, D.C.

“Climate change is perhaps the most difficult, complex and necessary issue for us to face environmentally in this country and elsewhere that any of us as a species have ever had to face,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, one of three speakers for the event, said, underscoring both the health risks, such as chronic asthma, and economic costs.

Addressing a Sept. 5 audience of close to 250 representatives of environmental initiatives across the region, McCarthy championed the EPA’s newest Clean Air Plan for cutting emissions from power plants as a proposal that sets standard and puts states at the forefront of crafting ways to reduce carbon pollution. She said this new policy best serves local needs while creating economic opportunities close to home.

“The challenge is that everybody needs to play,” McCarthy said.

Considering the ocean side of the environmental equation, famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, another of the day’s speakers, listed imminent threats, from major decline of fish stocks around the world — cod, tuna and sharks — to the collapse of seagrass meadows and corral reefs.

“Our life-support system is currently at risk,” she said. “The good news is we know it’s happening. We can plan the future based on knowledge.”

Earle called for establishing safe havens, much like national parks, to protect flourishing aquaculture.

With Rhode Island already at the national forefront of cleaner air and water initiatives, a roundtable forum made up of leaders of public and private environmental agencies gave updates on recent developments in areas from energy-efficient technologies and economic incentives to risk assessment and responsible use of available resources.

Experts speaking about the cost end of the issue noted that tax incentives and discounts at purchase are beginning to make technologies, from solar panels to electric cars, more affordable. Creating and servicing new green infrastructure and energy-efficient technologies will bring jobs to bolster economic development at all levels, the panelists predicted.

Rhode Island, however, is less prepared to handle the increasing volume of stormwater runoff, according to officials. Monitoring headwaters and feeder streams, as well as responsible wastewater management, are key to reducing pollutants and controlling flooding and erosion. Standards and measures are in the works to calculate future risk and to determine where and how to build a resilient barrier to storm surges.

Convened by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., this annual environmental conference provides a forum for dialog across a range of stakeholders. Afternoon breakout sessions considered more in-depth ways of taking advantage of economic opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and ways to create sustainable and resilient cities and towns, leverage government funding and encourage investment from businesses.


Northeast Hurricane Modeling Outdated

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

URI professor of oceanography Isaac Ginis. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)NARRAGANSETT — Hurricanes bound for New England will get about 10 percent more powerful by 2100, but the state lacks the tools to assess their impacts, according to University of Rhode Island professor Isaac Ginis.

Hurricanes are powered by warm water, and the predicted increase in ocean temperatures caused by climate change is expected to make hurricane season longer and the storms stronger in the years ahead.

“Hurricanes love warm water,” Ginis said during a July 24 climate change seminar at the University of Rhode Island.

Numerous studies and models suggest the frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes are expected to increase by 81 percent, while the volume of rainfall is expected to increase 20 percent by 2100, Ginis said.

However, a key current modeling method used to measure the impacts of hurricanes and set flood insurance maps is outdated, he said. The federal Hazus model mostly relies on ocean temperatures to predict damage on land. But, Ginis said, this modeling leaves out critical atmospheric factors that hurricanes encounter as they approach New England, such as cold fronts and the jet stream.

These local factors can make hurricanes more powerful as they take on the characteristics of a nor’easter, he said. “That’s why they often gain energy and intensify.”

As hybrid storms, or extra-tropical storms, hurricanes in northern regions produce differences in rainfall, wind speed and height of storm surge.

Earlier this month, Hurricane Arthur was considered benign as it passed to the east of New England, but the storm strengthened as it headed north along the Gulf Stream and encountered new atmospheric conditions. Arthur then inflicted significant damage when it made landfall in Canada’s maritime provinces, with more rain and higher winds than expected.

“We’re lucky the storm did not undergo extra-tropical transition when it was close to Rhode Island,” Ginis said.

Another problem with current hurricane forecasting is the public and media fixation on the 1-5 ranking system assigned to measure hurricane strength, he said. The ranking is primarily based on wind speeds but leaves out other critical factors, such the height of water within a hurricane. Water height determines the storm surge and influences coastal and inland flooding, two factors that caused major damage in hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

“Scientists and the forecasters hate this scale," Ginis said. "It really does not represent the threat (from hurricanes)."

As an alternative, the National Hurricane Center is experimenting with detailed real-time models that monitor water height, storm surge and flooding.

Hurricane forecasting and planning, however, used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state planners relies on a modeling system called SLOSH (sea, lake and overland surges from hurricanes). SLOSH modeling began in the 1960s and doesn’t take into account atmosheric and geographic factors that are common to the Northeast during hurricanes.

“We do need a more robust threat and risk analysis in Rhode Island,” Ginis said.

In order to create a better hurricane predictor, Ginis is working with URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography on a multi-model system that uses 3-D simulations, as well as climate-change assumptions, such as sea-level rise, to gauge atmospheric and oceanic conditions of approaching storms. This multi-model approach also would measure the impacts of hurricane after they pass.

“If you are just looking at only one model you’re prone to make several significant errors in your assessments,” he said.

This research contributes to two programs sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that aim to improve hurricane tracking, forecasting and understanding of potential impacts. The URI group is also offering its expertise to the state Beach SAMP project to help improve hurricane risk analysis in Rhode Island.

Grover Fugate, director of the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the agency overseeing the Beach SAMP, said having this information helps cities and town better understand the risks and prepare. 

“We really need to start thinking about these practices and how we put those in proactively, so that we can act when the storm comes,” Fugate said.


Experts Say Expect More Rain and Flooding

By DAVID SMITH/ecoRI News contributor

WOOD RIVER JUNCTION — The shoreline is retreating and it won’t take a big storm or hurricane to severely damage structures along the coast, according to David Vallee, the hydrologist-in-charge at the Northeast River Forecast Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Vallee was one of two speakers at a recent Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association discussion entitled “Adapting the Watershed” and held at Chariho Middle School.

He noted that 2012 Superstorm Sandy devastated the Rhode Island coast, leveling dunes and destroying property, and the October storm wasn’t even a Category 3 or 4 hurricane. It was “just” a severe storm with a “massive wave field” and 4.5-foot storm surge, he said.

Vallee has gathered data that shows that the intensity of rainfall has increased during the past 30 years, and that there are fewer droughts. That has held to higher water levels in rivers, and combined with urbanization of the floodplains, has increased the frequency and severity of flooding.

For example, Vallee noted that the Scituate Reservoir was designed in the 1920s to be filled by June 1. The reservoir now fills around March 1, he said, and the excess flows into the North Branch Pawtuxet River.

The common theme during the past decade has been slow-moving weather systems with multiple events in succession before a major storm. Each of these type storms is being fed by a tropical connection, Vallee said.

Global warming is changing the jet stream, he said. He said the Northeast is losing its east-to-west flow of weather systems, and there is now more north-to-south flows. Rhode Island also is seeing a temperature increase of about 1 degree every 50 years, according to data collected at T.F. Green Airport.

Vallee said summers in Rhode Island are getting hotter, more akin to the weather in New Jersey.

And as expected, water levels are changing.

“All three (gauge) locations on the Pawcatuck River ... indicate an increase in flooding,” Vallee said. “Wood River Junction is the smallest of the bunch but all three locations are showing an increase based on our examining the number of floods over the period of record, which dates to between 1929 and 1940 or so.

“The reason the basin isn’t seeing the rate of increase as some others, we hypothesize, may have to do with the amount of natural storage and still undeveloped land allowing for the basin to handle additional rains and wetter conditions, but the Wood River and the Pawcatuck at Westerly have experienced a more substantial increase.”

In years to come, Vallee said there will be many businesses and homes along the Pawcatuck River affected by the rise in sea level and related flooding.

“Adapt or retreat,” he said, noting that in time there will not be a choice. He said Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut will not survive.

“Atlantic Avenue is tremendously vulnerable because of sea-level rise and the fact that a Category 3 hurricane will be capable of producing surge in the range of 8 to 12 feet above that increase in sea level,” Vallee said. “Sandy produced a 4- to 4.5-foot surge, one-half to one-third of what this region will see again. Most of the houses lack protection to withstand such a strike.

“Some places don’t belong there any more. But it gets back to the property tax base. What do you do? How do you convince people to leave? It’s only a matter of time before the big hurricanes come through.”

He cited one example of development adapting to a changing climate: the redevelopment of the former Royal Mill Complex in Warwick on the Pawtuxet River. In that case the bottom two floors were used for parking. That allows the flow of water underneath the structure instead of putting living space in danger of being flooded.

Keeping lookout
Vallee’s job is to develop forecasts and issue flood warnings at least five days in advance. His job is made easier by the river gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The other speaker was Michelle Burnett, a state floodplain coordinator with the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency. She spoke about flood insurance, storm preparations and planning, and her agency’s role in handling federal grants in the aftermath of disasters.

The R.I. Emergency Management Agency is currently updating state evacuation plans. The agency has oversight on more than 600 dams, and held its annual hurricane and preparedness conference June 20 at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick. Hurricane season began June 1.

One of the biggest components of her agency is mitigation, such as in the case of coastal development, urging people to build better and smarter. One of those ways is to elevate coastal homes on pilings at least 15 feet high, with breakaway walls at ground level to allow water to flow underneath.

She said several homes in Misquamicut are now being raised in this manner. The problem, she said, is that if not all the homes are raised, one could get washed off its foundation and damage other structures.

Burnett also noted that Rhode Island has suffered an unprecedented four federal disaster declarations in four straight years, beginning with the flooding in March 2010, tropical storm Irene in 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and a severe winter storm in 2013.

Burnett said climate change permeates everything her agency is doing. “It will exacerbate all of the planning, because it effects storms, hurricanes and flooding,” she said.

Her message to the audience was to be prepared for the next emergency, whether that be by buying flood insurance, creating a storm kit that includes food, medicine and water, or just making a plan regarding what you will do if you have to evacuate or get separated from loved ones.


Building On Borrowed Time

Ocean Mist, the waterfront bar in Matunuck, and many of the buildings along the popular beach are losing land to a rising sea. (©John Supancic/for R.I. Sea Grant)How long can we continue to live on the coast? Depends on how much we want to spend and the amount of damage we want to cause.

By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI News contributor

Rhode Island is the second-most densely populated state, and its 420 miles of coastline are crowded with homes and businesses, residents and tourists. The increasing rate of erosion and sea-level rise, and the effects of coastal storms and flooding, are making the state’s coastal landscape ever smaller.

For those who think that engineering solutions will hold back the sea, Robert Fairbanks, a Rhode Island-based engineer who designs and builds hard structures to protect coastal properties, has some bad news.

“Everything is temporary,” he said. Fairbanks explained that when built correctly, barriers such as seawalls, revetments or even dunes can protect an area for an extended period of time, but not indefinitely. “It’s always an educational process explaining to a homeowner who just spent a million dollars and now thinks they’re completely protected forever. I explain to them, that’s not the way Mother Nature works.”

While hurricanes and storms such as Sandy can move sand from one place to another — Sandy alone stripped some 1,600 tons of sand away from Narragansett Town Beach and dumped about 18,000 tons onto Atlantic Avenue in Westerly — ultimately, the state is losing land over time. Despite seawall construction, beach renourishment and other measures, Rhode Island’s coastline has lost nearly 300 feet of beach in just 50 years.

This has been felt most acutely along the more exposed southern shoreline in communities from Point Judith to Westerly. Matunuck, Misquamicut and South Kingstown Town Beach have lost about 400 feet of beach combined in the past 40 years.

Narragansett’s seawall — a mile-long, steel sheet-pile seawall capped with  concrete — has protected downtown Narragansett since 1933, and Newport’s Cliff Walk has endured since the end of the 19th century. Though they have weathered many storms, they were both damaged heavily by Sandy, and required millions of dollars in repairs.

Efforts are underway to restore these existing structures and others, as well as to rebuild beaches, an undertaking funded in part by the $61.4 million Rhode Island received from federal disaster relief programs to help the state recover from Sandy’s October 2012 visit. And many residents and businesses are demanding the right to build new seawalls despite strict permitting regulations that largely prohibit them in many areas.

These efforts illustrate the challenges in educating people about the risks of coastal living. Dan Goulet, engineer at the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state agency responsible for protecting coastal resources, likened the issue to the failed bank bailouts in 2008, and said that coastal communities need long-term solutions that will require a different way of thinking for how people live on the coast instead of continually investing in infrastructure that doesn’t work.

“It’s risky to live on the coast and people don’t get it,” he said, talking about the many oceanfront properties owned by seasonal residents. “They come in the summer and it’s wonderful, but they don’t see when the ocean is lapping at their property.”

Rhode Island is one of the few states with a near-ban on construction of new hard shoreline protection structures despite the strong push to build. With the exception of pre-exisiting structures, this ban is primarily along Rhode Island’s southern shore in waters classified by CRMC as a Type 1, which abut natural, undisturbed shorelines. The south shore is also exposed to high wave energy, flooding and erosion.

CRMC officials say that new construction is banned for all Type 1 waters to protect natural-habitat sand because such structures interfere with the natural transportation of sediment and accelerate erosion. Pre-existing structures can be maintained but aren’t permitted to expand.

“We’re very concerned about sediment supply and have a limited supply on the south coast,” said Grover Fugate, CRMC’s executive director. “Seawalls block the supply, and that has downstream impacts on beaches. You can have a wall or a beach, but you can’t have both.”

Erosion is a process, not a problem, and we can’t stop it from happening. (R.I. Sea Grant)Relentless wave energy
Seawalls are vertical structures made of concrete or timber, and are driven into the ground to deflect oncoming waves. This deflected wave force, however, has to go somewhere and is generally pushed back out. This accelerates erosion in front of the wall, or to the sides, causing scouring to the outside edges and damaging adjacent properties, and ultimately eroding behind the wall and rendering it useless. Revetments are engineered rock walls, but they follow the natural slope of the beach to break up wave energy and minimize erosion impacts. However, they can still pose scouring problems, and any beach in front of them will be eroded away.

This is the case in Matunuck, where a 200-foot-long steel sheet-pile seawall was approved to protect a portion of Matunuck Beach Road. This proposed structure would be an exception, to protect public health and safety, since the road is the only access to 250 homes, and protects the water supply for 1,600 homes. The total estimated cost of this project is $1.38 million, which would be funded by the state Department of Transportation.

“I’m working with South Kingstown to protect Matunuck Beach Road, because that area has eroded right to the edge of the road,” Fairbanks said. “We’ve (designed) to limit erosion at the wall by not only using a steel sheet-pile structure buried about eight feet, but also burying stone up against it so if we do lose the sand on top, the stone will be exposed. This will help stop the erosion so it won’t continue to dig the hole deeper and deeper. When the storm is over you can go back in and replace the sand, to recreate the area.”

There was opposition to the town’s original plan, which called for the wall to extend the length of the entire road. Janet Freedman, coastal geologist at CRMC, said construction will not go past the existing revetment at the Matunuck Trailer Association property on Matunuck Beach Road so as not to compromise local businesses and homes beyond. This construction, however, comes at the expense of keeping a beach in favor of protecting the road.

Not only can seawalls accelerate erosion, they can also harm the structures they are intended to protect when they aren’t built adequately to withstand wave forces and instead create harmful debris. The Andrea Hotel, a landmark in Misquamicut for nearly a century, which ultimately had to be torn down and rebuilt because of flooding damage, also suffered structural damage from seawall debris during Sandy.

“The stones were not the correct size and were like flying torpedoes,” said Michelle Carnevale, Rhode Island Sea Grant and Coastal Resources Center extension specialist, who is working with Fugate on the Rhode Island Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) — a management plan being developed to help coastal communities and homeowners adapt to sea-level rise, flooding and erosion.

She noted that part of the problem was that the wall was under-designed because it predated CRMC regulations. The damage that was done during Sandy to the Andrea Hotel shows that an undersize seawall can do as much, or more damage, as no seawall at all, Fugate said.

Fairbanks believes there’s a stigma against seawalls, and other hard structures, as a result of poor siting and construction.

“This is where seawalls have gotten a black eye,” he said. “People have gone in places and built things with out taking into account what effect their structure was going to have on the adjacent property.”

Fairbanks said that when built correctly, hard structures can be effective. Each structure must be designed and built to withstand the wave energy expected at its location. Structures need to withstand up to tens of thousands of pounds of force from a breaking wave during a storm. Many such structures are sloped with an uneven surface designed to reduce wave-energy impact.

“I have to understand how big the waves are during storms in order to be able to know what type of structure to use, and what it should look like height, width, material, slope,” said Fairbanks, explaining that he designs for the so-called 100-year storm, or the storm with a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year, utilizing floodplain maps and studies as recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The larger the waves anticipated at a given site, the more expensive the structure. “A 27 percent increase in wave height doubles the amount of force, and that’s all cost,” Fairbanks said.

Even designing seawalls to withstand a 100-year storm may not provide the protection the name implies. First, new climate research suggests that such storms may now have a 5 percent or 10 percent chance of happening in any given year. Second, the coastal zone, subject to wave action, is determined on federal floodplain maps according to a set of variables that, for Rhode Island, don’t adequately represent true flooding risk, according to Fairbanks, Fugate, and Freedman. Part of the problem is that these new maps fail to incorporate flood marks from storms such as Sandy.

“We know they’re not accurate because we know we’ve flooded more than what they have mapped. There’s physical evidence,” Freedman said. “We know the Sandy waves were higher than the max wave they modeled for this area.”

The new maps, according to Jessica Stimson, floodplain mapping coordinator for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, incorporate the past 20 years of data. Work on the maps began in 2009, and was completed prior to Sandy.

Still, she said that after Sandy, federal contractors did survey the coastline and felt the data collected didn’t indicate a need to re-delineate the maps.

Fairbanks said he doesn’t trust the maps, and that their accuracy, or lack of it, has huge implications for the effectiveness of engineered structures if they aren’t built to withstand actual conditions. Freedman said this could also hurt homeowners who believe they are outside the flood zone and yet may find their properties flooded during a major storm.

Even when an adequate seawall, or other structure is built, the initial construction expenses are only the beginning — maintenance accounts for a huge part of the overall cost, Fairbanks said. Structures will need repairs from the normal wear and tear of the ocean, as well as damages from storms, and dunes will need to be restored and replanted. Many state beaches have maintenance funds incorporated into their budgets, and dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, but not all homeowners have the resources to maintain private shoreline protection over time.

Old timber and stone groins first installed in Buttonwoods, Warwick, in 1962, for example, weren’t properly maintained and ultimately accelerated erosion in the area, according to Fairbanks.

Public access can't be denied
The potential damages to the shoreline aren’t the only reason CRMC places strict regulations on construction of new hard structures. Those structures can also block public access to the shoreline, which begins at the high-tide mark.

“One thing about shoreline structures is that you lose public access,” Freedman said. “As that beach moves, you protect your house, but the public loses that right of access to the shore, and why should we?”

Property that’s been eroded can’t be reclaimed and there is no compensation for homeowners. This means as the water rises, it’s taking what used to be private land and turning it into public trust shoreline.

“The dry is becoming wet, and public property is becoming bigger, encroaching on private property,” said Susan Farady, former director of the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University. “The big issue here is private versus public rights.”

Farady said the dilemma about building structures involves how to weigh the right to protect private property against the public trust to access resources, and also determining who is responsible for the damages incurred to the surrounding properties resulting from a structure. This is one of the many issues the Beach SAMP will address.

“We base our management and property interests on a set of conditions that we’ve assumed are going to be relatively stable, which we know is clearly not the case,” Farady said. “Water is going to do what water is going to do. The issue isn’t the ocean. It’s our responses and abilities to manage our own actions.”

Current management of coastal resources inRhode Island is framed around balancing all interests along the coast but not at the expense of public access.

“We try to take emotion out of it and be pragmatic to balance it for everybody because you’ve got fishermen, people that just want to walk down the beach, the health of the beach itself, and nobody likes to be told to let (their homes) fall in the ocean. That’s tough,” CRMC’s Goulet said.

Many residents in Matunuck are indeed struggling with their limited options, and have petitioned for the shoreline there to be reclassified as manmade in order to allow hard structures. They also have requested that the existing stone revetment be extended, or that the approved seawall be moved seaward to protect waterfront properties. Although these requests have been denied in order to preserve the coastal environment and public access to the shoreline, there are still options remaining, including soft solutions such as planting vegetation and/or non-permanent structures, and installing coir logs that are biodegradable erosion-prevention logs made from coconut fiber to aid in the stabilization and revegetation of hillsides, banks and shorelines prone to erosion.

These methods, however, may not always be effective in such exposed areas, Fairbanks said.

“There’s a general thought that we can go to soft solutions,” he said, claiming that in high-energy areas like Matunuck the beach isn’t wide enough to disperse the energy coming from the ocean. “We just don’t have that kind of width here.”

For coastal headlands in Misquamicut and Matunuck, CRMC has approved non-permanent experimental erosion control measures, such as marine mattresses that are rock-filled containers intended to slow or abate erosion without the damages inflicted by seawalls.

While some of these methods have been effective in other areas around the country, it’s unclear how they will fare on Rhode Island’s coast.

As the results of the experimental measures being undertaken in Matunuck and Miquamicut become more apparent, more options for property owners may become viable. Nevertheless, both coastal engineers and resource managers say that all measures are just buying time.

The question is, how much?

This story was originally published in the spring/summer 2014 edition of the Rhode Island Sea Grant publication 41º North.


Climate Change Taking Toll On Matunuck Beach

Story and photos by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — As summer gets underway in the popular Matunuck Beach area, much of the shoreline is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy's 2012 visit, and ongoing erosion. Since 1951, the beach has migrated some 300 feet inland, and erosion and coastal flooding accelerated after a spate of storms that began in 2010.

Along a mile stretch of waterfront, several landmarks and summer destinations are taking different approaches to adapting to the problems brought on by a changing climate.

The owner of the last of the iconic Browning cottage has dug in, moved back and built a wall of sand.The Browning cottage. The owner of the remaining iconic summer home and carriage house has dug in — and back — since Sandy. The home was one of five large Queen Anne shingle-style summer homes built hundreds of feet from the beach in 1900. Hurricanes in 1938 and 1954 wiped out several of the large structures.

Increasing beach erosion since the 1970s prompted the owners to move the buildings 50 feet inland. Damage from Sandy led to the demolition of two of the remaining cottages.

Since the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) issued an emergency building permit in 2013, the last home has been pushed back 35 feet, a basement removed and the home elevated atop 16-foot columns made of cement and steel. A 4,500-gallon holding tank was installed in place of a septic system.

A second permit allowed construction of a barrier dune around the buildings. The dune is fortified with sandbags wrapped in natural-fiber logs. The dune touches the edge of the high-tide marker. The owner hopes the home will last 10 more years.

Several summer homes at Roy Carpenter’s Beach have moved from the beachfront to the last row of homes near a cornfield.Roy Carpenter’s summer homes. For the first time since 1976, the Fourth of July fireworks display has been canceled. The fire marshal denied a permit because the beach is no longer wide enough to offer a safe distance from the homes.

The former seasonal fishing camp populated with tents and collapsible cottages has evolved into a tight-knit beach community of 377 tiny homes. Most have about 500 square feet of space and rest on cinderblocks. The homes lack septic systems, so residents rely on communal bathrooms or compostable toilets.

A parking lot and a wide beach once provided an ample buffer from Block Island Sound, but erosion has brought the beach to the doorstep of many homes and has caused flooding in the interior of the dense housing development.

Superstorm Sandy washed away three homes from the front row of cottages. Several others were demolished because of structural damage. Farmland behind the 20-odd rows of homes is available to relocate structures from the edge of the beach. Before Sandy, plans were underway to move 28 homes. Of the 20 remaining, four were relocated to the back row this spring.

“We’re trying to find the best balance between nature, humans and everything,” said Rob Thoresen, great-grandson of Roy Carpenter and co-owner of the property.

A septic leaching field is being built under the future site of the town's beach pavilion.Town Beach. A site is being prepared for a “managed retreat” of the public beach pavilion.

Since the 1990s, waves and flooding have eaten away at manmade and natural structures. Storms have destroyed a row of protective sand dunes and a boardwalk. Sandy took out a large seating area at the front of the pavilion and sea-level rise threatens the entire structure.

After this summer, the pavilion will be relocated some 300 feet inland. Currently, construction of a leaching field is underway to manage wastewater.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is paying $300,000 of the $400,000 project.

“Hopefully, the pavilion will be standing for another 25 to 50 years,” said Terry Murphy, the town’s director of leisure services.

The Ocean Mist fortified its foundation this spring. The owner is contesting a new wall planned for beside the building.Ocean Mist. This bar and nightclub is ground zero for the climate-change and property-rights policy struggle in Rhode Island. The structure sits between the ocean and a wall of stone and sod. At high tide, water runs underneath the wood pilings that support the building.

Owner Kevin Finnegan recently lost a legal battle to prevent construction of a sheet-pile wall that, if built, will sit next to his building. The town intends to install the wall in October to protect a road that provides access to several businesses and residences in the beach community. Finnegan believes the wall will deflect incoming waves toward his building. This spring he installed wooden planks under Ocean Mist to reinforce its foundation.

When completed, most of the wall will be buried, with a 3-foot cement cap above ground. The barrier will resemble the cement wall at Narragansett Beach.

The proposed 202-foot sheet-pile wall is itself a controversy. The CRMC approved construction in 2012 after the board reversed an original decision to deny it. The wall is expected to exacerbate erosion along exposed portions of the beach, much like an existing manmade stone wall, called a revetment, that lies to the west of Ocean Mist. The project underscores the debate between trying to protect property and letting nature run its course.

Regardless of what’s built to prevent further damage, the shoreline is likely to move another 300 feet inland by the end of the century, according to Grover Fugate, CRMC's executive director. “Nothing is going to work in the long run, but some of (the fixes) are going to buy you more time," he said.


Sea-Level Rise Drawing a New Ocean State

This Roy Carpenter’s Beach cottage survived Hurricane Irene in 2011 but with a severely eroded bluff. The cottage and the land under it were lost a year later during Superstorm Sandy. (©Kathie Florsheim)Coastline we celebrate is receding right before our eyes

By KATHIE FLORSHEIM/ecoRI News contributor

This Saturday (June 21) will mark the official beginning of summer in New England, and the delicious rituals that we associate with the season — walks on the beach, collecting shells and special stones, rummaging through tide pools, jumping waves, barbecues.

Many of us celebrate the season living in or visiting the numerous cottage communities along our shore. Cottage life is alive and well, as are the casual, easy friendships that have developed over generations in these quirky places we call home, from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Yet we are watching as the coastline we celebrate recedes, and wishing beyond reality that weren’t the case.

Typically, these places have weathered storm damage, erosion and, now, a retreating shore. Roy Carpenter’s Beach in Matunuck is but one example of the cycle of damage and reconstruction that has become part of life on the Rhode Island shore. I refer to Roy’s in particular because of my familiarity with the place, which is the result of photographing there since 2004.

In the most recent assault at Roy’s, Superstorm Sandy took three cottages and the land under them out to sea, and damaged a bunch more so badly they had to be demolished. Of those cottages on the shore that survived, a number are being relocated further from the water, placed on cement pilings. Cottages on round, cement stilts. There is even some new construction proceeding in the same area.

All of this is a testament, above all, to hope. Hope that the storm we all fear doesn’t occur any time soon; hope that these cottages are far enough from the water to survive if the worst happens. Hope that the community, known to many of us as one that seems immutable, safe in our memories as an ever-present reassurance, proves that we can continue to live on or near the water.

Although this Roy Carpenter’s Beach cottage was badly damaged in Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, it was saved. That December, it was moved to the corn field on the west side of the property, where it sat on large cement blocks for 18 months. It was moved to its current location several weeks ago. It now sits on cement pilings in a corn field on the east side of the property. The cottage has been home to the same family since the 1950s. (©Kathie Florsheim)Yet there are reminders that living on hope has limits. The general store at Roy’s was moved back 100 feet from the shore after the fall storms, in the winter of 2005-06. Recently, when I visited Roy’s, I walked off the front steps of the store, directly onto the beach. That means coastal retreat in eight years has been about 100 feet. Compare that with the coastal retreat, in the same location, of 93 feet, lost between 1939 and 2006.

We are known as the Ocean State. A lot of our history as a state has taken place along the coast, as has a great deal of commerce, from ship building to fishing to sail making and tourism. Most of us who live here have a personal relationship with the coastline. Sea-level rise, however, is reconfiguring our coastline and very possibly, our relationship to it.

That relationship was nurtured by generations past, born of both nostalgia and familiarity, interwoven with our work and leisure, and above all was responsible for an enormous amount of both our national and regional economies. For all the things we will lose, and there are many, we nonetheless need to re-imagine the shore, not as a threat, but yet again, as an asset. As we watch the water rise and our shore retreat, it is time for us as a community to consider how we will preserve our rich, productive relationship with the coast.

Although, ideally we would stop building in flood zones, that is unlikely to happen. Towns and cities get their greatest tax revenue from waterfront property. We could, however, require that buildings in flood zones establish an escrow account equal to the value of the structure. That money would be used to clean up the remains of these structures were they destroyed in a coastal storm.

We also can build resilience into new structures, on and off the coastline, by using the increasing body of knowledge about how to construct our buildings to be resistant to storm damage. Our building regulations should require that kind of construction, for new and existing structures, wherever they are situated. The benefits of doing so, in the long run, will outweigh the cost.

In areas where sea-level rise and storm damage have wiped the coast clean, we need to consider how that property could be allocated for public use, with open access, just as Napatree Point was so designated after the 1938 hurricane.

We can both prepare for the inevitable, sensibly, while simultaneously enjoying every last bit of time we have living as we now do. Our challenge is to revel in the moment, savor the pleasure we get from our existing shoreline and way of life, while recognizing that it’s in flux, probably changing faster than anyone had anticipated, and concurrently plan for the future.


Gov. Chafee Unveils Belated Climate Master Plan

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Gov. Lincoln Chafee, left, released a draft of his state plan to address climate change at Bristol Town Beach on May 8. (Tim Faulkner ecoRI News)BRISTOL — Three years and four months into his one term in office, Gov. Lincoln Chafee released a plan to address climate change in Rhode Island.

The 57-page draft document is an across-the-board effort to focus public and private entities on reducing heat-trapping gas emissions and managing climate change-induced problems such as flooding. The report was drawn up after a speedy two-month process that included 10 public meetings organized by the Executive Climate Change Council (EC3), a committee of state agency officials that Chafee authorized in late February.

If the EC3 adopts the proposal — public comment ends May 20 — the council has until the end of the year to fill in the specifics for a five-year climate plan.

The main objectives of the program seek to integrate climate-change action into all levels of government and key aspects of the economy. It includes improved collaboration between state agencies and partnerships with municipal and federal entities. It encourages public-private collaboration; identifies vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and low-income communities; and advocates for improved public education and communication. It also endorses climate-related legislation currently in the General Assembly, and sets targets for emission reductions.

During Chafee’s time in office, other efforts to tackle climate change, such as the legislator-driven Climate Change Commission, have suffered from infighting at the General Assembly and made little progress — a lack of funding has often been noted as an obstacle. In recent years, legislation to address climate change on a broad scale received little support from the governor’s office and died in committee.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, passed its Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008 and buttressed it with the Green Jobs Act and Green Communities Act. All were part of a first-in-the-nation climate plan that is credited with boosting economic growth while addressing climate change.

At the May 8 press event to mark the release of the climate plan “A Resilient Rhode Island: Being Practical About Climate Change,” Chafee had an ambiguous answer when asked why action on climate change was championed so late in his term.

Chafee told ecoRI News that addressing climate change “was always a priority from day one.” But, he added, his first order of business once taking office was to improve the local economy and create jobs, implying that tackling climate change wasn't considered a growth engine.

Yet, job creation and economic development were benefits of the climate plan Chafee touted at the recent Bristol event. “There are economic opportunities with extreme weather and climate change. Let’s take advantage of those,” he said.

Allan Klindworth of the environmental engineering firm AECOM, a global company that designs green infrastructure in Rhode Island, said climate change impedes commerce but “taking action to prepare for the issues of climate change reduces costs and disruption. It can also quicken recovery, getting people back to work faster and provide (economic) opportunities.”

Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the lead agency on climate-change efforts and head of the EC3, said Chafee has had climate change on his agenda from the beginning, but had to rebuild or reorganize several state agencies before launching a master plan. Those efforts included a revamped state master plan and new leadership at the Office of Energy Resources and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, brags about jobs and growth in its green sector, with an estimated 80,000 employees working at 5,500 firms, and consistent annual double-digit job growth. The Bay State's climate legislation also triggered other programs, such as successful solar initiatives that have exceeded growth targets for renewable energy.

Massachusetts launched its programs with $68 million in state funds. Rhode Island, by contrast, has been in cost-cutting mode and relying on federal stimulus funds, grants and parsing of existing budgets to improve its green programs and initiatives.

Chafee’s new climate plan, for the most part, mimics what Massachusetts did in 2008. Oversight runs through the governor’s office. It sets benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and offers guidance to municipalities on mitigation, adaptation, renewable-energy and energy-efficiency efforts. It promotes private investment and partnerships, and supports new legislation for greenhouse gas reductions and renewable-energy programs.

Other highlights of the Resilient Rhode Island plan include: an eight-state, zero-emission vehicle plan; promote renewable thermal fuels; study “resilient microgrids” as backup power during power outages; shoreline and wetland protections and restoration; new standards for land use; upgrade roadways, and drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

What does the report lack? There’s scant talk of dramatic reduction in fossil-fuel use, an effort Massachusetts is undertaking. The Sierra Club of Rhode Island says the emission reduction targets are inadequate and have been boosted simply by the increased use of natural gas.

Abel Collins, program manager for Sierra Club Rhode Island, acknowledged that environmental groups like his shoulder some of the blame for the late start on comprehensive reform, because they didn't explicitly lobby for a master plan. But, he said, an all-inclusive climate program is better late than never.

“I don’t think that would have happened without Chafee being in support of this,” Collins said.


Municipalities Seek Help with Increased Flooding

Flooding along the Blackstone River at Ashton Mill on the Cumberland/Lincoln line on March 31, 2010. (NOAA photos)Changing weather patterns and increased urban development are to blame

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The governor’s new Executive Climate Change Council is holding a flurry of meetings as it prepares a status report for May. Some of the findings, so far, reveal a complex bureaucracy that stifles efforts to address rapid increases in flooding, sea-level rise and other climate impacts affecting Rhode Island.

In West Warwick, town planner Fred Presley has endured six serious floods since March 2010. Presley is bracing for more now that the rainy season is here, the ground is saturated and the Pawtuxet River is flowing at peak level.

"This time of year scares the heck out of me,“ Presley said during an April 15 meeting of the new climate council.

The only dry spots in town are the local coffers. A recent study found West Warwick needs up to $40 million to renovate storm drains and other infrastructure, most of it built in the late 1800s.

Presley and residents are frustrated with a lack of support to address the long-term problem. A federal program designed to buy repeatedly flooded property approved just one of two dozen homes and businesses that applied for buyouts.

Property owners are fed up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the buyout program, Presley said. “FEMA is a dirty, four-letter word to them.”

Other residents are threatening to sue the town for not addressing the water woes, he said.

Stormwater is hitting the town on many fronts. Increased rainfall and unchecked development strain the city’s antiquated drainage system. Water also heads downstream from Coventry through new 48-inch drainpipes. When it rains, the new pipes overwhelm West Warwick’s 24-inch pipes.

But the elephant in the room, Presley said, is the artificially high water level at the Scituate Reservoir. The public water source is now filled to capacity earlier — March instead of June. Presley wants the water level lowered ahead of heavy rains, storms that will replenish the drained water.

“A water body that can’t take any more water is the same as a parking lot,” Presley said.

Rainwater added to the 17-square-mile surface of the reservoir simply runs over the dam and into the Pawtuxet River. The flow, he said, has increased 50 percent during heavy rains.

“It’s been proven. The data is there. It’s just that no one is doing anything about it,” Presley said.

A call to the Providence Water Supply Board, manager of the Scituate Reservoir, wasn't returned.

Three days of heavy rain in late March 2010 flooded Ann and Hope Way in Cumberland.Development problems
David Vallee, hydrologist-in-charge at the federal Northeast River Forecast Center in Taunton, Mass., said the Scituate Reservoir isn’t equipped to manage flood problems. Climate change and urban development downstream are the culprits, he said.

Climate change has brought an earlier and wetter spring, he wrote in an e-mail. “We are increasing our annual rainfall in Rhode Island by approximately 1 inch every eight or nine years. The original designers certainly never saw that kind of increase coming when they built the reservoir back in the late 1910s and early 1920s.”

Cranston, Warwick and West Warwick are all figuring out how to adapt to this influx of water.

In West Warwick, Presley is slowly advancing the concept of a stormwater utility district to pay for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance. A utility district works much like a sewer system, but instead of sewage discharges, property owners pay for the volume of runoff from a building or parking lot that flows into the stormwater drains. Presley estimates an average cost of $50 a year per homeowner. It’s been a challenge to convince residents and the Town Council that these fees are needed.

“It’s a new reality because we are in new conditions right now,” he said.

Several Providence-area municipalities are considering a regional stormwater utility district, as are Middletown and Newport.

“We need some help in pulling this together,” said Jane Howington, Newport’s city manager. She described neighborhood streets flooding, as storm drains flow backward at high tide, a process known as dry flooding.

Programs and funds from the state Coastal Resources Center and the Office of Statewide Planning have paid for studies and public outreach in several communities such as Newport, but flexibility is needed from other state agencies so communities can experiment with innovative drainage techniques and advance a shared stormwater utility district, Howington said.

“Within 30 years, three to five feet of rising sea level will be in major areas within Newport that aren’t even going to be there anymore," she said. "They’ll be underwater.”

Town planners from North Kingstown and Cranston also reported persistent flooding from stormwater runoff and higher tides.

“Flooding is our issue,” said Jason Pezzullo, Cranston’s principal planner. Upgrades are needed for the sewage treatment plant and pump stations, he said. Thousands of homes lie in increasingly wet flood zones — areas that were dry until about 10 years ago.

Cranston received federal money to buy six flood-prone homes. It hopes to raise additional revenue by joining a Providence-area stormwater utility district.

Planners are counting on funds from the $75 million Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities bond referendum in November. Efforts also are underway to create a climate adaptation institute at the University of Rhode Island, to provide long-term solutions and expertise to municipalities.

For now, these communities want local and statewide support to advance new ideas and regional solutions.

“We need some ability to try different things without having other agencies put so severe constraints on us that we're not able to do those things that might help in the long run. That means we all have to work together on it,” Howington said.

Referring to the heavy rains falling on Providence as he spoke, Presley said he expected phone calls from flooded residents asking for help. The best he can do for now is send firefighters to pump out basements.

“This is a monumental shift that’s going on here,” he said. 

Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection and chair of the Executive Climate Change Council, said she expects to include these needs and suggested solutions in the draft of recommendations that will be submitted to Gov. Lincoln Chafee next month.


Climate Change Reshaping Urban Tree Populations

Urban trees, such as these in Providence, provide many benefits, from protecting public health to keeping ecosystems resilient. Plus, they brighten up the New England fall. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)Despite protecting us from the impacts of a changing climate, our region’s trees are also threatened by wetter and warmer weather. The urban forests of today will look much different by the end of the century.

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

By the end of this century, scientists predict southern New England’s seas will rise some 3 feet, and without major cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, they say summers here will soon resemble Georgia’s dog days.

Like the rest of the planet, southern New England’s climate is changing, and not all of the changes are as noticeable as, say, three straight days of rain that dump a foot or so of water (2010), an October snowstorm (2011), or a superstorm that hangs around for a few days (Sandy, 2012).

Some changes are less obvious, such as the 10-inch rise in sea level that has taken place along the Newport shoreline since 1931, or the greater frequency of 2-inch rainfalls since the 1950s. There’s also the often-unseen toll the changing climate is having and will have on infrastructure and buildings.

In October 2013, Boston officials released a report entitled “Climate Ready Boston,” which listed things the city should be doing to adapt to climate change, such planting more trees to lessen the heat-island effect and help cool a warming city.

But what kind of trees should we be planting? It’s not our father’s southern New England anymore. In the past decade, the region has witnessed an increase in extreme rain and snowfall events. Southern New England is becoming wetter and warmer, which means trees that once thrived for centuries may not stand up to climate change.

Climate scientists have told Chicago officials that their city will feel more like New Orleans by 2050. To prepare, the city has started planting sweet gums, swamp oaks and other heat-tolerant trees instead of white oak, the state tree of Illinois.

For trees to reach their expected lifespan — 90 years or so — they must be able to endure changing conditions. A changing climate also means trees must deal with stressors such as insects and disease, according to Doug Still, Providence’s city forester.

To deal with climate change and the additional problems it creates, Providence’s tree-planting efforts are centered around diversity. “We haven’t changed our plans too much to accommodate climate change specifically,” said Still, the city forester since 2005. “It’s about planting a diverse mix to create an urban forest that is resilient.”

This spring, the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program (PNPP), a street tree planting partnership between the Mary Elizabeth Sharpe Street Tree Endowment, the city and local residents, will plant 271 trees representing 35 different species, from five Armstrong maples to 10 Turkish filberts. Still said these annual plantings typically incorporate 35-40 different species.

Still is a member of the Society of Municipal Arborists and said the organization has discussed the impact climate change is having and will have on urban tree populations.

He noted that Providence is now at the southernmost tip for sugar maples. The city now only plants a few sugar maples a year, mostly in Roger Williams Park, because warmer conditions make it more difficult for the species to thrive. Scientists say the leaves of sugar maples in New England are less brilliant in color and their sap less sweet. A changing climate, they say, is to blame.

Boston has nearly 1.2 million trees. (City of Boston) In fact, climate change has municipal planners concerned about the health of their trees, and for good reason. Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns could stress the region’s trees, and increased flooding, especially of the salt-water variety, could be damaging, according to the 29-page Climate Ready Boston report.

Besides their beauty, trees, especially those in urban settings, provide shade, improve air quality and mitigate stormwater runoff — their leaves keep about 20 percent of rainfall from hitting impervious surfaces such as pavement and concrete.

A row of trees along a city street can decrease the air temperature by several degrees, according to a 117-page study entitled “Building Resilience in Boston.” Shade trees planted immediately adjacent to buildings can directly reduce air-conditioning costs by 40 percent, according to the July 2013 report.

Trees also are an important part of southern New England’s history and character, are an important asset for public health and quality of life, and play a key role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

In fact, trees help lessen the impact of climate change, even as they too are threatened by it — the same can’t be said of us. According to a recent study of Providence’s urban forest, the city’s 415,000 or so trees annually remove 91 tons of pollution, sequester 4,030 tons of carbon and eliminate 31 million gallons of runoff.

These services provide an environmental benefit of $4.7 million annually, according to the “Providence’s Urban Forests: Structure, Effects and Values.”

“All that biomass in the air that urban trees provide collects pollution and catches rainfall,” Still said. “They help lessen the impact of ground-level ozone, which causes respiratory problems.”