Sandy Continues to Stir Action on Climate Change

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

As the Oct. 29 anniversary of Hurricane Sandy approaches, efforts are underway to get the public to confront the impacts of climate change on Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay.

A slew of efforts from state agencies, universities and environmental groups are drawing attention to threatened natural resources and what can be done to protect them.

Saltwater marshes. Thanks to humans, 53 percent of Rhode Island’s saltwater marshes have disappeared in the past 200 years. Things look even worse for the next hundred. Maps being circulated by the University of Rhode Island's Sea Grant program show that if sea levels increases 3-6 feet by 2100, as predicted, most remaining marshes will be submerged.

Marshes are critical to public health and safety. They clean water, reduce storm damage, store carbon dioxide and are a vital habitat in the overall ecosystem.

The bad news regarding marshes is that the rate of sea-level rise appears to have jumped dramatically since the 1990s, making it harder for marshes to accrete, or grow taller with the higher tides. Manmade barriers, such as roads, homes and sea walls, make matters worse by blocking marshes from retreating inland.

“Wetlands can’t jump over asphalt,” said Pam Rubinoff of Rhode Island Sea Grant during a recent workshop with environmental groups and town officials in Barrington.

In recent years, another problem has hit marshes: persistent flooding. Higher tides make it difficult for marshes to drain water back to the bay. This trapped water creates pools that turn vegetation into muck and completely alter the natural makeup of the marsh.

Save The Bay, Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) are studying numerous areas that are struggling with flooded marshes and marsh migration issues, including North Kingstown and Newport.

The results will to be part of a bigger group effort: the Shoreline Special Area Management Plan, or Beach SAMP. Managed by the CRMC and still in its infancy, the Beach SAMP aims to find solutions to these coastal problems through research, public forums and eventual legislation.

Sensitive legal questions are expected, especially related to property rights and which entities have jurisdiction: local regulations, state laws or the CRMC. “That is the wall you are up against,” said Cyndee Fuller, head of the Barrington Conservation Commission.

There was consent among officials from Barrington and East Providence that zoning boards currently have little authority to manage wetlands development, as most building requests are granted. Barrington DPW director Alan Corvi said some coastal residents are already asking the town to pay to channel water away from their flooding homes.

Others at the meeting asked if municipalities could be liable for issuing building permits in flood-prone areas.

Flooding and rising costs are also expected to increase inland, as higher sea levels prevent water from draining out of freshwater wetlands. These backups stress aging and already overflowing storm drains.

Fuller and others agreed that the public perception of saltwater marshes needs to be improved. “People need to think about their value," she said. "They can’t just think of them as something they can’t build on."

Beaches. A recent public tour of South Kingstown Town Beach raised many of the same issues, such as public-private property rights and the tension between financial and environmental interests. The South County beach is a microcosm of these issues. The public beach pavilion that saw its boardwalk sheared off by Sandy has lost about 250 feet of beachfront in the past 50 years.

Plans are underway to delay the inevitable another 50 years by moving the pavilion back a 100 yards from the eroding beach. A nearby beach club has already moved its clubhouse inland. Not far down the the beach sits the Roy Carpenter summer cottage community, which lost six cottages and a parking lot to Sandy. Cottages once several rows back are now waterfront property, while 10 waterfront homes are being moved to a back field behind 300 other homes.

Some of the solutions, or at least delaying tactics, focus on getting roads and buildings out of the way of the encroaching water, a process called abandonment. The CRMC prohibits the construction of hardened barriers such as riprap and seawalls — structures that often fail and increase erosion on nearby shores.

In the past, the state has renourished beaches by building sandbars close to shore from sand and silt taken from dredged channels. Sand also is brought in from nearby quarries. All these options cost money. One revenue idea likely to be considered for the Beach SAMP is a hotel or other tax to pay for beach maintenance.

“It’s something I’d like to see. I know it’s been discussed,” said Janet Freedman, coastal geologist for CRMC.

The famed Browning Cottages were part of the recent tour Freedman led. Only one of the six historic beach homes remain. One was torn down by Sandy. The owner of the last home is staying, moving upward and inland — although little space remains on the lot and insurance is no longer available. The site is protected by a historic designation, so the owner can hold out as long as possible, within the rules. All septic must be stored in tanks. Only natural barriers made of coconut fiber and sand can protect the home from strong waves and storm surges.

The last Browning Cottage will hold on as long as the owner is willing to pay to fight the ocean.

Jim Bruckshaw, 53, has been a summer resident at Roy Carpenter Beach his entire life. Before the wave of more recent and more intense storms, the beach's cottages would rarely be sold, and when they did it was usually between family members. Now, there are 30 on the market. The nearby softball field floods so often thst it has turned to mud and is no longer usable. The basketball court is almost a pond.

The cost for those that stay is getting worrisome, Bruchshaw said. “Most of it has to do with the thought of losing everything. It’s kind of sad.”