Rising seas and more intense storms are challenging southern New England’s shoreline, coastal homes and infrastructure.
By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Southern New England’s coastline — the region’s economic engine — is under siege, and the relentless enemy is gaining force. It can’t be subdued by 20-foot-high seawalls or controlled by old-school hay bales. It’s allies include parking lots, beachfront development and climate change.
Coastal communities here are increasingly experiencing the impacts of an encroaching ocean. Storm waves are eroding beaches and flooding developed areas. Rising sea levels are taking land. The ocean’s power even when it’s seemingly tranquil is unmatched, but when it’s angry our continued disrespect proves costly.
State and local officials are now asking how they can protect people, property and vital infrastructure such as drinking water supplies, utilities and roads from the advancing sea. There are no simple solutions, but there’s also no reason to panic. The sky isn’t falling, but the ocean is creeping in; our coastline is changing, and smart decisions must be made.
During the past few decades, sections of the Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut shoreline have experienced an average rate of retreat of between 1 and 4 feet, depending on storm frequencies and intensity. A single storm, for example, can wash away some 30 feet of beach in an instant.
“Shoreline changes are the most pressing issue facing Rhode Island,” said Laura Dwyer, the public educator and information coordinator for the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). “We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Our coastline is changing very quickly.”
The Rhode Island Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) was created in the past few years to bring state, federal, municipal, academic and private-sector interests together to create a management plan to help communities adapt to short-term and long-term shoreline change. University of Rhode Island researchers are studying key areas to understand how the coast has changed, what it may look like in the future and what infrastructure is at risk.
Coastal erosion is a major concern for southern New England, largely because the region is often hit by powerful storms. Off the coast of Connecticut, for example, the coastal geology of Long Island Sound is in constant flux — some areas are eroding, others are adding sand — depending on weather.
“Our beaches were created by erosion and are constantly being reshaped by erosion,” said Peter Hanrahan, a certified professional in erosion and sediment control who works for E.J. Prescott Inc. “The coastal real estate we have is going to disappear.”
It already is, and has been for a while. On Thanksgiving Day 2008, a home on Plum Island fell into the sea. A storm about 200 miles off the coast of Massachusetts generated intense, unforgiving waves that pounded the 11-mile-long, half-mile-wide barrier island.
Five years later, eight more Plum Island houses were washed into the ocean, courtesy of Mother Nature. Earlier this month, a section of rock wall designed to protect another island home didn’t. Waves smashed the home’s deck into pieces.
Several years ago the Army Corps of Engineers issued a report noting that erosion along the Plum Island shoreline was claiming an average of 13 feet of sand a year. The report warns that if nothing is done to stop the sea’s encroachment, 26 homes will be lost by 2019. Nine have already been washed away.
The owners, however, can rebuild — despite the fact the federal government opted out of funding any improvement and protection of Plum Island beaches three decades ago.
“There’s a cost and risk involved when you keep shoveling against the tide,” said John Torgan, director of ocean and coastal conservation for the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “You can keep doing that for a while, if you have the money.”
The erosion problem facing Plum Island, and much of the southern New England coastline for that matter, can’t be solved by trucking in more sand, putting down sandbags or, as Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee has suggested, building shoreline property on stilts.
“There are dynamic coastal erosion issues in the Northeast that we aren’t seeing anywhere else, and it’s getting our attention with houses falling into the water,” Hanrahan said. “It’s a big problem and difficult to solve. Solutions that work elsewhere don’t work here.”
For three days this past November, at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick, Hanrahan and a bevy of government officials, private-sector experts and academics addressed the issue of erosion. The Northeast Chapter of the International Erosion Control Association (IECA) hosted the conference.
All the participants and those who attended left better informed, but without any clear-cut solution to bring back to their office, university or community. That’s because there is no real solution. Erosion happens.
“There are options, but none will last,” said Juliana Barrett, assistant educator with Connecticut Sea Grant. “There’s no guarantee any measure will last a month or 10 years.”
A fictitious tool box is filled with temporary solutions, but there is no proverbial silver bullet that will keep the southern New England shoreline from changing. Human responses to this fact can basically be placed into five categories: build big structures such as seawalls; add more sand; retreat; rethink the problem; do nothing.
Old-school and emerging technologies to control coastal erosion include soil envelopes filled with sand, sculptured and colored concrete walls (popular on the West Coast), helical anchoring, drift fences, geosynthetic tubes filled with sand and other natural materials (they are ugly and hard to hide), marine mattresses (the first one was reportedly used at Logan Airport), artificial reefs (popular in Florida and the Caribbean), and coir logs — a durable biodegradable erosion prevention method made from coconut fiber and often used on Cape Cod.
Land-use controls, such as retreat programs, include the removal of structures or relocating them further inland. Coastal construction setback programs limit structures within a specified distance of the shore. There’s also property buyouts, an unpopular option infrequently used, at least so far.
“There are multiple lines of defense and hybrid solutions,” Hanrahan said. “But these techniques are not always perfect. We’ve been trying to harness nature for a long time." He noted that the Romans built seawalls.
Now, many centuries later, it’s well known that structural shoreline protections such as seawalls, bulkheads, gabions and stone revetments actually promote beach degradation and adversely impact the environment. These structures block the natural movement of sand and deflect wave energy back to the beach, thus scrubbing it away. They also impinge upon the public’s right to access the shoreline.
But for generations, hard structures such as seawalls were the preferred approach to “control” beach erosion. Often referred to as shoreline armoring, hard structures are intended to be permanent. They have effectively protected some shoreline structures, but often at a cost to surrounding property and habitat.
Shoreline structures create a false sense of security, Barrett said.
Revetments — engineered rock walls — can be overtopped by waves, scouring sand from behind and causing the structure to collapse. Many of the revetments in southern New England were put in prior to regulations prohibiting shoreline structures, and were built haphazardly or too close to the buildings they are intended to protect.
Nearly half of Rhode Island’s 420 miles of coastline is unsuitable for hard structure protections because of severe waves, flooding and erosion, according to the CRMC. The agency prohibits hard structures along Type 1 beaches — the popular ones in southern Rhode Island with open ocean exposure and scenic values that annually bring in millions of tourist dollars.
In the Ocean State, tourist season revolves around sunbathing, swimming and building sandcastles, but sand replenishment is an expensive, and often futile, option when it comes to battling erosion. Since beaches are dynamic systems, replenishment only serves as a temporary fix. None of Rhode Island’s seven state-run beaches bring in sand. In fact, few beaches in Rhode Island have established beach renourishment programs.
After Superstorm Sandy’s rude visit in October 2012, Rhode Island lost about 90,000 cubic yards of beach sand. It would have been foolish to attempt to replenish that loss with sand scooped from inland quarries.
David Prescott, South County coastkeeper for Save The Bay, said that without the right grain size and shape, trucked-in sand is likely to be washed away again, and quickly. Also, finding sand suitable for a beach can be difficult, it’s expensive, the impacts to fish and ecosystems are poorly understood, and the cumulative effects of this practice haven’t been adequately addressed.
The best option is to allow a beach to do what it wants to do naturally. Non-tourist destinations in South County do fine on their own, such as Black Point in Narragansett, East Beach in Charlestown and Quonochontaug Beach in Westerly.
In fact, since erosion is a natural process, most of the sand “lost” by Sandy has since returned, according to Janet Freedman, a coastal geologist with CRMC.
“The sand didn’t go out too deep into the ocean and has since come back,” said Freedman, noting that Rhode Island beaches have returned to normal since Sandy hit. That normal, however, is the new normal — and it’s constantly changing.
But for popular beaches that generate local and state revenue, waiting for Mother Nature to build back a money-maker isn’t a viable option. Property along southern New England’s coast also represents an enormous investment in both public and private dollars.
For example, for Narragansett Town Beach in Rhode Island, which has a long history of shoreline erosion, the new normal means the town routinely trucks in sand to replenish the beach, generally at the beginning of the busy summer season. After Sandy hit, trucks delivered some 6,000 cubic yards of sand to replace the washed-away beach. In total, to deal with erosion caused by that one superstorm, the town paid $167,720 for beach sand, $42,000 for dune sand and $40,000 for beach grass — all in an attempt to keep the new normal from changing.
Hanrahan calls this trucked-in method “sacrificial sand,” because it will need to be replaced again and again. This practice also can encourage further development along quickly changing shorelines.
In Massachusetts, which has 1,500 miles of coast, there are ongoing debates in several communities about beach renourishment and who pays for this temporary fix. Some residents in Salisbury want $300,000 in state taxpayer dollars for sand to help protect private homes from the rising sea, according to a recent story by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
The story also noted that Winthrop Beach is poised to receive an estimated 20,000 truckloads of sand from Saugus as part of a massive beach replenishment and improvement project that is costing state taxpayers $26 million. In Nantucket and Plum Island, residents want to pay privately for sand but are running into regulator opposition over how best to protect oceanfront property.
In the past 10 years, more than $40 million in federal, state and local money has been spent to place sand on public beaches in Massachusetts, according to a conservative estimate by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.
“We need to be concerned about people’s ability to enjoy these places, but we also must be concerned about the health of these ecosystems,” said Torgan of The Nature Conservancy. “Our beaches and coastline all have unique and important values to many different species.”
On the brink of collapse
The three Massachusetts towns of Scituate, Marshfield and Duxbury are particularly susceptible to the dangers of storm surges, coastal erosion and sea-level rise. In fact, Jim O'Connell believes Scituate is the most vulnerable coastal community in the state. He should know. Besides being a coastal geologist and coastal land-use specialist, O’Connell lives in the seaside Scituate village of Brant Rock.
“Scituate is the most hazardous community in Massachusetts when it comes to damage done by erosion and storms,” said O’Connell, who runs Coastal Erosion Advisory Services.
O’Connell was a featured speaker at November’s IECA conference. He noted that the waters off the Northeast coast have risen 360 feet in the past 20,000 years. He said coastal erosion and sea-level rise are accelerating. He pointed to Nantasket Beach in intensely developed Hull as another seaside community that should be concerned.
“We already know erosion control structures and bank nourishment are temporary and will require frequent maintenance,” he said.
As far back as 1994, the Army Corps of Engineers predicted that 74 structures could potentially be lost in the next 50 years along Hummarock Beach in Scituate as a result of erosion.
Last year, to better understand their situation, the three municipalities hired Kleinfelder Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., an engineering, scientific and architectural consulting firm, to study the impacts of sea-level rise and erosion in 25-, 50- and 75-year intervals.
The towns’ coastlines have experienced extensive damage over the years from storm-related flooding, according to the 136-page report. A major concern highlighted in the report was the future of emergency access to neighborhoods in Scituate, including Brant Rock, Rexhame, Macomber Ridge and Bartlett’s Island Way.
That doesn’t mean Massachusetts’ other 75 coastal-zone communities shouldn’t be concerned. The Cape Cod National Seashore, for instance, is facing enormous pressures caused by erosion. Many homes along the coastal banks of southern Plymouth and the east shore of Nantucket are at high risk to long- and short-term erosion. Springhill Beach in Sandwich, while exhibiting a relatively low average annual rate of erosion, is susceptible to storm-induced erosion.
In Connecticut, 9 percent of the state’s coastline is critically eroding. Shoreline property owners in Milford are becoming disgruntled because they can’t afford to deal with erosion, according to Barrett of Connecticut Sea Grant.
In Rhode Island, South Kingstown and Charlestown face the biggest erosion challenges. Some areas of the Ocean State have lost 100 feet of coast in the past 15 years, according to the CRMC.
“It’s the worst in South Kingstown and gets progressively better as you head to Westerly,” said CRMC’s Dwyer. “Areas where you have a rocky cliff tend to be less impacted. Sandy shorelines or unconsolidated sediments along the shore are subject to more erosion.”
For instance, Charlestown Town Beach has lost about 150 feet to erosion since 1939. More than 4 feet of sand wound up on Charlestown Beach Road as a result of Sandy. Waves caused by that 2012 superstorm tossed boulders around like beach balls along the Charlestown Breachway.
Of the six famed Browning Cottages at South Kingstown Town Beach, only one of the historic beach homes remains. 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 the sea. The last cottage will hold on as long as the owner is willing to pay to fight the sea.
In the South Kingstown village of Matunuck, the rapidly eroding shoreline threatens hundreds of coastal homes and businesses. “There’s no room for erosion,” CRMC's Freedman said. The biggest area of concern is Matunuck Beach Road — the only way in and out of the neighborhood. The road also protects a main water line that serves some 1,600 homes and businesses.
“There’s a real threat that Matunuck will break away and an island will be created,” Hanrahan said. “There’s no permanent solution to this problem.”
Erosion rates have increased so significantly in the past few decades that during high tide in some areas of Matunuck the shoreline is no wider than 12 feet. “Matunuck sand is going offshore and it’s not coming back,” Dwyer said.
Sandy also administered a severe beating to Westerly’s coastline. The storm pushed sand several blocks inland and caused major flooding. In Newport, the superstorm's fury damaged sections of the internationally known Cliff Walk and kept it closed for months while repairs were being made.
“You wonder why we allow people to build on the coast in certain areas,” Barrett said. “It all comes down to tax base. Let wealthy homeowners build so a community can increase its tax base.”
Superstorms, hurricanes and nor'easters aren’t the only threats to southern New England’s coastal communities, public infrastructure and tourism industry. Sea-level rise, the loss of wetlands and paved-over green spaces also will help bring sea water onto streets and into backyards in the decades ahead. The damming of rivers, the extraction of groundwater and development on sedimentary soils has accelerated coastal erosion.
A rising sea, however, won’t actually destroy southern New England’s shoreline, but it will change the look of the coast dramatically — and perhaps quickly. New England’s seas are rising at an annual rate three to four times faster than the global average. Scientists predict that the seas here could rise nearly 3 feet by the end of the century.
The homes, docks, decks and roads that don’t go swimming will cost more to maintain and insure.
“We really need to consider the impact of sea-level rise,” Hanrahan said. “Nature pays no attention to rules and regulations. It doesn’t see the difference between Rhode Island and Connecticut regulations.”
Rhode Island officials agree that protecting Matunuck Beach Road from erosion is paramount and have approved the construction of a 202-foot-long sheet-pile wall. The wall isn’t intended to protect nearby businesses, such as the popular bar Ocean Mist, which is slowly being taken out to sea. It’s also only a temporary solution, because taming a complex coastal ecosystem is impossible.
To help draw better attention to the issue of rising sea levels, climate change and coastal erosion, the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition held a rally late last year in a downtown Providence park entitled “Welcome to Rhode Island 2100, The Under the Ocean-State.”
“The impacts of a changing climate have to be reported and discussed,” said Brown University student Kevin Chen, a member of the climate coalition. “We need to focus on adaptation and mitigation.”
Warwick resident Jason Caldeira happened to be in the park when the coalition's demonstration began. He appreciated the message and agreed that more must be done to address this complex issue. “If we don’t start doing something now to raise awareness and deal with this reality, we’re going to be underwater.”
How are we adapting?
First, it’s important to note that while coastal erosion is a major economic problem to the developed environment, there are many areas, including southern New England, where erosion provides an important benefit — it’s a major source of sand for functioning beaches and dunes. Without coastal erosion, many biologically productive bays, estuaries and salt marshes, not to mention revenue-generating beaches, would not exist.
“Erosion is a process, not a problem,” said Barrett of Connecticut Sea Grant. “We’re not going to stop it from happening. We have to work with it.”
The towns of Scituate, Duxubury and Marshfield are laying the foundation for helping determine how rising sea levels and coastal erosion will impact public infrastructure and private property. They also are demonstrating that working in collaboration with state and local organizations leads to a regional focus on this important issue.
Officials in all three southern New England states are working to better educate city and town building departments and municipal officials about the importance of thinking differently when it comes to coastal development.
“It’s a behavior change,” Hanrahan said. “Just because something was written down in the 1980s doesn’t mean it works today.”
Through the Shoreline Change Project, the coastline of Massachusetts has been delineated and analyzed to demonstrate trends. The towns of Stonington and Greenwich, Conn., have implemented coastal management overlay zones designed to limit the potential impact of coastal flooding and erosion.
Along the scenic Westerly coast, some buildings have been moved 30 or so feet back; others are being built higher off the ground. Nearly 200 beach parking spaces have been removed to create a bigger coastal buffer. Tennis courts wiped out by Sandy weren’t replaced — the space is now reserved for blankets. Some of the “permanent” snack bars that once lined the town’s popular beaches are now on wheels — able to flee the scene when an angry Mother Nature approaches.
Dune restoration projects in the region are ongoing. These natural piles of sand, and the grass that grows from them, are an excellent line of defense against the encroaching sea. They are nature’s way of protecting beaches and they need to be preserved, not plowed over to make way for development and better views.
“Should we be taking out something that nature put there to protect us?” Hanrahan asked. “Should we be allowed to build there?” The answer appears to be no.
Many scientists and coastal-erosion experts argue that rather than restore costly seawalls and other engineered coastal defenses, it would be more efficient to restore wetlands, salt marshes, barrier islands and other ecosystems that have traditionally served as buffer zones for coastal communities.
Coastal vegetation native to southern New England can help save shoreline property. But there’s a catch. “Nobody wants anything to interrupt their view or access, just grass,” Barrett said. Even if that means an obstructed view helps save a property from taking a swim.
“People don’t appreciate the power of water to change landscapes,” said Julie LaBranche, a senior planner at Rockingham Planning Commission who spoke at last year’s erosion control conference in Warwick.
They soon will, if southern New England isn’t smart enough or quick enough to adapt.