R.I. Officials: Climate Impact Predictions Worsening

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The situation looks grim for Rhode Island and the rest of the East Coast when it come to climate change. In fact, the outlook is getting worse, according to state officials.

Grover Fugate, head of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and the face of the state’s climate research and planning, recently said climate change is happening faster than scientists can model it.

At a Jan. 8 Statehouse conference, proponents of addressing climate change in Rhode Island divulged some startling new projections. They also crystallized their message, and highlighted the need for funding.

Fugate presented an engrossing depiction of the destruction in store from rising sea levels, eroding shorelines and potent storms. Some of the current findings:

Salt marshes are eroding at an accelerated rate.
Rhode Island’s sea level is projected to rise higher than global averages — up to 6.1 feet by 2100.

Rates of beach erosion are increasing, prompting the need to relocate some buildings along the coast of South Kingstown and Westerly, Fugate said. Twenty-six-foot-tall seawalls would be needed to hold back rising waters, he said. Downtown Newport, downtown Providence, Block Island and other tourist centers are threatened by higher tides, flooding and storm surges.

Other state officials joined in, expressing a need for public awareness and planning at all levels of government. Transportation, emergency management and state planning officials in attendance all said work by the CRMC was essential for the planning and development of roads, highways, sewer systems and water supplies. They urged immediate action to plan for the inevitable increase in spending on planning, building and insurance.

However, one voice focused on the here and now. Monica Staaf, lobbyist for the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, said the cost of adaptation is already crippling property owners. “That’s the issue, the limited budgets (of property owners)," she said.

New flood insurance premiums have skyrocketed since federal subsidies started going away — some have jumped as high as $58,000, Staaf said.

Fugate and others noted that costs will only increase from billions to trillions of dollars if action isn’t taken. “If we don’t act now, decisions are going to be made for us,” said Jon Reiner, planning director for North Kingstown.

The CRMC’s Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) is a model for every coastal community in the country, according to Rhode Island officials.

“We are really at the leading edge of this. Nobody’s figured this out yet,” Fugate said. “It’s one (problem) that’s going to have severe and economic repercussions if we don’t get ahead of it.”

The project also needs money. So far, some $250,000 has been raised toward the $2.5 million project. This week's press conference was aimed to attract funds, especially from lawmakers who just started their 2014 session. Fugate said his agency is seeking $150,000 per year for two years in the budget. Other funding is expected from federal grants, he said.

Some in attendance said the presentation failed to emphasize spending less public money on adaptation and instead encouraging retreat from coastal areas. Environmental advocate Greg Gerritt called public spending to protect the shoreline, which he said mostly serves wealthy property owners, “magical thinking.”

“We cannot allow rebuilding along the coast; we need to engineer a retreat while we create much larger coastal ecological buffers that will reduce our carbon footprint and improve our food security,” Gerritt wrote in an e-mail.

Ames Colt of the Rhode Island Bays, Rivers and Watersheds Coordination Team, the organizer of the Jan. 8 event, said, “While there are important social and economic class dimensions to these issues, it is at best not helpful to simply paint the 'rich' as greedy, selfish tyrants engineering all manner of public subsidies for building fortifications against the sea for their coastal mansions and closing out the rest of us from a vanishing shoreline."

The goals of this interagency coordination are to get the Beach SAMP moving, and to raise money so that other projects can move forward and new legislation can advance through the General Assembly.