Climate Council Plays Catch-Up with Mother Nature

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is way ahead of other states when it comes to climate-change planning and policies, according to Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). But the work is still not enough to adequately address the problems ahead, he said.

“Most of the tools we need don’t exist,” Fugate said during a March 27 meeting of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s Executive Climate Change Council.

Here are some findings noted by the council at its recent meeting:

Sea-level rise is already a problem in parts of the state. Fugate noted that a coastal storm drain in Watch Hill 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 relatively new bridges along the Barrington-Warren border. The flooding is of concern because the water bogs down the main road connecting both towns, a road that also serves as an emergency evacuation route.

Sea levels in Rhode Island are elevating faster than the global rate of increase, according to Fugate. He said the height of Narragansett Bay could increase 2-3 feet by 2050.

Downtown Providence, Wickford Village 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

Higher flood insurance premiums and disputed flood maps have had a “chilling effect” on the local real-estate market, according to Jamia McDonald, executive director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA). The CRMC has officially disputed the maps, which Fugate said are based on data from 1970. The maps, he said, overestimate inland flooding and underestimate coastal flooding.

Municipalities are vastly unprepared for the long-term commitment to address climate-change issues such as disaster recovery. “Municipalities we all know are having trouble whether they can even afford police departments and fire departments, let alone major investments for this,” Fugate said.

McDonald said RIEMA has significant funds available to pay for infrastructure upgrades. Cities and towns must have approved storm mitigation and recovery plans to receive money for rebuilding after a storm. Twenty-two communities in Rhode Island don't have such a plan.

Erosion is happening faster than the rate of recovery on beaches and in wetlands along Rhode Island’s coast, Fugate said. He described the coast as a “transgressive shoreline.”

Superstorm Sandy caused an estimated $42 million in recovery costs, yet the storm only hit Rhode Island with a glancing blow, McDonald said. The Hurricane of 1938 was the last major hurricane to directly strike Rhode Island, Fugate said.

The Executive Climate Change Commission is scheduled to meet again April 4. It plans to deliver an assessment by May 1.