R.I. Climate Council Expected to have Good and Bad News

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) is expected to update the governor and General Assembly on its progress in May. Some of the information they will be presenting is both encouraging and worrisome.

Sea-level rise
ecoRI News reported this month that the state revised its sea level-rise estimates to 7 feet by 2100. The estimate also includes a projected increase of 2 feet by 2050.

James Boyd, coastal policy analyst for the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), presented a vivid image of what the revisions mean during the EC4’s Feb. 10 meeting. A photo taken during a moon tide Feb. 9 showed what a 2-foot increase looks like.

“This is monumental change on the Rhode Island landscape,” he said.

For now, higher “nuisance” tides are all already on the rise, Boyd said, occurring three to five times annually, rather than once or twice.

The new 7-foot estimate can be seen online through CRMC’s STORMTOOLS program. New features in the program show the effects of storm surges and flooding on individual properties across Rhode Island. Municipalities and developers can also look at the coastal climate impacts on commercial areas, and bridges and roads.

Jared Rhodes, chief of the Statewide Planning Program, said coastal communities in southern Rhode Island are largely embracing efforts to adapt to climate-change impacts. But the measures aren’t gaining traction with some cities and towns in upper Narragansett Bay, he said.

“From my perspective, many of the communities don’t see this as something that’s an urgent issue right now,” Rhodes said. “And I think that’s something we need to still keep pushing and find ways to help the municipalities apply the tools that have already been developed so that we can help them see that this is a real issue.”

Boyd said the increased frequency of powerful storms and nuisance flooding will likely draw attention to the need for communities to adapt. He noted that Warwick was chosen, along with Charlestown, for a pilot program that assigns numerical risk factors for climate impacts to all homes and businesses.

The program will be run by CRMC and funded with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Another HUD grant will fund new flood mapping of the Pawtuxet River watershed. If successful, other watersheds will be mapped.

Leah Bamberger, the city’s director of sustainability, said STORMTOOLS may be useful for homeowners on Providence’s East Side, but likely won’t draw attention from renters, residents living in multi-family homes and those without the means to interact online.

The city’s sustainability plan focuses on transforming community centers into emergency shelters and cooling centers, and places for residents to interact. Rather than a small number of large shelters across the city, Bamberger said, “It’s better to have small spaces where (residents) know people and are comfortable there.”

Providence’s sustainability plan also aims to address the long-term resiliency of the Port of Providence and surrounding neighborhoods, including the Rhode Island Hospital area. The new flood maps show the port and Allens Avenue, through downtown, flooded by storm surge from a major hurricane.

The city’s commitment to the Compact of Mayors means Providence will set its own greenhouse gas-reduction targets and adopt a climate adaptation plan. By joining the compact, cities with similar risks share ideas for solving climate vulnerabilities.

Last year, Providence divested its pension investments from the 15 most polluting coal companies. A draft of land use and development plan is expected in April. It is expected to include progress reports on stormwater management, building codes and standards, and neighborhood risk assessments.

The state Department of Health (DOH) has made the most progress with climate adaptation efforts. Julia Gold, DOH’s climate-change program manager, has overseen several initiatives to identify and address public health impacts, such as heat and at-risk populations. Resolving climate risks related to senior citizens are ongoing, such as shelter-in-place planning and technical assistance for 30 elderly housing sites across the state.

Gold plans to make an educational film containing individual stories about climate risks such as flooding and the heat-island effect, and solutions. Gold said the film isn’t meant to scare people about the risks but “that we are presenting solutions. That positive change is occurring and there is hope.”

Coastal erosion
New aerial shoreline maps reveal that erosion is advancing quickly along the southern coast, from Westerly to North Kingstown. Matunuck Beach in South Kingstown is seeing the worst erosion, with an average of 5 feet of erosion annually between 2010 and 2014.

Boyd explained that erosion isn’t caused by sea-level rise but is the result of potent storms such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The $100,000 in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed fiscal 2017 budget for a new coastal resiliency center at the University of Rhode Island would offer technical guidance to municipalities in understanding the impacts of climate change. Risks to infrastructure, hospitals, drinking water and wastewater systems would be addressed.

Some of that guidance could recommend that coastal roads such as Matunuck Beach Road and Atlantic Avenue in Westerly be abandoned or shortened.
“Now you start looking at real damage costs so you can start making some intelligent choices whether you want to rebuild (after storms) in that location or relocate,” Boyd said.

Brown University researcher and lecturer Caroline Karp supports comprehensive planning to address the concept of no-build zones in areas frequently damaged by flooding and storms, as well as areas that are predicted to suffer from climate-change impacts. No-build, she said, involves denying building permits, and suspending town services and maintenance to roads and infrastructure in those areas.

Kendra Beaver, staff attorney for Save The Bay, said CRMC and the state Department of Environmental Management don’t appear to be considering climate impacts when issuing permits related to construction. Potential property owners, she said, are therefore not likely to know the risk of damage to homes and other structures.

“There has to be some obligation on the part of the permitting agencies to right now consider what you know about the impacts of climate change before you issue any permits at all,” Beaver said.

Karp said she also wants the EC4 to address climate impacts on vulnerable wildlife rather than just vulnerable infrastructure.

University of Rhode Island professor Peter August, chair of the EC4 Science and Technical Advisory Board, said his committee is concerned about this issue and is looking at monitoring changes in fauna and flora of ecosystems, as well as the impact of stormwater runoff on wildlife.