By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Rhode Island released its first comprehensive climate-preparedness strategy, Resilient Rhody, the week of the July 4th holiday. The 85-page report combines the climate-change work of various local agencies, institutions, and environmental groups and, based off that already available information, lists five dozen recommended actions.
To ensure a common understanding of climate resilience, project participants adopted a definition to align with Ocean State priorities: “Climate resilience is the capacity of individuals, institutions, businesses, and natural systems within Rhode Island to survive, adapt, and grow regardless of chronic stresses and weather events they experience.”
For comparison sake, the Union of Concerned Scientists defines resilience a little differently. “A framework and principles to ensure that investments in climate change adaptation are scientifically sound, socially just, fiscally sensible, and adequately ambitious.”
Among the climate-related issues the report addresses is increasing heat and its impact on low-income communities. The state’s resiliency plan recommends expanding the state’s Low Income Home Assistance Program to help eligible residents pay for their air conditioning.
Resilient Rhody examines the key areas susceptible to the varied impacts of a changing climate, such as sea-level rise, storm surge, and higher temperatures, and offers recommendations to address the myriad problems. Here is a quick look:
Surface water reservoirs supply about 85 percent of the public water in Rhode Island, while other parts of the state rely primarily on surface reservoirs or combined surface and groundwater supplied by public and private wells.
Recommendations: Assist water suppliers in developing local emergency interconnection programs to address supply vulnerability among small systems; assess the vulnerability of near coastal drinking water reservoirs to storm surge and sea-level rise; advance common goal setting and communication between water suppliers that manage reservoirs and downstream municipalities; ensure that all major suppliers have current contingency contracts for the purchase of emergency supplies and have established emergency interconnection/distribution process.
Rhode Island is home to 19 major wastewater treatment facilities that treat close to 120 million gallons of residential, commercial, and industrial wastewater daily. About 250 pumping stations are in place to transport sewage across hilly terrain to these treatment systems. Most of these wastewater systems are in floodplains to take advantage of gravity-fed flows.
Recommendations: Accelerate treatment system and pumping station hardening projects identified in Implications of Climate Change for RI Wastewater Collection & Treatment Infrastructure; provide additional fuel-storage capacity at major wastewater systems; expand flood modeling/mapping efforts within inland areas to enhance the recommendations in Implications of Climate Change for RI Wastewater Collection & Treatment Infrastructure.
Rhode Island has 668 inventoried dams. Each dam is classified by hazard. Of particular concern is the hazard level of a significant portion of these dams. There are 96 dams (14 percent) classified as “high hazard,” 81 (12 percent) classified as “significant hazard,” and 491 (74 percent) classified as “low hazard.”
Recommendations: Prioritize remediation actions and investments identified in DEM’s 2017 dam hazard study to ensure compliance and downstream safety; establish a notification system for dam safety to coordinate the actions of officials at the federal, state, and local levels; develop emergency action plans for all statewide high-hazard and significant-hazard dams.
Stormwater runoff is a widespread source of water-quality degradation. Stormwater impacts include pathogen contamination resulting in beach closures and closure of shellfish growing areas, nutrient enrichment of water bodies resulting in algal blooms, elevated levels of other pollutants such as metals, stream-bank erosion, aquatic habitat alterations from higher high flows and lower low flows, and deposition of sediment.
Recommendations: Work with local governments to establish sustainable revenue sources for the operation and maintenance of local stormwater management systems; encourage the use of green infrastructure; update the Stormwater Design & Installation Standards Manual to reflect changing precipitation patterns; use total maximum daily loads and other watershed plans to identify areas of existing impervious surface that can be removed and to prioritize retrofitting of existing drainage systems; identify existing stormwater management structures that are subject to frequent coastal and riverine flooding and take steps to mitigate the impacts of this flooding on stormwater infrastructure; update the state land-use plan, Land Use 2025, to include climate change.
Maritime transportation plays a critical role in the Rhode Island economy, providing products, raw materials, and revenue from scrap metal and other exports. The Port of Providence supplies Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island with petroleum products. Numerous ancillary businesses depend on the port’s functionality, including trucking companies, rail service, manufacturing companies, ship repair facilities, marine pilots, and dredging companies.
Recommendations: Strengthen storm resilience and post-storm recovery through strategic partnerships and planning; establish a new collaborative partnership between the state and port community to understand the economic implications of severe weather events and benefits of storm resilience planning.
In recent years, Rhode Island has experienced many severe weather-related events, including floods, blizzards, extended heat waves, extreme cold snaps, and hurricanes. One of the most direct energy security impacts of major storm events is power outages. The increasing need for electricity restoration following storms is directly contributing to the rising cost of storm response.
Recommendations: Design and implement a comprehensive, targeted strategy addressing energy security vulnerabilities at the municipal or facility level; act on the policy recommendations outlined in the report Resilient Microgrids for Critical Services and remove market barriers to implementing microgrids at critical facilities; modernize the grid and complementary efforts through the Power Sector Transformation Initiative currently under review at the Public Utilities Commission; supplement weather forecasting services with additional tools to achieve more accurate storm forecasts; consider enhancements to existing vegetation management programs, strategic tree removal, for example, can mitigate power outages due to tree-related downed power lines.
Five of Rhode Island’s six fuel terminals are in Providence and East Providence, at the mouth of the Providence River. These terminals comprise about 90 percent of the state’s petroleum infrastructure. Severe weather events could adversely affect the marine terminals and disrupt fuel supply.
Recommendations: Ensure fuel terminals have undertaken all appropriate hardening and resilience measures; develop a petroleum set-aside program to ensure essential public needs are met during a severe fuel shortage.
Transportation vulnerability can be organized into two components: exposure and vulnerability. Exposure is an analysis of the assets in raw terms potentially exposed to inundation, whereas vulnerability is an attempt to determine what implications the exposure holds for the transportation system.
Recommendations: Develop a Transportation Asset Management Plan for RIDOT assets that integrates future climate risks into a comprehensive asset management approach for transportation assets to ensure adequate investment and a state of good repair; align the Transportation Improvement Program and Transportation Asset Management Plan processes to ensure asset management and risked-based planning for infrastructure maintenance and new projects.
About 15,000 Rhode Islanders rely on public transportation to get to work each day, most riding on RIPTA’s statewide bus network. In 2017, RIPTA provided more than 16 million rides overall, including 3 million rides taken by low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities. Service is provided statewide, centered around transit hubs in Providence, Newport, and Pawtucket. A fleet of more than 300 buses and vans travels nearly 10 million miles annually, consuming more than 2.3 million gallons of fuel in the provision of this service.
Recommendations: Ensure continuity of RIPTA operations following extreme weather events through implementation of backup power generation at key facilities; develop a Transportation Asset Management Plan for RIPTA assets that integrates a comprehensive asset management approach to ensure a state of good repair and investments that consider all future climate risks.
Coastal wetlands are important ecosystems that provide a range of valuable services to coastal communities. Vegetated coastal wetlands have been shown to reduce storm surge duration and height by providing storage area for water. For example, areas that contained wetlands had an average of 10 percent reduction in damages from Hurricane Sandy when compared to those without wetlands. Coastal wetlands were also predicted to have reduced wave heights during the storm across 80 percent of the northeastern coastal floodplain.
Recommendations: Continue monitoring and assessment of coastal wetland habitats and management practices to evaluate and prioritize future actions; identify opportunities for retreat and infrastructure removal on state-owned properties.
Coastal beaches and barriers are dynamic systems that define much of Rhode Island’s south-facing shore and are popular recreational destinations for residents and visitors. These habitats also provide a suite of other functions and values, such as the interception and treatment of upland stormwater runoff, aesthetic enhancement, and habitat for fish and wildlife.
Recommendations: Preserve the dynamic nature of beaches and barriers in future management of these critical natural systems; develop initiatives for coastal resilience activities, such as monitoring existing pilot projects, developing offshore sand sources suitable for beach replenishment, prioritizing beaches to be re-nourished, and creating beach and barrier migration pathways through property acquisition and relocation of structures.
Rhode Island’s forests provide numerous economic, recreational, ecological, and human health benefits. About 55 percent of the state is forested, some 360,000 acres. These forests contribute to significant natural resources and ecological services, such as soil health and conservation, carbon sequestration and improved air quality, and wildlife habitat.
Recommendations: Encourage protection of significant portions of the remaining intact forest cover in Rhode Island and conserve the landscape values of larger, unbroken tracts of land; incentivize the creation of forest stewardship plans to help protect soil and water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, timber and other wood products, and outdoor recreation; support municipalities in developing urban tree inventories and implementing urban forest master plans.
Rhode Island’s landscape includes hundreds of freshwater lakes and ponds covering about 20,749 acres. These water bodies provide multiple recreational opportunities, important aquatic habitat, and a reliable source of drinking water.
Recommendations: Identify and assess inland riparian buffer conditions statewide, identifying and mapping small headwater streams and their riparian buffers should be a high priority; develop a comprehensive environmental monitoring strategy, prioritizing gaps and continuing to strengthen coordination of upland water resource monitoring activities.
With increased frequency and intensity of storms, sea-level rise, and other climate-related impacts, the infrastructure of critical facilities and residential and commercial buildings are at risk.
Recommendations: Improve predictions of facility-level impacts of approaching storms, as predictions days before a storm makes landfall will assist facilities in their preparedness efforts; complete in-depth vulnerability assessments and three-dimensional visualizations of storm impacts for Rhode Island’s critical facilities; develop more realistic storm preparedness training for facility managers and emergency managers.
Support provided by emergency services is crucial to emergency preparedness and response during climate-related disasters. The ability of police, fire, and emergency medical services to operate during and immediately after disasters is highly dependent on the conditions of the roads, the availability of adequate equipment, staffing, and their facilities’ resilience to the impacts of flooding, wind damage, and loss of power.
Recommendations: Incorporate emergency service providers as essential stakeholders in municipal and statewide resilience planning efforts; develop preparedness and resilience guidelines and best practices for emergency services; create standard impacts and response procedures for critical facilities and services.
COMMUNITY HEALTH and RESILIENCE
Schools are a cornerstone of Rhode Island’s communities. Young residents spend many hours each day learning within their walls. It is critical that schools can reopen quickly after a major storm or flood to minimize disruption to student learning. In some communities, schools also serve as emergency shelters. There are many reasons to prioritize making these asset types more climate resilient.
Healthy, affordable, and stable housing is another cornerstone of community resilience. Communities both coastal and inland are at risk for flooding and other extreme weather impacts. As the climate continues to change, it becomes more difficult for residents to assess their flood- or storm-related risks.
Recommendations: Develop technical assistance and statewide support for bottom-up, community-led groups to carry out planning and action to make their communities more climate resilient; increase outreach to current and prospective homeowners and renters about property-related climate risks and how to reduce them; support existing proposals to make infrastructure upgrades to school buildings and recommend that resilience improvements be encouraged in projects that would be funded by the proposed $250 million bond proposed in the governor’s budget; recommend RIDE identify opportunities to integrate climate resilience into the school construction process; expand K-12 education on environmental literacy, including climate-related emergency preparedness, by developing resources for school use and identifying how these concepts can be incorporated into existing state standards; expand the Low Income Home Assistance Program to include cooling assistance for eligible low-income residents; encourage all governmental entities involved in disaster recovery to draft appropriate restoration tools.