By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
WARREN, R.I. — An innovative program has five Rhode Island communities talking about and taking action on climate change.
Barrington, Portsmouth, South Kingstown, Warren, and Westerly are all at various stages of planning adaptation projects, such as protecting sewage treatment facilities and preserving salt marshes and woodlands.
The Municipal Resilience Program, run by The Nature Conservancy and the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, is offering $2 million to seed a range of nature-based and manufactured adaptation plans. The concept is modeled on programs in Massachusetts and Connecticut that look for achievable efforts cities and towns can collectively approve and complete, such as dam removal, road elevation, micro electric grids, stormwater management, backup power, tree planting, and coastal erosion control.
The intent of the Rhode Island program is to identify worthy projects and see that they get done.
“It’s making sure it’s not just another plan,” said Sheila Dormody, government relations and cities program manager for the Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy. “It’s real projects to deal with the impacts of climate change.”
No projects have been selected yet, but The Nature Conservancy is gathering new ideas and discussing existing proposals at community meetings. Portsmouth and South Kingstown completed the workshops. Westerly has one scheduled for Aug. 22. Barrington and Warren are collaborating on a single project and are expected to hold a joint meeting in September.
All five towns have a high risk of flooding and other perils from sea-level rise and from more intense and frequent storms.
“When you look at the projections, it’s mind-boggling,” Barrington town planner Phil Hervey said.
Hervey said priority projects include addressing existing tidal flooding on the Wampanoag Trail, a major thoroughfare to Providence, and anticipated flooding at the approaches of the town’s three major bridges.
Coastal threats, however, aren’t always the top issues raised at the public meetings.
South Kingstown suffered major beach erosion and lost buildings during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Bitter debates about coastal development, beach sand, and a seawall on Matunuck Beach Road dominated the recovery effort.
But during a public workshop in June, residents shared concerns about forest protection and tree management. Some 30 percent of the community is protected land, and issues were raised about using trees for carbon sequestration and temperature control. Pruning trees to protect power lines and reduce electricity outages was also a topic.
“There’s a whole lot more to South Kingstown than the coast,” said Kaela Gray, the town’s interim planning director.
On Aug. 14, government officials celebrated a climate-change renovation to the sewage treatment plant in Warren. Submersible pumps replaced outdated ones. Open-air tanks and electrical equipment were elevated to 16 feet to withstand a 100-year storm, plus 3 feet of sea-level rise and additional storm surge.
The state’s smallest town is one of the most threatened by rising seas, flooding, storm surge, and other coastal problems brought by climate change. Most of the town is boarded by salt marsh or densely built commercial and residential waterfront lined with docks, and steel and stone seawalls.
The $21.7 million project at the sewage treatment facility wasn’t the result of the Municipal Resilience Program, but serves as the type of project that high-risk communities with modest financial resources like Warren can embrace as the first of many steps needed to protect key, and often unappreciated, services such as stormwater and sewage management.
“To the public, it’s not exciting until you can’t flush,” Warren planning director Robert Rulli said.
Some solutions are harder to implement than fortifying seawalls and elevating buildings. Warren’s northern border, for instance, is edged by miles of salt marsh along the encroaching Palmer River. Storm drains and culverts on busy commercial roads routinely flow in reverse during seasonal high tides. Solutions such as buying out homes as part of a managed retreat or somehow redirecting floodwater into open areas like a nearby park requires more sophisticated engineering and political will.
“There’s no quick, easy option or inexpensive option,” Rulli said. “None of them are easy or palatable.”
Portsmouth has similar problems in the low-lying, densely built residential neighborhoods of Common Fence Point and Island Park.
“Do we protect houses or do we protect marshland?” asked Raymond J. Perry, emergency management director for Portsmouth.
At the town’s July 25 workshop, environmental and political issues were raised by residents who typically don’t discuss big-picture concepts such as relocating homes and open-space management.
“It started conversations on some very, very complex issues on all levels,” Perry said.
The solutions will draw from and be included in the town’s comprehensive and emergency management plans. Getting them built will likely require help and money from federal entities such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The devil in the details can come later,” Perry said. “Right now we need to start the conversations.”
Westerly’s shoreline was also ravaged by Sandy. Some businesses never returned and others rebuilt on mobile structures. The town is going ahead with a project to build a protective berm at a wastewater treatment facility.
The town’s Department of Public Works is evaluating infrastructure for climate-change impacts and resiliency in all aspects of the comprehensive plan.
Nancy Letendre, Westerly’s town planner, is grateful that the Municipal Resilience Program is moving projects forward through community engagement.
“People have recovered from Sandy; now what we are working on is getting prepared for resiliency and protecting infrastructure and the economic vitally of the community,” she said.
The Municipal Resilience Program requires municipalities to match 25 percent of the funding it receives from the Infrastructure Bank. Funds will be distributed over two years. After the communities complete the program, at least $1 million will be allocated through a request for proposal (RFP) in 2019. The remaining money will be extended to the communities in 2020.
Shaun O’Rourke, director of stormwater management and resiliency at the Infrastructure Bank, will help communities identify projects for the RFP, and create a pipeline of projects that can be built in the future.
O’Rourke expects the Municipal Resilience Program to be “a resounding success so we can scale up to all 39 (municipalities) in the near future.”
O’Rourke wants inland and urban communities to participate in the program.
“These resiliency issues are not coastal,” he said. “They are truly a statewide issue.”
Potential projects will also be identified through the recently launched Shoreline Adaptation Inventory Design Program run by the Coastal Resources Management Council. The program is part of the state’s Resilient Rhody adaptation initiative. Since it was launched in 2017, Resilient Rhody has spent some $13 million on municipal adaptation efforts, such as Tree Equity for Climate Health, run by the Department of Environmental Management.