If shorelines aren’t protected, ‘disaster looms’Block Island a ‘complex area’ to protect
More than 100 people attended a kickoff event held Thursday, April 4, at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay Campus, for a new plan being developed by the state to address coastal erosion, flooding and sea-level rise.
The plan, called Beach SAMP, will take three to four years to develop, according to the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and will result in new regulations and policies for those living on the coast. Block Island and the South Shore towns of Westerly, Charlestown and South Kingstown will be the first areas addressed by the plan. Officials hope there will be much public involvement in its development.
“There is a big difference of opinion on how this should be handled,” said CRMC Chair Anne Livingston as she cited a recent debate over the proposed construction of a sea wall to protect the Matunuck area of South Kingstown from erosion.
The gaps in information and destruction caused by recent storms, such as October’s brush with Superstorm Sandy, promoted officials to begin discussions with environmental groups, town officials and residents about the best ways to protect the shoreline.
Thursday’s event included presentations from David R. Vallee, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service, and University of Rhode Island (URI) geology professor Dr. Jon Boothroyd, who is the state’s geologist.
Vallee explained recent weather patterns in New England and discussed how vulnerable Rhode Island’s is to the impact of large storms. Slides from the aftermath of hurricanes since 1938 and floods document the damage caused by high winds, ocean storm surges and rainfall. Add to that a predicted sea-level rise of one-and-a-half feet by the year 2050, officials say, and disaster looms.
Vallee addressed why Sandy, which made landfall in New Jersey, had such an impact on Rhode Island. He said that the extensive damage caused by Sandy was partly because the storm lasted for two days and involved multiple high tides. “The Monday morning high tide was the killer,” Vallee said. “That water weakened structures so that by the time the tide came in Monday night, structures had already been undermined.”
The result was homes knocked from foundations, damage to roads and sea walls, and beaches and dunes that washed away. Vallee walked the Misquamicut area of Westerly after Sandy to witness the damage firsthand.
“The amount of material taken off the beach and thrown inland was mind-numbing to me,” Vallee said.
Vallee said that the resulting damage was comparable to a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. What concerns him and state officials is that Rhode Island was only “brushed” by Sandy. With climate warming, Vallee predicts there were be more volatile weather events along with a rise in sea level, placing the state even more at risk.
“We are a tremendously vulnerable state,” Vallee said. “We are at a point on the planet where we are going to be in harm’s way.”
Boothroyd explained to the audience the state’s glacial geology and how a predicted three- to five-feet sea-level rise by the year 2100 will alter the coastline, putting some residential areas along the South Shore underwater.
Using aerial photographs, Boothroyd demonstrated the erosion that has occurred in 30 years along the South Shore and explained that such erosion was originally predicted to occur within an 80- to 100-year time span.
He also demonstrated how natural ocean processes work on shorelines by constantly moving and shifting sand barriers, such as at Napatree Point in Westerly. His point was that washover fans of sand that are a result of large storms should not necessarily be moved back onto beaches. Removing a washover fan makes that area much more susceptible to flooding during the next storm because if the sand remained it would slow the flow of water inland.
“Where possible leave the sand there,” Boothroyd said.
Residents questioned whether the sand could be safely placed back on the beaches, after events like Sandy. Boothroyd explained that it should be cleaned of all debris and that if dunes are being rebuilt, a process similar to road building should be conducted. Sand layers should be compacted and wet down prior to the next layer being placed on it.
Audience members asked questions about specific areas along the South Shore and how they fared after Sandy. Boothroyd explained that breaches of some of the sand barriers that affected fresh water ponds will restore themselves and close off to the ocean in time if left undisturbed.
Boothroyd advised coastal residents to leave sand movement undisturbed as much as possible.
“The worst thing you can do is beach scraping,” he said. ‘This is where you take a berm and make a fluff pile in front of your house.”
Boothroyd said that natural processes of wind and water will simply blow that sand away.
Beach SAMP overview
Michelle Carnevale, of the URI Coastal Resources Center, explained that the Beach SAMP, also known as the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan, will entail studies, public input and new regulations. The CRMC, with the help of the Coastal Resources Center and R.I. Sea Grant, will collect data and conduct research on geological studies, prepare an engineering evaluation of different tools needed to handle shoreline change, and provide an analysis of what other coastal areas are doing to combat shoreline flooding and erosion. This research will also look at potential impacts to roads, buildings and infrastructure. The CRMC will then develop a long-term plan for towns to manage potential outcomes from erosion, sea level rise and flooding.
A ongoing education campaign to inform the public about the impact of shoreline change is part of the plan. First-person accounts of changes at shoreline properties will be documented, along with historical information. Residents are being asked to complete surveys and attend stakeholder meetings.
On Block Island, much surveying needs to be done, especially to document headland erosion at Mohegan Bluffs.
“Block Island is a very complex area for us,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the CRMC, during a media briefing on Wednesday. “We need to figure out the bluff dynamics and what things are affecting roads and infrastructure there.”
After Block Island and the South Shore issues are addressed, Phase II of the project will focus on the east facing shoreline of Narragansett and the south facing shoreline of Aquidneck Island and Little Compton areas. Phase III will examine upper Narragansett Bay. The plan will identify areas at risk or in transition and develop flood mitigation plans. Some areas in peril from storm flooding are Wickford Village in North Kingstown, the Newport waterfront and downtown Providence.
“There are a lot of iconic spots in Rhode Island threatened at this point,” Fugate said.
The Beach SAMP will be a regulatory document and will outline CRMC policies and standards, as well as offer recommendations on coastline protection for local government and state agencies.
Possible regulations include increasing property setbacks and increasing the “freeboard” on a building — a measure of distance between a storm surge and a structure — from one- to three-feet.
Other measures might include policies to minimize the disturbance of washover areas after a storm. The Beach SAMP will also address wastewater issues and what happens when sewer plants and septic systems are located in flood zones. The plan will also provide a new set of flood inundation maps.
Residents are urged to get involved in the process now by attending one of the many stakeholder meetings scheduled prior to the adoption of the new plan. During the meetings, residents are asked to answer surveys about what issues they want to see addressed in the plan. The next stakeholder’s meeting will be held in Narragansett in May or June, but future meetings are also being planned on Block Island.
For more information on Beach SAMP, visit http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/coast/beachsamp.html.