State begins mapping out shoreline protection planBlock Island an area of focus for study
When Superstorm Sandy brushed Rhode Island in October, residents all along the shoreline got a taste of things to come.
On Block Island, Corn Neck Road was under water, sand dunes at the town beach were eroded and business and home owners saw the ocean rise a bit too close to their front steps. On the mainland’s South Shore, historic beach cottages were knocked from their foundations, five feet of sand inundated the Misquamicut area of Westerly and septic systems once buried beneath the beach became exposed.
Rhode Island was lucky to avoid the full impact of Sandy, said Grover Fugate, executive director of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC). New Jersey lost 350,000 homes during that storm. “We dodged a bullet this time but our time will come,” Fugate warned at a press briefing held by the CRMC to discuss its Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP). The plan is being designed to help protect Rhode Island’s coastline.
For state officials, who walked the damaged Rhode Island shoreline after Sandy, the inundation of water in seaside communities rang a warning bell that said plans are needed now to deal with sea level rise and erosion.
“The bottom line is that these issues are too important for Rhode Island to walk away from,” Fugate said.
The briefing was in advance of a public event Thursday night to unveil the development of Beach SAMP. The plan will provide guidance to communities to help them manage erosion that will come with a predicted sea level change of a one foot sea level rise by 2050 and a three- to five-foot rise by the year 2100.
The Beach SAMP will take three to four years to develop and entail studies, public input and new regulations, Fugate said. He cautioned that there’s no easy fix to the problem of erosion caused by storms and sea level change.
“Losing your house or business to the ocean is a big and very personal thing, but we’re all going to have to work together if people want to continue to live and function at the water’s edge for the long term,” Fugate states in a pamphlet about the plan. We’re going to have to collaborate on a comprehensive approach.”
Abel G. Collins, program manager of the R.I. Chapter of the Sierra Club, agreed.
“The effects of a two-meter [or 6.5-foot sea level rise] are much more drastic than people realize at this point,” Collins said during the media briefing. “We hope people begin to comprehend the changes.”
Block Island and its mainland South Shore neighbors — Westerly, Charlestown, South Kingstown and Narragansett — are the first areas of focus of the management plan.
First, the CRMC, with the help of the University of Rhode Island’s 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 in the country 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. The third component will be an ongoing education campaign to inform the public about the impact of shoreline change.
On Block Island, Fugate said that headland erosion at Mohegan Bluffs, something that is not always immediately visible after a storm, will be studied and maps detailing erosion in other areas will be developed to show the changes that came about from Sandy.
“Block Island is a very complex area for us,” Fugate said. “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.
CRMC has the pictures to prove it. Aerial photographs document the damage caused by Sandy and time-lapsed photos of South Kingstown and Westerly demonstrate how much shoreline has disappeared. Photographs of South Kingstown Town Beach show that in 1994 there was a full beach and much distance between the ocean and the beach pavilion. Pictures after Sandy show the beach gone and ocean wave damage to the pavilion.
From that time in 1994, Fugate said, “we expected it would take 80 to 100 years [for the ocean] to reach that facility.”
Not only will areas fronting the coast be examined, but also salt marshes, coastal ponds and overflow areas that will all be affected by a rise in sea level. Studies on the salt marshes already show that many are drowning from too much sea water in the ecosystem.
“It’s absolutely shocking, the rate of change,” Fugate said.
Planning for the future
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 as well as the “freeboard” on a building — a measure of distance between a storm surge and a structure — from one foot to three feet.
Other measures might include minimizing the disturbance of washover areas after a storm. For example, when the sand from a beach is washed onto a road, town officials might want to place that sand back on the beach. But Fugate said that removing a washover fan makes that area much less stable and more susceptible to flooding during the next 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.
“During Sandy there were waves 47 feet [high],” Fugate said and explained that models used by CRMC in previous plans addressed waves only as high as 30 feet.
“This study started before Sandy, but certainly Sandy highlighted the issues we were concerned about,” Fugate said.
The study process will also include examining what other countries, like the Netherlands, might be doing to protect their shorelines.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done,” Fugate said about developing the plan.
He explained that $250,000 in funding from grants and organizations will help start the process that includes raising public awareness about the issue through stakeholder meetings, seminars and direct mailings. Officials were expecting 150 people to attend Thursday’s first stakeholder meeting at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus. Future public meetings will also be held on Block Island.
Protecting the shoreline might also include some tough decisions on what stays and what goes, Fugate said. For instance, should towns spend billions of dollars in repairs of roads and facilities that are only going to be lost to the sea?
“It’s something that we all are going to be facing,” he said.
For more information on Beach SAMP, visit http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/coast/beachsamp.html.