Southern New England Coastal Towns Prepare for Climate Change

We pulled into a parking lot in downtown Wickford, Rhode Island. A nearby car was parked in three inches of water, and salt water bubbled up through the storm drain. The tide was high, but not extraordinarily high. These days, occasional flooding of a parking lot is more of an annoyance than a real threat. But what about in the future?

A car parked in salt water in Wickford, RI. The parking lot storm drain routinely backs up at high tide.

A car parked in salt water in Wickford, RI. The parking lot storm drain routinely backs up at high tide.

 

Rhode Island was the second stop on my Adapting to Climate Change learning tour. Last summer I visited several Cape Cod communities to see how they are dealing with accelerating beach erosion and other adaptation challenges, including chronic flooding from sea level rise, warming ocean temperatures, storm surge risk and habitat decline. More recently, I toured Rhode Island with the same objective, but with a special focus on developing decision-making tools to help communities become more resilient.

Beach replenishment at Misquamicut State Beach.

Beach replenishment at Misquamicut State Beach.

 

Both trips confirmed that Cape Cod and coastal Rhode Island are on the front line of adapting to climate change. Few places in the world are experiencing as much change in such a short timeframe. Both areas’ economies rely on their beaches, recreational and commercial fishing, tourism and water-dependent commerce. The good news is, coastal communities in southern New England are beginning to learn how to deal with the impending storm of advancing climate change.

An end of road coastal adaptation project by Save the Bay in Warwick, RI. Asphalt is being removed at the end of several streets in Warwick to help the wetland/ saltmarsh become reestablished.

 

But communities like those I visited need better capacity to handle the challenges that await. Fortunately, President Obama’s Climate Action Plan prioritizes adaption efforts along with reducing carbon emissions. His plan also directs federal agencies to assess how climate change impacts will affect our programs.

As directed by the President, we’ve been working to assemble and clearly communicate information on risks, build tools to help communities better understand these risks, and offer assistance to communities on how to enhance their resilience. As I make the rounds of our six new England states, I’m learning about what communities really need, what some are already doing to adapt to current impacts, and how EPA and other federal agencies can help them do even better.

So far, here’s what I’ve learned. Local resources are stretched incredibly thin, and federal agencies need to acknowledge this in the way we provide information and support tools. Purposeful, proactive efforts are necessary to help local leaders use climate information.

Especially here on the southern New England coast, climate change impacts will affect the core character of communities. However, taking steps like raising bridges, moving streets, allowing salt marshes to migrate inland and installing green infrastructure will help protect communities. We will need a lot of community engagement to take real action to enhance resilience. In time, as communities gain more experience and have better information, these discussions will be easier.

Teresa Crean, Coastal Manager or URI’s Coastal Resources Center and Sea Grant shows the high water mark in Wickford, RI from the 1938 hurricane that flooded the town.

Teresa Crean, Coastal Manager or URI’s Coastal Resources Center and Sea Grant shows the high water mark in Wickford, RI from the 1938 hurricane that flooded the town.

 

Federal agencies must learn too. Federal hazard mitigation planning requirements must become more workable, especially for small communities. Water infrastructure investments to enhance resilience must become as important as investments to improve water quality (in fact, they are often self-reinforcing). We must reduce the burden and increase flexibility in grant making. So far, local experiences with new flood plan mapping and disaster recovery grants have not lined up with the President’s intent. Integration of water infrastructure planning must move more quickly from directives on paper to reality in most communities.

I’ve also learned that information used in maps and decision support tools must be brought down to the local, even neighborhood, scale. Perhaps this feature is what is so impressive about Rhode Island’s Stormtools. Using very accurate mapping information, Stormtools give local decision makers options with higher levels of certainty based on shorter timescales.

Planning and decision making tools must help answer questions like: What land can we acquire for marsh migration over the next 10 years? Which businesses are most vulnerable to the most likely storm events we will see over the next 10 years? What water infrastructure do we need to reinforce or relocate first, to prevent their destruction by damaging tidal flooding? Less certain, 50-year projections over a large area can cause a panicky response, or worse, denial. A 10-year projection over a much smaller area gives a community realistic options and creates momentum for doing more in the future.

Finally, we must do all we can to create confidence that carbon emissions will be abated and the worst case climate change scenarios can be avoided. For without that assurance, community level conversations in especially vulnerable coastal communities will continue to be extraordinarily difficult.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen New England show its resilience by bouncing back from a historic series of snowstorms. This resilience was entirely due to much improved planning, better communication, and a commitment to smart actions based on experience. The same commitment will build greater community resilience to the longer-term impacts of climate change. To succeed, leaders at all levels must make adapting to climate change as high as any other priority on their “must do” list. The future prosperity of New England – especially Southern New England – depends on it.

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