Battle With The Sea: Rhode Island Develops State-of-the-Art Planning Tools

Jan 24, 2015

Just this week, the U.S. Senate went on the record that climate change exists. Local and state officials in Rhode Island haven’t been waiting around to take the lead from Washington. They not only know climate change is real, but they’re also planning for its impacts. As part of our Battle With The Sea series, Rhode Island Public Radio’s environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza went on a tour with the Environmental Protection Agency’s northeast director to see how plans are in place.

Misquamicut State Beach has already lost 20 percent of the sand that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replenished last year.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

When Superstorm Sandy hit Rhode Island, it dumped tons of sand onto Atlantic Avenue in Westerly. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replenished much of the sand at Misquamicut State Beach. As the Army Corps completed the project, Bryan Oakley said a common question he heard around town was, “Well how long is the sand actually going to last?"

Oakley, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, works closely with the Rhode Island state geologist on monitoring eroding barrier beaches. He and coastal planners stand at the Misquamicut State Beach pavilion, updating the EPA’s Curt Spalding on this sand replenishment project. 

Oakley, the University of Rhode Island, and the Coastal Resources Management Council surveyed the beach before the Army Corps replenished it and continues to do so each month. That means the state knows where this beach is gaining and losing sand. 

“From one end of the beach to the other, we have a good three dimensional look at the beach: the elevation, the shape of it, and we can calculate the volume."

Oakley says about 20 percent of what the Army Corps replenished is already gone — and that’s without any major storms. It’s just what beaches do.

“This is going to become the new norm, people are going to want to do more replenishment,” said Oakley, “and understanding how long it lasts, how effective it actually is for the cost, ahem… $3.1 million for this project. That was in excess of 3,000 dump truck loads of sand coming from Charlestown." 

The Rhode Island Bays, Rivers, and Watersheds Coordination Team stepped up to pay for the cost of this monitoring project. Oakley and the state geologist say nobody wants to pay for collecting this kind of information, but it’s key to do so. Spalding thinks Rhode Island is onto something.

“You have lots of advance monitoring tools. There’s lot of different ways to do it,” said Spalding. “One thing we’re learning is how fast things are changing. If you can’t speak to that, you can’t help communities do what they need to do."

Near Winnepaug Pond, just down the road from the state beach, Spalding learns about techniques to restore salt marshes drowning from rising sea levels —techniques pioneered in Jamaica Bay in New York and tested out in Rhode Island as the first New England state. CRMC policy analyst Caitlin Chaffee explains these wetlands are important habitats for fish and wildlife, but they’re also critical storm barriers and water filters. 

“There’s recognition that these marshes form part of this whole complex that’s actually protecting humans and infrastructure further inland,” said Chaffee. “And so beyond just the pure habitat value, there’s also a greater resiliency value to help these salt marshes persist.” 

The Northeast is losing salt marshes at a rapid pace. But it appears Rhode Island is the only state to have developed statewide maps that project where it may gain or lose salt marshes under different sea level rise scenarios of 1, 3, and 5 feet in the coming decades. The goal of the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) maps is to identify where communities may save salt marshes along the coast. 

Spalding calls this salt marsh mapping effort “impressive.” 

“I never even knew it was even possible. 'Oh you can really envision salt marshes expanding in the New England context.'  I’ve seen it in Florida. They actually grade areas for mangroves to grow. But it’s like, ‘Wow, somebody is really broken through on that.’ That was pretty cool [to learn].” 

Rhode Island has also developed statewide maps called STORMTOOLS with projected storm surges and sea level rise at different levels. Spalding says this technology could map other New England states and serve as a tool for the EPA when planning to clean up toxic sites along rivers and coastlines.

“It’ll have very important application to us trying to take these very contaminated areas and make them safe for the public,” said Spalding. “The idea most of the time is try to capsulate and put a cover it and try to get some habitat there. What we do as far as how strong that cap has to be, you know, STORMTOOLS can be helpful."

Both SLAMM and STORMTOOLS fall under the umbrella of the RI CRMC Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) and the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, or EC4 for short.

Spalding, a Rhode Islander and former executive director of Save the Bay, says he knew local and state agencies, universities, and environmental groups are proactive. But he didn’t know the degree to which these groups are collaborating and developing state-of-the-art planning tools. In this area, he said Rhode Island is a leader. 

Spalding already visited Cape Cod to learn how coastal planners there are addressing climate threats. He plans to go to Vermont next to learn how the state is dealing with inland flooding. Spalding says communities are hungry for this type of know-how. The goal of his climate tours is to cross-pollinate the best climate adaptation work happening in the Northeast.

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