Monday, June 15, 2015

The Roads Less Traveled: Adapting to Coastal Changes

By Wenley Ferguson, Habitat Restoration Director

Just south of Conimicut Point in Warwick lie a dozen or more roads that end right into the Bay. The exact location of those road ends is getting harder and harder to determine as sea levels rise. During moon or storm tides, the Bay floods the roads and leaves seaweed as evidence of the height of the tide. While rising sea level makes these roads increasingly vulnerable to erosion and coastal flooding, these roads also pose a danger because they carry pollution from untreated stormwater directly into
Narragansett Bay. 

The changes to this coastline are nothing new—this stretch of Warwick shoreline along Conimicut
An end-of-road retrofit on Clark Rd. in Warren shows
a filtration strip being installed where pavement has
been removed.
Point has been eroding for decades. In some areas, the shoreline has retreated 50 to 200 feet since 1939, according to the Coastal Resources Management Council’s (CRMC) shoreline change maps. In fact, at high tide the water washes through the foundation of a home that used to sit on dry land, and there are no longer traces of a road that used to run along this shore. Past attempts to address the issues on this coast have mostly involved paving and repaving closer to the water’s edge, trying to stop the relentless onslaught of the lapping waves. But Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy worsened the erosion at many of these roads, again causing asphalt to crumble and litter the water’s edge. 

During the summer of 2014, to reduce the erosive effects of storms, Save The Bay teamed up with the City of Warwick to remove the low lying pavement at the ends of five roads along the Bay. Where pavement was pulled back, our team of volunteers, engineers and contractors installed rock-lined swales to slow and filter pollutants from road runoff, making the project a two-for-one: combat storm erosion and reduce polluted runoff at the same time. But on top of that, public access to the shoreline was enhanced at some sites with the creation of clear, less sodden paths to the shore. Residents from the Riverview Neighborhood Association joined the effort by planting native grasses to enhance the habitat and aesthetic value of these former dead ends. 

“This long stretch of quiet shore has suffered from an alternation of benign neglect and misguided paving projects for a long time,” said George Shuster, a Save The Bay board member and Riverview resident who helped with the plantings. “I hope these projects, which have been site-specific and flexible depending on the present and changing needs of each street, can serve as models for the many more road-ends in Warwick and beyond.” 
“We’re fortunate to have expert attention from Wenley Ferguson at Save The Bay, in partnership with forward-thinking engineers from Warwick’s public works department, working together on principled and thoughtful approaches to the city’s changing coast.” ~ George Shuster, Save The Bay board member, Riverview resident
Throughout Narragansett Bay, dozens of similar roads end at the Bay, providing public access to the shore and to coastal homes. But rapidly rising sea level threatens to flood and worsen the erosion of these roads, too. Along the Kickemuit River, we partnered with the towns of Warren and Bristol on two similar projects to pull back eroding pavement and install swales to slow down and filter the rain runoff. 

Sea level has risen more than ten inches since 1930 and is projected to rise at a faster pace over the next century, as much as three to five feet by 2100. As that happens, even more of our coastal infrastructure will become vulnerable to worsening flooding and erosion. These seven pavement removal projects, funded by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant and implemented in cooperative agreement with the CRMC, represent just one in a series of steps to adapt to quickly changing conditions. CRMC Policy Analyst Caitlin Chaffee, one of our key partners in this work, says, “They are a great on-the-ground example of how municipalities can start to address the effects of climate change on public infrastructure and how coastal communities can retreat and adapt rather than rebuild after coastal storms.”