Thursday, December 29, 2016

Making the Hard Decisions - CoastKeeper Blog

By Dave Prescott, South County CoastKeeper

Beaches are dynamic coastal systems that are always moving and constantly shifting. As sea levels continue to rise, we see more and more coastal impacts that threaten homes, businesses, and infrastructure (such as roads, septic systems, and utilities), as well as invaluable coastal habitats (such as salt marshes). The onslaught of more intense coastal storms continues to batter our coast leaving many to question their future along the shore. It’s much easier to blame coastal erosion for the loss of our beaches rather than question why we decided to build so close to the shoreline in the first place.

What can we do about sea level rise and coastal storms and surge? The Army Corps of Engineers recently developed a plan to elevate 341 homes along the southern coast of Rhode Island from Westerly to Narragansett. While other options were evaluated, in the end, the Corps decided upon elevation as the best decision for the region.

In Save The Bay’s opinion, this study was heavily flawed. Not only did the study rely on low (or historic) rates of sea level rise, it failed to take into the account the real costs of upgrading and replacing infrastructure which is necessary for the survival of these coastal communities. An elevated structure does no good if you cannot access the property because the road is constantly flooded. In addition, it did not adequately consider the option of retreat.

One of the hardest decisions we are forced to make along the coast is what are the next steps? Too often we look to the short term. We elevate structures. We spend millions of dollars to put sand back onto the beach, only to lose it offshore or to the breachways and salt ponds. We build (or rebuild) seawalls to try to hold back Mother Nature. We subsidize coastal development over and over again.

Now is the time we should be looking to the long-term. While these decisions can be much harder for a community to swallow, in the long run they truly do make our coastal communities more resilient in light of current and future climate change impacts.

Managed retreat through acquisition, buyout programs, and relocation is often a hard pill for many to swallow – including the communities. However, when you look at all of the infrastructure that supports these homes and businesses (roads, emergency services, utilities, septic systems and wells), the communities just do not have the financial capacity to be able to elevate and upgrade all threatened structures and provide the support that taxpayers expect. The same is true on the state and federal level. There is just not enough money in any of the coffers to be able to support these coastal communities indefinitely when we are already witnessing the impacts higher sea levels, and more devastating coastal storms, have on our way of life. Through retreat, we allow our beaches to migrate naturally, unimpeded by man-made structures and walls.

Now is the time for us to evaluate where we should be elevating structures and where we need to retreat away from the coast. Politically speaking, managed retreat can be very unpopular. However, we need the political will from the state and our local representatives to start moving that ball forward and looking to the future. We need to start making these hard decisions now and develop the best long-term solutions for our coast. Our beaches will always be here…the question is will we let them?