Monday, January 2, 2017

Putting Up Walls: How Climate Change and Hardened Shorelines Erode Public Access

By Tom Kutcher, Former Narragansett BayKeeper

The Rhode Island State Constitution guarantees public lateral access along the shore.


A fisherman uses the beach that persists seaward of the 

Mohegan Bluffs on Block Island. As the bluffs erode, 
they contribute their sediments to the beach; this provides 
miles of lateral access along the shore. Photo: David Prescott
That means everyone has the right to walk along or below the high tide zone, anywhere in the state, to fish, swim, gather seaweed, and otherwise work or recreate in the water or at the shore. It means that waterfront property owners can’t kick you off the lower part of the beach in front of their houses or impede passage across it. In theory, you should be able to walk from Providence to Point Judith, or from Pawtucket to the Mount Hope Bridge, along the edge of the Bay without getting your knees wet (save for crossing a few rivers and numerous creeks on either side). But, anyone who has spent any time along the shores of Rhode Island knows this is a theory that can’t be put into practice.

A Hardened Shoreline and Rising Tides

Over the past 300 years, we have managed to harden more than half the shoreline along Narragansett Bay with bulkheads, retaining walls, piers, roads, and other permanent structures, many of which are built well into water deep enough to wet even my elevated knees. Through the years, private and public interests have impeded our right to walk along much of the shore in every Rhode Island coastal city and town. In the 1970’s, the Coastal Resources Management Council enacted regulations that either prohibit building structures into the water or limit shoreline hardening to cases where hardship is demonstrated. But pressure to harden shorelines has been ramping up lately.

A popular surf fishing and surfing stretch of beach in Matunuck, showing (1) 

a scoured and collapsed rip-rap wall (foreground) that impedes 
lateral access to an adjoining public beach at all tides, (2) 
extensive erosion of the bluff beneath the Ocean Mist bar, 
which now impedes lateral access at high tide, and (3) a 
retaining wall built and maintained to protect a residential property, 
which impedes lateral access from public parking at all tides.
That’s because climate change, along with resulting increases in coastal storms, erosion and sea levels, threatens roadways, homes, and businesses that were built close to the water. As homeowners, business owners, and municipalities react by building hardened structures, your right to pass along the shore comes into conflict with their efforts to literally fight against the tide. The surfcaster who has been fishing a stretch of beach his entire life comes into conflict with a waterfront property owner trying to save her front lawn, and the swimmer comes into conflict with the seawall erected to protect a road. 

Preserving Both Access and Shoreline
Without shoreline hardening, most non-bedrock shorelines can maintain a beach face capable of supporting the lateral access our state constitution gives us. Even steep bluffs deposit sediments to the beach face as they erode (think Block Island Bluffs, pictured). In our efforts to preserve coastal properties with walls and other hard structure, we inadvertently cause the beach to inevitably disappear. Hardened structures do not deposit sediments to the beach. Instead, they reflect erosive energy back toward the sea, dragging sediments to deeper water. Sediments that do remain seaward of hardened structures may eventually be submerged as sea levels are predicted to rise several feet by the end of this century.

Save The Bay is dedicated to working with CRMC, municipalities, legislators, businesses, and homeowners to find solutions to these present and increasing conflicts between public access and property. Our priority is to ensure that lateral access and other functions of natural shorelines are preserved in perpetuity