Protecting water, ‘best way to protect Rhode Islanders from water’

Posted 1/25/24


Rhode Islanders have been pummeled this season by storms, which have brought with them overflowing rivers and coastal inundation. The most recent of these storms, on January …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Protecting water, ‘best way to protect Rhode Islanders from water’



Rhode Islanders have been pummeled this season by storms, which have brought with them overflowing rivers and coastal inundation. The most recent of these storms, on January 10th, dumped more than 5 inches of rain on parts of Warwick, and forced schools to close for the day. At a time when water itself has become a threat to communities, Save the Bay says that protecting the water remains the best way to protect Rhode Islanders from the water.

In the aftermath of these recent storms, some waterfront homeowners and business owners have built up, or rebuilt, sea walls and other barriers. The official CRMC regulations prohibit building these barriers in most locations, but it isn’t hard to see the logic: if your home can’t move, but the water does, you fortify and try to push the water back. This idea of an adversarial relationship with the water, says Topher Hamblett, who was named Executive Director of Save the Bay earlier this month, is at the heart of the problem. Save the Bay and State Agencies say that sea walls contribute to coastal erosion, which exacerbates flood risk. Instead of fortifying, the organization urges people to give room to water and water systems, including wetlands and saltmarshes. “There comes a time when we can’t keep rebuilding” says Hamblett. “We need a major change in mindset in how to adapt to climate change, and building walls is not the answer.”

Incoming President of Save the Bay Board of Directors George Shuster is a Riverview resident, and points to so-called “end of the road” projects in his neighborhood as recent successes. In many of Warwick’s waterfront neighborhoods, local streets end essentially where the land meets the water. Shuster talks about how in previous floods, these road ends would flood and be submerged in standing water, blocking access to the beach. The flooding would also destroy the road bed, and would cause untreated storm runoff to flow directly into the bay. Starting in 2014, these road ends began to be replaced by gravel, grasses, and swales meant to channel the water into the soil, in a joint project between the City, Save the Bay. The projects were funded by NOAA grants. Elsewhere in Warwick, a similar project was completed around Suburban Parkway in Oakland Beach, modifying the median to allow water to recede faster. These measures are mostly unassuming – which is part of the point. Using natural features as mitigation strategies can be both effective, and simple to implement. According to Hamblett, Warwick’s 39 miles of coastline – the most of any municipality in the state – can expect to see a number of these Save the Bay guided projects in the near future.

Each individual project is relatively small: a basin here, 50 feet of road pulled back there, and so on. Save the Bay says that in the aggregate, it will make both a material difference and represent an important mindset shift. The basic idea is that, though people may draw the coastline as a clearly defined boundary on a map, water will always flow and shift. According to scientists, climate change will ensure it only shifts in one main direction in coming years: inland. The Coastal Resources Management Council uses a projection of 3 to 5 feet of sea level rise in the next 75 years, with increased storm surges on top of that.

Shuster points out that until the 1938 hurricane, Bayside had a road running on the seaward side of what are currently waterfront homes. Now, that area is submerged. “That’s almost 100 years of shoreline changing,” Shuster says. “Nature is going to do its thing, and it’ll do it faster now than it ever has. But this is an old story. We’ve been adapting to these issues for a long time.” By the same token, Shuster and Hamblett insist that giving land back to the water is not a radical, progressive cause, and should not be politicized. Says Shuster, “it’s what we’ve always had to do.”

So far, these small-scale resiliency efforts have not been controversial in communities. Though, admittedly, these are projects that are generally funded by grants and modify only public land, whereas water does not distinguish between public and private land. As problems of managing water continue to grow, and solutions become more involved, dealing with private land and private pocketbooks will be an obstacle. Warwick’s Bayside Sewer Project, while not a response to flooding, was supported by Save the Bay as an important way to keep septic leakage out of the bay. Along with ecological impacts, reducing toxic runoff was targeted at keeping water open for public use, avoiding days where destinations like Oakland Beach were forced to close due to water quality. The project, however, faced opposition from homeowners due to costs to individual households, which exceeded $17,000 to connect to the sewer network. Hamblett, and Shuster, a Riverview resident, say these kinds of costs are needed investments. “The best way to pay for public infrastructure is to have everybody pay” says Shuster. “The broader base of ratepayers you have, the better you can keep the rates down for everyone.”

In the coming years, the growing need for, and cost of, managing advancing water, is almost certain to continue. Manageably-sized community projects, like end of the road restoration, will remain part of the resiliency strategy. That being said, while Hamblett and Shuster are both proponents of the effectiveness of these projects, they both return, again and again, to the eventual need to migrate away from the water. With Federal Funding already coming into the state for home buy-backs this week, flood-adaptation may soon arrive even closer to people’s doorsteps than just the end of the road.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here