Updated March 30 at 12:47pm

R.I.’s coast is moving; start dealing with it realistically

Guest Column:
Jonathan Stone
Thirty years ago, Wallace Kaufman and Orrin Pilkey published the landmark book on coastal erosion, “The Beaches Are Moving; The Drowning of America’s Shoreline.” One of their many keen observations is simply that shorelines retreat.

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R.I.’s coast is moving; start dealing with it realistically


Thirty years ago, Wallace Kaufman and Orrin Pilkey published the landmark book on coastal erosion, “The Beaches Are Moving; The Drowning of America’s Shoreline.” One of their many keen observations is simply that shorelines retreat.

In fact, shorelines in Rhode Island have been retreating since the last ice age. This retreat is not a temporary inconvenience, to be arrested with sheet pile and rip-rap. It is not a problem to be solved with a phone call to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nor by shifting savings from state pension reform to a massive coastal revetment.

Retreat is a fact of life.

In Rhode Island, sea levels are rising, and the rate of rise is accelerating. The causes are many: the thermal expansion of water as global temperatures increase, land subsidence, shifting wind patterns, and, of course, the melting of glaciers. Consequently, we find that small increases in sea level have big, often devastating, effects on the coast – a point hammered home by Hurricane Sandy.

The sea does not rise uniformly, geographically or temporally. Wave energy flings the sea high up the beach. Naturally occurring tide variation causes coastal flooding. Storms, both tropical and nor’easters, push water well beyond what we think of as the shoreline.

When you couple all of these effects with an accelerating rate of sea-level rise and increasing storm frequency and intensity, the result is the ocean routinely pushing far more inland than its theoretical edge (the high-tide line, to most).

Our human tendency is to try to control nature, but this leads to trouble. The man-made salt-pond breachways and the Harbor of Refuge at Point Judith have robbed our beaches of sediments that would otherwise naturally slow the rate of coastal retreat. And our fixed system of property rights, especially on dynamic barrier beaches, is a recipe for disaster.

The beaches, dunes, marshes and headlands are, and will remain, dynamic. They move. They will continue to move, no matter where we draw property lines or build roads and breakwaters.

As a society we encourage property owners to build on vulnerable and shifting sand. We provide federal flood insurance subsidized by taxpayers. We fail to update flood-plain maps with current and anticipated sea levels. We build and maintain highly vulnerable roads, sewer lines, water mains and electric utilities – all at significant public expense.

Two years ago, Save The Bay joined in a Coastal Resource Management Council debate over shoreline protection in Matunuck. One of the key issues at stake was and is the degree to which the state should commit itself to protecting public infrastructure along a shoreline that is rapidly retreating northward.

The CRMC ultimately granted permission to South Kingstown to spend a mere $1.2 million in state money to “protect” a 200-foot stretch of Matunuck Beach Road; this while another 1,000 feet is in immediate danger. We can say with absolute certainty that, long term, this investment will not save the road. Rather, the unintended consequences of this project will be the loss of valuable shoreline habitat and public access along the beach, accelerating erosion and a related decline in property values.

As I write, plans are under way to pour tens of millions more of taxpayer dollars into rebuilding vulnerable public and private infrastructure lost in the wake of Sandy. Our elected officials are under intense political pressure to act quickly. Will this money be wasted? Will it have the perverse effect of putting lives and property at risk? Could this money be better spent? These are the questions to be answered before we invest – to ensure we’re better prepared for the next storm.

The state of Rhode Island and local municipalities cannot afford to pour money into public infrastructure that will soon be washed away.

Last year, Save The Bay called upon the CRMC to lead a statewide effort to reshape public policy to anticipate the realities on the ground, or should I say, in the sea. This past summer, CRMC publicly embraced our vision, calling for the development of a coastal Special Area Management Plan.

CRMC cannot do it alone, however. Leaders from across the state must collaborate in the SAMP process and develop thoughtful, long-range policies, regulations and investment criteria that respect the inevitability of coastal retreat. State agencies, including DOT, DEM and Statewide Planning must be at the table. Coastal municipalities and other stakeholders must be at the table. Everything should be on the table: rolling easements, zoning restrictions, selective property acquisition, property tax reform, flood-insurance reform, relocation of public utilities and transportation infrastructure, etc.

Some will bristle at the notion of retreat. So be it. As John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things.” The coast of Rhode Island is dynamic. The seas are rising. The question before us is how to adapt. •

Jonathan Stone is the executive director of Save The Bay.


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