"Newport, Rhode Island" by Artur Staszewski is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Newport, Rhode Island, Deals With The Reality Of Sea Level Rise

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Newport, Rhode Island, is a summer oasis. It boasts mansions from the Gilded Era, a Cliff Walk that peers out over the Atlantic Ocean, some of the best sailing in the world, white sand beaches with gently rolling surf, and a marina area filled with enticing shops, restaurants, and accommodations.

It’s also a waterfront locale that is being battered by more frequent and more violent storms.

  • On April 4, the city announced the second closure in 2 years of a small portion of Cliff Walk due to erosion and storm-related damage.
  • Intensified weather forces routine closure of Harrison Avenue and damage to the city’s seawalls, bridges, and piers.
  • Flooding is much more common in the North End, downtown, on America’s Cup Avenue, and over at Brenton Point State Park.
  • The future of facilities at Easton’s Beach is currently being evaluated due to more frequent floods and sand displacement.
  • Easton’s Pond, Aquidneck Island’s largest supply of public drinking water, sits just across Memorial Boulevard from the beach and is in jeopardy from the threat of sea level rise.

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At a public meeting a few years ago, statistics were released that outlined the pressing situation: Newport sea levels have risen 1/10” per year over the decade, suggesting an 8” in sea level rise since 1930. Water levels are exceeding Mean Higher High Water (MHHW) elevations 200+ days per year, as opposed to 50+ days per year in 1930, a drastic change in tide fluctuation.

The Newport Water­front Commission is worried about the local effects of the climate crisis. “It’s our job to be prepared,” said deputy harbormaster Tristan Loughlin. “It’s true: the sea level is rising. That’s the reality of it. What is the fix going to be? I have no idea.”

The Commission recently cited the threat of sea level rise to the city’s maritime infrastructure in the latest iteration of its harbor management plan, which is a method to establish policies for the public and private uses of its tidal waters.

Longtime Commissioner Fred Roy captured residents’ concerns.

“I’ve seen a change. It’s happening. Sea level rise is a big issue here. We could basically lose the outskirts of the city if nothing is done. Are you going to raise the city on stilts? Put a wall up? It’s a major problem. Everybody needs to be in the same room to start talking about this as soon as possible.”solutions will require collaboration and a new way of thinking.”

An example of solutions is the recent $5 million city project to replace the eroding King Park seawall with a stone slope, to replenish sand at the beach there, and to install equipment in the parking lot — all to offset frequent flooding. Actions to tackle sea level rise in Newport have been proposed such as:

  • identifying shallow water areas with sensitive habitats such as eelgrass beds and then restricting boating activities that could cause damage in the identified areas;
  • educating boaters, marine facility operators, and harbormasters to prepare and respond to storms and hurricanes; and,
  • implementing flood hazard mitigation techniques through comprehensive planning.

The Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank will fund half the costs of the project. About $10 million in general ob­ligation bonds will go before voters in November for sand replenish­ment, which is a multi-step prac­tice designed to preserve beach area through the addition of large volumes of sand. Newport is hoping to secure federal funding for a $65 million project to decrease flooding in the North End. With resilience and sustainability already a top priority, the city also hopes to establish an ongoing fund for coastal retreat and routine repairs and maintenance.

But as residents of Salisbury, MA, know, sand replenishment is not necessarily an adequate solution — that community spent $600,000 to replenish its beaches, only to have that sand wash away in winter nor’easters. Nature-based solutions such as planting sea grasses must augment sand additions in order to be sustainable.

New England, Hit Hard by Extreme Precipitation, Gets Some Relief

Newport isn’t the only area in New England that is working to fight the climate crisis. Extreme weather events in the region are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change and are causing increasing damage to the local transportation system, which was primarily designed and built before the realities of the current climate.

Scientists say that the region has been hit harder by extreme precipitation than any other region of the US. The number of days when rain or snowfall totals have substantially exceeded what is normal has increased by 60% since the 1950s, according to the National Climate Assessment. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute explains the Gulf is one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on the planet, and sea levels along its coast are rising a few inches each decade, a rate that’s expected to accelerate as the climate crisis worsens.

Sea levels are rising across most US coastal areas, with associated increasing intensity of rainfall and the rising oceans putting transportation infrastructure at risk of closures. Several coastal New England states will soon receive grants from the federal government to protect transportation infrastructure from resulting flooding, damage, and erosion. Funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the funds will help New England and other regions to strengthen highways, bridges, roads, and culverts against the backdrop of climate pollution. The law includes $8.7 billion to be spent by 2026 to make transportation more resilient to natural hazards.

New England is expected to eventually receive more than $330 million to protect transportation corridors from the impacts of climate change, as reported by the Boston Globe, with states receiving different allocations based on their needs.

  • Massachusetts will receive $3.7 million of that federal money to upgrade drainage systems and reduce flooding, such as has been seen over the last year on Route 20 near Worcester and in Leominster, where the city is still figuring out how to pay for the tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure repairs.
  • Rhode Island was awarded 3 grants totaling about $44 million. A $26 million grant will be used to increase drainage capacity and increase green spaces in watershed areas at almost 100 locations across the state; a $17 million grant will be used to install a dehumidification system on the cables and anchors of the Mount Hope suspension bridge along RI Route 114; and a $750,000 grant will be used to develop a coastal management plan that allows the Town of Warren to move further inland.
  • New Hampshire will receive $20 million to reconstruct protections from coastal erosion along 3 miles of Route 1A between North Hampton and Rye.
  • Connecticut will receive $1.2 million to develop an extreme weather plan for transportation infrastructure in northern regions of the state.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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