Prep or Recover? The State Weighs Options for Rising Sea Risk
Children born today will grow up with a much different Connecticut coast.
According to the Nature Conservancy, Connecticut will lose 24,000 acres of land to sea level rise by 2080. Recently, state leaders have taken a renewed interest in protecting communities from sea level rise. Connecticut, after all, has more at risk from sea level rise than any other state other than Florida.
Since 1960, Connecticut’s coastline has risen almost six inches, according to data released in June from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It may not seem like much, but that added water has been blamed for making Superstorm Sandy such a devastating storm for the state and region. Experts say that added water makes smaller storms even more devastating.
“We’re going to get flooding in, say, a Nor’easter, a smaller, more common storm where we wouldn’t experience flooding,” said Rebecca French, the Director of Community Engagement at the Connecticut Institute for Resliency & Climate Adaptation. “But now the sea-level rise is higher overall, so you’re going to have flooding during those storms.”
Created in 2014, CIRCA joined a growing number of state groups that are tasked with helping the state plan for rising seawater.
“Doing nothing will have real consequences,” said CIRCA Executive Director James O’Donnell.
These two studies join a litany of other state projects in the works that hope to create a blueprint for protecting homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Whatever the state does will cost billions. No cost estimate exists yet, but the thinking, according to staff at the Connecticut Department of Environmental and Energy Protection is that creating a ‘resilient coastline’ is money spent that would have to go toward cleanup and rebuilding, anyway.
“One of the challenges is to make changes that at least guarantee the safety of populations that continue to live along the shore,” says Jessie Stratton, Director of Policy Development for DEEP.
The Nature Conservancy has presented proposals to every coastal town in Connecticut, identifying ways for them to protect their coastline.
“When you start talking about threats such as sea level rise or things of that nature, it has a potential of jeopardizing of tearing apart the fabric of that community,” said Adam Welchel, Nature Conservancy Director of Science. “By not getting ahead on these issues through planning and thoughtful action is the potential of the loss of whom that community is. When you lose that, you really have no future.”
Over two months, WTNH and 29 student reporters from Quinnipiac University drove hundreds of miles across the state to find different ways state and city leaders are bracing for what is expected from the shore and how it is already having an impact on lives and businesses.
For decades, officials in Connecticut’s wealthiest town have been considering the risk of rising waters to properties and infrastructure along the shore.
Since 1964, Greenwich has had a conservation committee in place to focus on environmental issues and for the past 15 years they have been paying close attention to the rising sea levels.
Flooding has become more common in recent years due to a combination of rising water and more frequent super storms, according to the town’s conservation director Denise Savageau.
“I think Sandy and Irene were wake up calls for people,” said Savageau.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, water levels were up to over 10 feet of flooding in certain places and the sewage treatment plant was close to toppling over. The massive storm reinforced the need for a new emergency and long-term plan.
Many families who live close to the coastline will soon have to consider selling, moving or building their property higher to protect it from flooding and rising sea levels, according to Savageau. Although many families may elevate their houses, families who cannot afford this option would have to move. Greenwich has already ruled out living on Greenwich Point due to rising sea levels. The property used to be housing for military members, but has now been deemed unsafe and has been turned into a park.
Although Greenwich is still allowed to build roads and houses, they must build within the flood standards which means they would have to build at a certain level. This would keep the homes safe from rising water levels, but the roads are still susceptible to flooding. Street flooding is already common in Greenwich up to three times a month due to the full moon affecting the tides or strong winds.
Another solution Greenwich is considering is a “living shoreline,” which involves creating marshes to act as a natural border along the coast.
One of the common problems the Conservation Committee deals with is with informing their homeowners about the dangers of flooding. Homeowners often do not realize that the sea levels are gradually rising.
“The biggest challenge is educating people on what surge is. We throw terms out there and experts know what we’re talking about, but the common homeowner is confused,” said Savageau.
She also worries when she hears of people wanting to build houses in Greenwich because even if they build their house high enough it doesn’t stop their roads from flooding.
The committee has received grants in the past and they have put over $40,000 into the town’s infrastructure. The group looks at the state highways, public facilities, marinas, public drinking supply and most importantly every home in dangerous flood zones. The committee is very proactive in the town as they reach out to many communities that are located in flood zones to make sure that they are aware.
“We just need to be prepared as a community, and as individual homeowners,” says Savageau. “It’s really a partnership.”
Fixing Bridgeports coastal issues is worth millions. It has more low income homes in the path of flood water, made worse by sea level rise, than any other Connecticut city. That is the pitch the State of Connecticut is making to Housing and Urban Development officials.
Bridgeport wants $43 million in grant money to give the city a facelift. The money would be used around Bridgeport to clear stormwater quicker, protect homes prone to flooding and reduce carbon dioxide emissions across the city. The awards are announced next month.
On the other side of the city, Sikorsky Airport is getting a $17.7 million facelift. In an area that floods regularly, much of the project reroutes water away from the airport. The plan includes new water basins and spaces for tidal runoff.
Already, the city has collected $10 million in a similar project called Resilient Bridgeport. Given to Connecticut in 2014, the money will be used to protect the cities South End, University of Bridgeport and Seaside Park.
“It’s a priority to help the south end of Bridgeport due to future flooding,” said CIRCA’s Rebecca French.
Bridgeport and CIRCA are planning to raise roads and highway exit ramps in the South End. Bridgeport has also planned out a highway bypass from Interstate 95 onto Route 8 that will go onto the Merritt Parkway and take the Milford connector back to I-95. According to Resilient Bridgeport, this highway bypass “would free about 80 acres of land.”
“Sea level rise is kind of a slow motion hazard,” said Nature Conservancy Director of Science Adam Whelchel.
The danger from sea level rise comes from that amount of water along the shoreline. A smaller storm in a century will cause the same amount of damage as a larger storm would cause today.
“As we go into the future that sea level rise, or that base or platform, upon which these extreme weather events take place will be much higher. So we will have more water in more locations, that we haven’t seen before,” said Whelchel. “It’s happening now. It’s happening quicker. It’s not something remote.”
95 percent of Connecticut lives 50 miles from the coast.
64 percent of its insured property is on the coast.
All told, Connecticut has $542 billion at risk to sea level rise and coastal flooding.
In New Haven, one of the most important areas is sitting in a low lying area, prone to floods: Union Station and the rail yard that goes with it. New Haven wants to revamp the entire area to reroute water that impacts the rail yard, and improve roadways, which would protect neighborhoods and businesses.
It is the second part of the same grant Bridgeport is applying for. Together, these two cities were identified as two with the most to lose from sea level rise.
Guilford was among the many Connecticut towns that have released a coastal resiliency plan in recent years.
Theirs was adopted in September 2012.
The Guilford plan is touted as a model example of resiliency, in part, because changes have already started.
One of those changes is seen by Brown’s Boatyard owner David North every day. All it took for Chaffinch Island Road to flood was high tide. North said it happened almost every day.
“[The water is] moving really fast,” said North. “Every year, it’s very noticeable.”
The shoreline has changed, said North. He has watched water increase and the marshland disappear.
City planners identified the road as a victim of a rising sea. Construction ended on Chaffinch Island Road in October. It is now four feet higher than what it was.
Raising roads is a visible, but relatively small part of the overall plan to plan for the slow creep of ocean water. The town is looking at changing fire and zoning regulations and other large scale changes to how the city operates in response to a rising sea. So far, none have been fully implemented.
In order to receive FEMA dollars after a natural disaster, towns need a mitigation plan. Most, if not all, of Connecticut’s coastal community plans list sea level rise as a potential risk.
Old Saybrook’s plan passed in 2012. Sea Level Rise is a major component of their plan.
“On a long term basis, sea level rise may be the greatest natural hazard facing Old Saybrook,” reads the report.
The Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan focuses on the Chalker Beach neighborhood as some most likely to flood.
In 2014, The Southern Central Regional Council of Governments came up with hazard plans for Bethany, Branford, Hamden, Branford and North Branford, Madison, North Haven, Orange, Wallingford, West Haven and Woodbridge.
Across the 11 cities, the study identified $2 billion dollars worth of potential damage coming directly from sea level rise. They found more than 12,000 homes, parcels, critical facilities (dams, roads, telecommunication infrastructure & emergency services for instance) and historical sites at risk to sea level rise.
Branford identified the most historical sites and property at risk than any other town in the study.
Of all the natural disasters, Madison’s main concern is coastal flooding, made more common by sea level rise. The study identified $641 million worth of property that would directly impacted by sea level rise.
The town is seeking grants for more studies to be done on the potential impact and what can be done in the future.
Tucked away among the Thimble Islands off the coast of Branford, Connecticut, kelp and shellfish grow from vertical lines in the depths of a 40-acre ocean farm. It’s here that Bren Smith, a lifelong fisherman, is fighting his own battle against rising water, increasing storms and other effects of climate change.
His mission with his Thimble Island Ocean Farm is to rearrange our dinner plate, moving bivalves and ocean plants to the center and wild fish to the edges. We must adapt our food choices, he says, as climate change has driven species like lobster northward and nitrogen pollution has triggered expanding “dead zones. Overfishing has also depleted almost 90 percent of the large fish population, according to Smith. And at the same time, drought on land is making ocean resources essential to our food supply.
“Our oceans are changing so fast and so we need to adapt with that and change our fishermen into an army of what I now call ‘climate farmers’,” said Smith.
Smith’s three-dimensional farms are also “hurricane proof” and help protect the coastline from storm surges, events that are expected to increase because of climate change. His vertical lines are hooked to buoys and are anchored to the sea floor.
Smith’s farms weren’t always designed this way. Before Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Smith grew his shellfish along the seafloor. But he lost 90 percent of his crop during these storms.
“Most of my gear washed off to sea two years in a row,” Smith explained in a recent TED talk.
Growing shellfish and seaweed vertically also reduces the space needed to grow food. In his TED talk, Smith talks about how as his farm has shrunk from 100 acres to just 20 acres he has been able to grow more food by doing everything vertically instead of horizontally.
“We have gotten away from monoculture,” Smith says in the talk. “Aquaculture is obsessed with growing one thing in one place. We’re growing four kinds of shellfish, two kinds of seaweed, and now we’re even harvesting salt on those twenty acres.”
He is working with scientists and engineers to grow kelp biofuels and organic fertilizer, limiting the release of carbon dioxide which is linked to climate change, and to nitrogen, which can create dead zones in the sea.
Kelp can also soak up carbon – five times the amount of land-based plants, according to Smith.
Smith, who has worked as a longliner for McDonald’s and in the canneries of Alaska, has said he hopes the 3D farms will make his own business sustainable and protect his livelihood from the changes to come.
“We have ignored climate change because it is looked at as an environmental problem. It is about ice caps and polar bears. It’s about birds and bees; things that are great, but not close to how we make a livelihood,” explains Smith. “When the truth is that climate change is an economical issue. It’s a job killer and it’s a small business killer.”
Smith has received a lot of attention for his 3D farms. Just last month he was honored by former President Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting for committing to train and support 27 new fisheries as well as operate five new 3D ocean farms.
“Now, it’s not the grand solution to everything but it’s a piece of the puzzle that we can use right here to start diminishing the problems,” Smith said.
Smith’s vision is to build hundreds of small farms along the coastline, so that Connecticut and Long Island Sound “start to look like the Napa Valley of the ocean,” he said. So far, there are eight farms in the area and one in Santa Barbara, California.
James O’Donnell knows he has a lot of responsibility.
In 2014, the oceanographer was tapped for the position of Executive Director at The Connecticut Institute for Resilience.
CIRCA, as it’s better known, is a state and federally funded project that is working on a series of studies which will ultimately craft state efforts to fight sea level rise.
Predictions for how much more water will be added to the Connecticut coast vary widely. O’Donnell said the state can count on at least three extra inches of water on its coast.
“If you’re on the shoreline and you get flooded once a year now, it may change to 3 or 4 times a year depending on how much sea level rise we get,” said O’Donnell. “Doing nothing will have consequences.”
CIRCA’s studies will help the state craft future policy for more “resilient infrastructure”. What that looks like, specifically, will be left up to lawmakers. Inland and coastal flooding studies are being combined with new research tools for towns & cities. Those studies will be a partial basis for any decisions that are made.
Housed at UConn’s Avery Point Campus, in the former summer estate of a railroad tycoon heir, CIRCA has tools that measure tidal changes and studies that hope to gain a better understanding of the Long Island Sound.
Rebecca French, CIRCA’s community engagement director, said creating safe communities comes down to helping towns or cities understand the threat.
“Largely, it is municipality by municipality decisions,” French said. “But these problems are shared. We’re evacuating into each other water. One side of the river is in Fairfield, the other side of the river is in Bridgeport, so it takes some cross-municipality thinking to deal with these problems.”
CIRCA has partnered with the Connecticut Department of Housing in applying for federal funding to create coastal resilience. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is working with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide money and resources to communities that are at risk from natural disasters. Together, they are allocating nearly one billion dollars to these communities throughout the country. Connecticut is among the 67 eligible applicants for the 2015 competition.
The state is applying for the resilience competition by proposing plans for two areas: New Haven and Bridgeport.
“HUD told us that Connecticut’s qualified areas within the state were New Haven and Fairfield counties,” French said. ”They consider those counties the most impacted from [Sandy] and still in recovery.”
O’Donnell said that the institute will use these projects towards plans in other towns.
“Our goal is to do some pilot projects in areas which are characteristic of others and then use those solutions from the experiments to inform other towns,” O’Donnell said.
Even if the state earns funding from the NDRC, O’Donnell says that implementing resilience plans across the state is going to be an enduring process.
“It’s going to take a long time,” O’Donnell said. “This is not a two-year project and then you’re done.”
HUD will announce the NDRC winners in December. From there, HUD must obligate its funds by Sept. 30, 2017 and the winners must spend their funds by Sept. 2019.
WTNH partnered with Quinnipiac University for this piece. Students collaborated with WTNH journalists and created video, text, research and the interactive tools you see above. A sincere thank you to Amy Walker’s class made up of Stephen Albano, Janessa Andiorio, Colin Babcock, Elayne Barrentine, Tyler Brosious, Jordan Burnell, Sean Clasby, Justin Cloutier, Nicolas Colon, Matthew Colucci, Thomas Cunningham, Sarah Doiron, Danial Donnelly, Connor Fortier, Michael Hewitt, Amy Hooker, Timothy Marks, Shanna McCarriston, Maximilian Molski, Rebecca Riina, Rebecca Rogoz, Victoria Saha, Ethan Savluk, Eric Sidewater, Benjamin Szabo, Sean Treppedi, Connor Voss, Jacobo Waincier and Jonathan Wische.