Preparing for Rising Seas in Rhode Island

The changing climate threatens most of the state's wastewater treatment plants, many of our roads and all of our drinking water.

On one of the coldest days of the year, Wenley Ferguson fights the wind at the edge of Quonochontaug Pond in Charlestown. Bundled in a parka and knee-high rubber boots, she watches as workers use two large hydraulic dredges to pump a slurry of sand and water a quarter mile through an orange flexible pipe and onto the adjacent salt marsh in an effort to raise the elevation. Flocks of gulls and shorebirds called dunlin gather at the outflow pipe to forage for tiny marine creatures. Two bulldozer drivers push the sandy sediments around on top of the delicate area, grading the site to create areas of high- and low-marsh habitat, as well as drainage channels so water does not pool on the surface as the tide recedes.


Roy Carpenter’s Beach in South Kingstown in 2012 after the destructive force
of Superstorm Sandy. Beach erosion is only one of the problems Rhode Island grapples with when dealing with climate change. Photography by Michael Cevoli.

The habitat restoration coordinator for Save the Bay, Ferguson and Caitlin Chaffee from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) oversee the team of workers as they endure the challenging conditions to complete the first stage of what officials hope will save the area from rising seas.

“It looks a bit like a desert at the moment,” admits Ferguson, who calls the effort a sediment placement project. The sediment placement area will take three to five years for plants to colonize. However, after native marsh plants have been planted and nature has had a chance to carve its signature into the project, the wetland will look and work like it did before sea level began its rapid ascent.

“We’re taking these extreme measures to place sediment on degraded salt marshes because we’ve seen widespread loss of vegetation over the last fifteen years,” says Ferguson. “A healthy marsh can build elevation through its root matter or through the accretion of sediments, but our marshes aren’t keeping pace with sea level rise.”

During the last twenty years, sea level has risen an average of five millimeters per year, but local salt marshes are building elevation at just two millimeters per year. “And millimeters matter,” Ferguson notes. While salt marsh vegetation thrives on the twice-daily influx of water from the tides, the rising sea level has meant that many of the Ocean State’s salt marshes are becoming permanently flooded, killing the vegetation where rare birds nest, and negating the marsh’s ability to cushion surging storms.

The Quonochontaug project follows similar efforts at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, the Narrow River in Narragansett and Ninigret Pond in Charlestown.

A decade ago it would have been unthinkable for Ferguson to stand idly by as dredged material was dumped on a salt marsh. She spent much of the 1990s and 2000s restoring more than ten marshes damaged by human disturbances including road crossings and filling of marshes that were considered dump sites in the state. Under normal circumstances, Ferguson might have been one of the first to stand in the way of a heavy bulldozer driving over the fragile marsh plants. But the circumstances these days are anything but normal.

According to a gauge in Narragansett Bay, sea level has risen eleven inches since 1930, most of it in the last three decades. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to 3.25 feet of sea level rise by 2050 and up to 9.6 feet by 2100. During moon tides and major storms, water levels will get even higher. And that means that most of Rhode Island’s salt marshes — and much of the rest of the coastline — will soon become flooded. The changing climate is driving other dramatic changes in the Ocean State as well, from increasingly damaging storm runoff to degraded forests and heat-related illnesses.

THe state of Rhode Island and its coastal communities, along with coastal businesses, residents and some inland towns, are beginning to plan for the inevitable implications of climate change. Structures are being raised, barriers are being built and numerous other strategies are being deployed in anticipation of potential devastation in the coming years.

In September 2017, Governor Gina Raimondo appointed Shaun O’Rourke the state’s first chief resilience officer to develop a climate resilience action strategy for addressing the challenges from sea level rise, warming temperatures, increasing storm intensity, inland flooding and changing biodiversity. Called Resilient Rhody, the strategy plan lays out a series of sixty-one actions targeting critical infrastructure, natural environments, emergency preparedness and community health, along with a financing strategy.

“The one thing that became clear at the beginning of developing the strategy is that the municipalities are on the front lines,” says O’Rourke. “We need to work more collaboratively with them, identify the resources they need to help them prepare for climate change and how to play a role in better preparing the municipalities. That will lead to a better prepared state.”

He notes that virtually all of the state’s drinking water is vulnerable to climate change, as are 337 miles of state and municipal roads, most of Rhode Island’s nineteen wastewater treatment plants, numerous bridges and dams, and much of the coastal environment. In March, the state launched a municipal resilience program in partnership with the Nature Conservancy to help communities identify priority projects and the funding to implement them.

“We’re really trying to develop a roadmap to better facilitate work at the local level through the recently launched Municipal Resilience Program,” O’Rourke adds. “The state is identifying ways to provide the resources to allow the municipalities to implement their projects more effectively.”

The town of warren is already confronting the rising seas. As one of the lowest-lying communities in Rhode Island, Warren already faces serious flooding during especially high tides, and things won’t get any better. The main artery into town from the north, Wampanoag Trail, will likely be inundated in the next thirty years, and the bridge from Barrington into Warren —which was reconstructed in 2009 — is the most vulnerable bridge in the state to rising waters.

In addition, the value of waterfront properties in Warren (and elsewhere) is beginning to decline due to the flooding risk, eventually reducing the property taxes the town receives and thereby making it more difficult for town officials to afford to take steps to alleviate the situation. And the town has very little available land left to be developed for the businesses, residents and municipal facilities that may have to relocate due to the impending threat.


Kate Michaud, Warren town manager, at the wastewater plant. One of the state’s lowest-lying communities, Warren faces serious flooding during high tides. Photography by Michael Cevoli.

“Looking at the projections, we could have some very serious challenges in the not too distant future,” says Kate Michaud, the Warren town manager and former town planner. “It’s definitely an issue for us — and maybe an opportunity as well. We have time, and we can plan for it. Hopefully.”

Michaud says the most vulnerable parts of town are the waterfront areas along the Warren River and the Belcher’s Cove area of the Palmer River. Homes and businesses for several blocks inland of the Warren River, along with the former American Tourister mill that is now being renovated into a mixed-use development, could be under more than ten feet of water during a major storm in the 2050s, when sea level will likely be about five feet higher than it is today. Market Street, at Belcher’s Cove, already floods at moon tides, causing storm water to reverse its flow and making it difficult for emergency vehicles to get through.

“It’s mostly nuisance flooding at this point, but if we have a rain storm and a high tide at the same time, that’s when we can have some significant flooding under current conditions,” Michaud says. “And it’s only going to get worse.”

A recent visualization of flood damage created by the University of Rhode Island and the CRMC indicates that a 100-year storm could result in a surge of fifteen feet sweeping through much of the East Bay.

The Warren wastewater treatment plant is facing the most immediate threat. “It’s built at the absolutely lowest point in town, so it’s the first facility in jeopardy,” Michaud says. The plant is in the midst of a major upgrade designed to address future flooding issues by elevating electrical controls, pumps and tanks above flood levels so it can continue to function during flooding emergencies. If projections hold true, the upgrades are designed to last until about 2065, when Michaud thinks the facility may have to be completely relocated.

“I’ll be gone by then, but my daughter will be sixty,” she says. “I won’t be working here, but somebody will be, and it could be someone I love.”

Warren isn’t the only community in the Ocean State that recognizes the risks it is facing from climate change. The town of Narragansett, for instance, built a tall berm around three sides of its wastewater treatment facility in 2017. While the project added several hundred thousand dollars of expense, the town’s community development director, Michael DeLuca, says it also added an additional thirty to forty years of protection from storm surge and rising sea levels.

In Providence, the city is nearing completion of an emergency management plan and a vision plan for the Woonasquatucket River, both of which are factoring in climate resiliency elements. And the new downtown pedestrian bridge over the Providence River on the former Route 195 land was raised an additional eighteen inches to accommodate future sea level rise.

Most other coastal towns are still in the planning stage for climate resiliency, but many in the business and environmental community have already taken proactive steps.

In Westerly, the Watch Hill Yacht Club has attempted to rise above the threat by jacking up its entire 4,000-square-foot clubhouse by fifteen feet and building a new, storm-resistant entryway beneath it. What used to be the first floor of the club now has garage-like doors on all sides that can be opened to allow waves, rising tides and storms to move through without causing damage.

Many in the business community along Misquamicut Beach have gone a step further by trading in permanent structures for temporary ones that can be relocated when waters get too high or when storms approach. In response to the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Little Mermaid’s restaurant and Sam’s Snack Bar now operate out of customized trailers, the Andrea Hotel has been converted into a seaside restaurant under a giant removable tent, and Paddy’s Beach Club now operates with portable bars and furniture arranged in the sand.

Not every business can shut down and move in the face of threatening conditions, however. The shops and restaurants on Bowen’s Wharf in Newport are staying put, but the company that manages the wharf has raised electrical wiring and air conditioning compressors above flood level, replaced some wooden floors with those made from water-resistant materials, and taken steps to prevent mold and related issues. According to Bart Dunbar, president of Bowen’s Wharf Co., the lowest building on the wharf, the restaurant 22 Bowen’s, should be back in operation within ten hours of having eighteen inches of water over its floor.

At a meeting of fifty Providence business executives in January, Pam Rubinoff and Teresa Crean from URI’s Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant sought to motivate the assemblage to put sea level rise and climate resilience on the forefront of their agendas. Futuristic maps of the impact of rising seas on the downtown area were an eye-opener to many of them.

“It was the first time they were seeing this information, and some of them had a ‘holy crap’ response,” says Crean. “It got them thinking for the first time about how it’s going to have an impact on their businesses and their employees.”

Many thought, for instance, that closure of the Fox Point hurricane barrier would protect the downtown area from storm surge — and a recent analysis found that it will, at least up to five feet of sea level rise. But a closed hurricane barrier will also cause major flooding of the downtown area when water and storm runoff flowing downriver is stopped by the barrier.

Climate change is not just a problem of sea level rise for coastal communities to address, however. Inland communities are also facing concerns from increasingly severe storms that are leading to river flooding and serious difficulties from storm water runoff. It’s also an issue for forested communities in the western part of the state.

Tee Jay Boudreau, deputy chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Forest Environment, says increasing temperatures throughout the year, sharp seasonal weather changes and drought conditions in summer, when trees need water most, are making forests more susceptible to diseases and pests.

“If patterns stay the way they are, then our plants and habitats will have to adapt, and it may take a while for everything to adjust,” Boudreau says. “The important thing is to keep our forests large. Bigger is better when it comes to forests. The edge of the forest is most susceptible to the negative effects of wind and disease and pests, and when you break up the forest, there’s more edge.”

He emphasizes that when trees die, it doesn’t mean the forest is unhealthy. New plant life will grow in its place, though it may not be the same species that grew there before. To protect as much forested land as possible, the state is taking proactive steps to fight invasive pest insects, plant more trees in urban areas and update its forest action plan with climate change in mind.

Similarly, the Rhode Island Department of Health has noted that international health organizations have identified climate change among the greatest public health threats of the twenty-first century, with warming temperatures exacerbating existing ailments and leading to a wide variety of heat-related injuries and illnesses.

Laura Bozzi, the Department of Health’s climate change program manager, calls the issue a “threat multiplier” and notes that hospital emergency department admissions spike during extreme heat. So she is working to educate the medical community to be aware of the effects of the changing climate on human health, communicating with outdoor workers during extremely hot weather, and helping local municipalities tailor solutions for their communities.

“Many people have existing challenges, and climate change makes those challenges harder to overcome,” she says. “It’s going to affect people disproportionately. There are a lot of vulnerable populations who don’t have the information they need.”


Wenley Ferguson, habitat restoration coordinator for Save the Bay, with a bulldozer used to shore up delicate marsh habitats in South County. Photography by Michael Cevoli.

Back at the coast, in the Conimicut section of Warwick, Wenley Ferguson and Caitlin Chaffee visit the site of five coastal adaptation projects that Save the Bay conducted in coordination with the city of Warwick and with funding from CRMC and NOAA in 2014. Called “end-of-road retrofits,” the projects target roads that dead-end at the shore and are increasingly flooded at high tide. By removing as much as 100 feet of eroding asphalt, installing an infiltration area to absorb road runoff, adding dunes or marsh vegetation as a buffer, and building a path for public access, the projects reduce erosion and allow coastal habitats to migrate inland as sea levels rise. They also protect nearby homes and private property.

“The goal is to get more of these projects implemented with funding from a coastal resilience grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and have a plan that identifies others to tackle in the future,” says Chaffee. “These projects aren’t high on the city’s priority list due to their small scale, but they’re projects that we can take advantage of when the opportunities arise.” An inventory of potential future projects in all of the Ocean State’s coastal communities will be completed this summer.

At the end of Mill Cove Road, the retrofit seems to be working as planned. Native marsh grasses are growing in the buffer area, water no longer pools on the roadway, and erosion has virtually stopped — though chunks of asphalt litter the beach after having been tossed ashore from other locations that have yet to be addressed. The increased space between the road and the high-energy surf zone provides protection for vehicles parked on the street.

At the end of Grove Avenue, however, the retrofit already needs maintenance as this project showed signs of sediment collecting within the filter strip area from storm water runoff from the road. The road is low-lying and only a small section can be removed because a house sits
directly at the end. A seawall protecting the closest house has collapsed, the infiltration area was flooded and erosion of the beach is significant.

“Sites like this, there’s no room for adaptation because the built infrastructure is right there,” says Ferguson, who speculates that it won’t be long before the owners of the property closest to the beach are forced to abandon the home to the elements.

CRMC is hoping that won’t be necessary in too many places, and it’s making sure that those seeking to build in the coastal zone in the future are aware of the potential hazards. It has created an online tool providing scenarios for sea level rise and future flooding for every coastal property in the state. And it now requires those seeking CRMC permits to complete a risk assessment for their property, which includes identifying a “design life” for the structure based on its risk from climate-related factors.

“We aren’t saying you can’t build there, but we are starting to require people to be educated about their risk,” Chaffee says. “We encourage people to look at their base flood elevation, access to major roads, infrastructure like septic systems and water supply. What are going to be the impacts to all of those in the future?”

“There’s a lot to be worried about; the science is telling us so,” concludes Shaun O’Rourke, the state’s chief resiliency officer. “But I always lead with hope. In the last two years there has been renewed focus to find ways to stretch available resources to tackle projects we know we can do now. If we take steps to achieve small measurable change in our communities, we can start to show that these solutions are possible and make progress toward the overall goal of being a better prepared state.”