Nobody had to convince Branford First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos that the water level in Long Island Sound is higher than it used to be. He’s spent four decades as a stonemason, much of it raising docks all along the shoreline
“Why would they build a dock that goes underwater at high tide,” he asked. “Well they didn’t.”
And now after Tropical Storm Irene laid waste to several waterfront sections of his town, he’s embarked on a flood-risk review of every town-owned structure.
He’ll have access to more assistance than ever to do that. In the last year The Nature Conservancy has added its Coastal Resilience free web tool, developed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and others, to a growing number of similar ones that help communities map and analyze the potential effects of sea level rise and more frequent and virulent storms.
Connecticut is part of the Conservancy’s initial project that includes Long Island and the New York City area. Its complex programming includes parameters for sea level rise and various storm intensities through 2080, with filters that show roads; critical structures like water treatment plants, schools and hospitals; various demographics like income; ecological effects such as salt marsh destruction; and economic factors like replacement cost.
Even some of the most conservative scenarios show dramatic results — like the potential for flooding at Tweed Airport in New Haven, not far from where East Haven’s Cosey Beach was devastated during Irene.
A white paper the Conservancy expects to release this month will show that a category three storm with the already existing sea level rise would result in temporary flooding in Connecticut of nearly 45,000 acres including 10 airports, five train stations, 645 miles of road and 131 miles of train tracks. Sea level rise alone, it reports, by 2020, could permanently flood 13,000 acres, six airports, 94 miles of road and 20 miles of train tracks.
“You start going from the coast of Connecticut to an archipelago,” said Adam Whelchel, an ecologist who is director of science for the Conservancy in Connecticut. “This really wakes people up.”
That’s if the Conservancy or the state, which has an older — also free — mapping and analysis system called Coastal Hazards and Management Planning (CHAMP), can get their attention.
Communities remain largely unaware that these services — the state’s through the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection — are available, despite outreach efforts and the heightened awareness since Irene. Even Branford’s DaRos, who is quoted by the Conservancy advocating Coastal Resilience as a management tool, has yet to use it.
In Fairfield, which also contended with high water during Irene, First Selectman Mike Tetreau was unaware the Greater Bridgeport Regional Council, of which Fairfield is a member, has information about Coastal Resilience on its website.
But Tetreau, who has a degree in civil engineering, said mapping is the least of it for a town of 50,000 that is volunteer-run. “Frankly, I’ll admit it, we need help,” he said. “These are bigger problems than one town can solve on our own.”
He doesn’t see how without expertise and financial support from government, especially federal, a town like Fairfield will be able to do things like figure out where to put its dump and water treatment plant, both now on the coast, not to mention all the gas and sewer lines and the 10,000 people who live between Route 1 and the Sound.
“You’re talking about some very significant problems that may not hit for 100 years,” he said. “But you may need 100 years to come up with the solution and affect the change.”
While the state with its CHAMP tool and its soon-to-be-available CTclimatechange.com and the Conservancy with Coastal Resilience say they are not in competition, there is a touch of rivalry. Coastal Resilience uses sea rise projections extrapolated from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international collaboration between the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, for specific years. (Many scientists now think those predictions have become too conservative.) The DEEP model offers various levels with no time frame.
Jennifer Pagach, an environmental analyst specializing in climate change with DEEP, called Coastal Resilience a “great first step,” but pointed out that the state also helps communities figure out how to address flooding.
“More important than what model you pick,” she said, “Is that you get a sense of where the vulnerabilities are and what can you do rather than just looking at the maps and freaking out.
“You can’t just show maps and scare people.”
What the state and the Conservancy agree on is that sea level rise and storms already threaten infrastructure, and that job one is making local governments aware.
“It’s a very serious concern and something we really need to start giving some serious thought to,” said Brian Thompson, director of the office of Long Island Sound Programs at DEEP, who is also part of a group looking at adaptation strategies for climate change along the coast. “Irene was a pretty good preview of those areas that are vulnerable to impact.”
Pagach has been working with the Town of Groton since 2008. “Forget about sea level rise and 2100 and how high it will be,” said Michael Murphy, director of planning and development. “We have storm surge impacting us right now.”
Murphy said mapping showed threats to roads and rail lines, the 30 percent of the town’s pumping stations that are on the coast, some schools, and that areas like Groton Long Point could be isolated by storms.
The town is still years away from solutions to address flooding, let alone regulations that require sea level rise scenarios be included in planning, he said. But the biggest challenge will be money.
“Some of the alternatives to really prevent some of the communities from flooding are millions and millions of dollars,” he said. “Who has that money?”
In Guilford, Town Planner George Kral is in the early stages of working with the Nature Conservancy. “The worst case scenarios, it’s certainly sort of scary. On the other hand, it’s 80 years from now,” he said. “As town planner I can’t really take that view. It’s sort of in my job description to think about the long range.”
To that end he’s using a $26,000 grant from NOAA to help incorporate flood planning considerations into the town’s comprehensive plan of conservation and development in the next year-and-a-half.
The Conservancy, while noting that neighboring Rhode Island has recently adopted new regulations to address sea level rise, said in a home rule state like Connecticut, such action would be extremely difficult. But it’s considering promoting legislation that would at least authorize municipalities to do that if they so choose, and prescribe sea levels, updated each decade.
But Whelchel said getting communities to balance growth and environment can be difficult.
“Oftentimes you may have either fiscally or politically committed to a redevelopment project or a development project that will not be swayed or derailed by pesky things like sea level rise in 2080,” he said.
Not to mention the psychological effects, said David Sutherland, the Conservancy’s Connecticut director of governmental relations.
“Part of it is coming to grips with the fact that if we’re lucky and we continue to defy the odds and we don’t have a major hurricane, which we’re overdue for, hopefully these folks and their children will get to still enjoy this,” Sutherland said of people along the coast.
“But chances are your grandchildren are going to have to be somewhere else and how do we start reckoning for that and being deliberate about it?”