South County Confronts Long-Standing Coastal Challenges
Along 28 miles of developed and vulnerable coastline in four South County municipalities, there are some 4,800 structures valued at more than $600 million
May 10, 2021
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — As increasingly frequent and intense storms batter the Ocean State’s weary coast, the consequences, such as eroding beaches, flooded homes, compromised public streets and threatened infrastructure, become more common. While efforts to mitigate these impacts are underway along Rhode Island’s 400-plus miles of coastline, municipalities must balance loss with timing and limited money.
Twenty-one major natural disasters between 1938 and 2015, including the “Great New England Hurricane” of 83 years ago, punished this Washington County coastal community, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Significant storm events hit Washington County — often referred to locally as South County — once every 5.75 years, according to a 2018 report done by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and the Army Corps of Engineers.
To address the impacts of the climate crisis, South Kingstown officials are updating the town’s hazard mitigation plan to identify the neighborhoods that are most vulnerable. The updated plan will include most-appropriate remedies.
Some solutions have already been implemented. In 2015, for instance, taxpayers funded the relocation of the South Kingstown Town Beach pavilion largely because of erosion caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
These projects are aimed at protecting a fragile coastal ecosystem, both natural and human-made, from being washed away by rising sea levels, intensifying storm surge and increased flooding.
“Superstorm Sandy was an important milestone in our evolution to enlightenment of this topic. But we have known about climate change, and the change to our shoreline, for 50 years,” South Kingstown town manager Robert Zarnetske said. “We are in a situation that if we were to lose a road nearby — and there is a threat of losing a road — we’d have 270 families isolated, and not have access to town. We have relocated the pavilion, but we cannot relocate the road, and that is a much bigger problem. The pavilion is a small symptom of such a large problem.”
He said the town’s strategy is to adapt, retreat and reinforce, including pursuing thoughtful shoreline development and limiting overbuilding in vulnerable areas.
Relocating the Town Beach pavilion was a crucial first step in this approach. Decades of ocean waves and stormwater runoff had deteriorated the boardwalk along the barrier beach, and major flooding weakened the pavilion’s front section in 2010, according to Theresa Murphy, the town’s director of leisure service. It was moved 300 feet north of its original site, and is outside the 500-year floodplain, she said, where it will be secure for its lifetime.
Murphy noted that South Kingstown in three consecutive years starting in 2011 was hit by major storms: Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy, and a blizzard. All of these storms exacerbated the erosion problems at Town Beach. They necessitated the pavilion’s retreat.
“We were playing beat the clock to get this project done, because we might have lost the whole building,” Murphy said. “We can’t just carve out one piece of the beach and say, ‘What are we going to do here to stop coastal erosion?’ Because it impacts properties on either side. … We are looking to keep a beach in operation every year, so it’s good for the community and those who visit, and to do it in an environmentally safe way. But the bigger picture is definitely how to move forward.”
Looking ahead is critical to preserving community cohesion. South Kingstown has partnered with CRMC and the Army Corps of Engineers to identify 76 vulnerable residences and businesses in the Pawcatuck River coastal floodplain.
The 2018 two-agency report, the Pawcatuck River Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study, proposed three types of measures: structural, storm-surge barrier, seawall, and breakwater; nonstructural, elevation, relocation, and education; and natural, dune restoration, living shorelines, and reefs.
“Residential and commercial properties in the Pawcatuck River coastal floodplain are all vulnerable to inundation from coastal storms,” according to the 145-page study. “Properties on the coastal barriers are subject to flood inundation, wave effects, and to a lesser extent, erosion.”
Three other Washington County towns are participating in this project, Charlestown, Narragansett and Westerly. Along 28 miles of developed coast in these four municipalities, a study area that includes coastal barrier beaches and seven coastal ponds, there are about 4,800 structures, most of which are residential. The total value of the residential and commercial inventory is estimated at more than $600 million.
A total of 247 structures, including 72 in South Kingstown, are eligible for elevation.
Rhonda Bath-Charbonneau, a project manger for the Army Corps of Engineers, said the federal agency is expected to begin this spring surveying and assessing the structures in South Kingstown whose property owners have expressed interest in elevating their homes and businesses. She said the agency anticipates construction to begin as early as next spring, once designs have been completed and contracts have been awarded.
“We hope for a really high participation rate, but we have no way to gauge what we should expect. It’s the first project of its kind in the country,” said Justin Skenyon, an ocean engineer with CRMC. “Along the shoreline, when you get hit with a storm, certain houses will be bashed away or blown over or destroyed. They’d have to get cleaned up and rebuilt, if the land is even there. Meanwhile, the town tax base suffers, people can’t live there, and it’s devastating to the community. So, the idea is that even if you can’t fortify all structures, you can fortify some, and it’s easier for the community to bounce back.”
Reinforcing the eroding shoreline is perhaps the most imminent project, as there has been ongoing beach sand loss for decades, including a significant amount of the Matunuck Headlands during a spring 2007 storm. In fact, since 1939, there are areas along the Matunuck Headlands that have lost significant beachfront, according to a 2014 report by the Rhode Island Geological Survey and CRMC.
The town’s public services director, Jon Schock, is spearheading the two-part construction of a controversial seawall along Matunuck Beach Road that the town says will fortify exposed sand, prevent loss of bedding from receding waves, help reduce wave energy and provide support should the beach be lost seaward of the wall during a storm.
Steel-sheet pilings and 11-ton armor stones, similar in size to those at the Point Judith breakwater in Narragansett, are placed seaward and below grade, he said. Phase one in 2018 extended 220 feet along Matunuck Beach from Ocean Mist, while phase two, which received bond approval last November, extends 500 or so feet to the Matunuck Beach Trailer Association. Construction of phase two is expected to begin this fall.
“The thing that is driving this appears to be the shoals offshore at Deep Hole. If you look at the shoreline in southern Rhode Island, and specifically South Kingstown, there is erosion to the east and west. So, it appears that energy from the shoals is being displaced, so that is why we’re having erosion in Matunuck, and east along Ocean Avenue,” Schock said. “We just have our fingers crossed that we don’t have a coastal storm event that will erode [Matunuck Beach] Road before we get the next phase of the wall up.”
Though there is no panacea for the impacts of the climate crisis, South Kingstown is moving ahead to protect its ever-changing coastline.
“The problem is bigger than any one municipality can really handle,” Zarnetske said. “If we lose Matunuck Beach Road, we’ll need millions in federal assistance to fix it.”