Climate Crisis

Ocean State’s Chief Resiliency Officer has a Climate Plan

Municipal Resilience Program helps cities and towns deal with coastal erosion and rising waters

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Shaun O'Rourke, the state's chief resiliency officer, has until July 1 to deliver a climate mitigation plan to Gov. Gina Raimondo. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Shortly after he was named Rhode Island’s first chief resiliency officer, in mid-September 2017, Shaun O’Rourke was handed a monumental task: write a state resiliency plan to deal with the climate crisis by July 1, 2018.

The plan was to include funding proposals to protect the most at-risk infrastructure and economic zones, such as wastewater treatment facilities, low-lying coastal roads and seaports. It was to include adaptation initiatives to protect public buildings and vital infrastructure from sea-level rise, flooding and extreme weather.

The Resilient Rhody plan created the Municipal Resilience Program. The program offers a range of nature-based and manufactured adaptation plans. It looks at achievable projects cities and towns can complete, such as dam removal, road elevation, stormwater management, tree planting and coastal erosion control. O’Rourke said the intent of the program is to identify worthy projects and see that they get done.

He noted the Municipal Resilience Program is collaboratively building a statewide list of priority projects with municipalities to more effectively and efficiently respond to the climate crisis.

“The majority of infrastructure and assets at risk to climate change in Rhode Island are owned and managed by municipalities, but these communities often lack the staff capacity, funding and expertise to plan and prioritize resilience projects,” said O’Rourke, managing director of program and business development at the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. “Rising sea levels, increasing heat and extreme storm events will have long-term effects on local infrastructure and residents.”

A $21.7 million project at a Warren wastewater treatment facility wasn’t the result of the Municipal Resilience Program, but it served as an example of the type of project that high-risk communities with modest financial resources can embrace as the first of many steps needed to protect key, and often unappreciated, services such as wastewater and stormwater management.

At the Warren wastewater treatment facility, submersible pumps replaced outdated ones. Open-air tanks and electrical equipment were elevated to 16 feet to withstand a 100-year storm, plus 3 feet of sea-level rise and storm surge.

Since plenty needs to be done to make Rhode Island climate resilient, O’Rourke said the Municipal Resilience Program’s mission is to get the priority list of projects funded. He said municipal concerns largely revolve around: water quality; erosion control; aging dams; elevating roadways; culverts that need repair; and vegetation management.

Since the program was launched in 2019, three cohorts have been selected for funding.

In late February, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank announced nearly $1.5 million in grants for participants in the 2020 Municipal Resilience Program. The program requires municipalities to match 25 percent of the funding they receive.

With support from The Nature Conservancy, the 2020 cohort members spent 12 months completing “community resilience building” workshops and developing a prioritized list of plans and projects. The selection committee recommended the following municipal projects:

Bristol ($222,863): Wetland restoration for flood mitigation at Bristol Golf Course.

Little Compton ($164,000): Three green infrastructure projects for stormwater management and coastal erosion control at South Beach, Town Way, and John Dyer Road.

Newport ($180,999): Meadow restoration for stormwater management at Sprouting Rock Drive.

Pawtucket and Central Falls ($400,000): Infrastructure upgrades, green infrastructure, and tree planting in a shared 150-acre transit-oriented development district for stormwater management and water-quality, air-quality, and heat-reduction benefits.

Warwick ($225,000): Bioretention system and coastal embankment for stormwater management and erosion control at Oakland Beach.

Woonsocket ($300,000): Green infrastructure projects for stormwater management at River’s Edge Park, River Island Park, Bernon Memorial Park, and the City Hall parking lot, and increased culvert capacity for flood mitigation at Mendon Road.

The 2021 municipalities selected to participate are Cumberland, East Providence, Jamestown, New Shoreham, North Kingstown and Providence. A total of $7 million, thanks to voter approval of Question 2 on the March special election ballot, will be available to fund projects in those six municipalities.

The first cohort, in 2019, featured four municipalities with projects totaling $1 million:

Barrington ($201,000): Coastal restoration for flood mitigation at Walker Farm and green infrastructure at Bowden and Opechee streets.

Portsmouth ($339,000): Rehabilitation and stabilization of the Melville Dam and three flood-mitigation projects to expand the capacity of existing infrastructure for increasing precipitation volumes.

Warren ($156,000): Three green infrastructure projects to reduce stormwater runoff at public access points to the Warren and Kickemuit rivers.

Westerly ($304,000): Flood protection wall at the Old Canal Street pump station and two green infrastructure projects to reduce flooding of the Pawcatuck River.

Of the 17 municipalities to participate in the Municipal Resilience Program, 14 are coastal communities.

O’Rourke noted that making investments now is less expensive than they will be in the future, especially since the impacts of the climate crisis are already here.

Flooded RI town
Flooding in the Island Park neighborhood of Portsmouth is becoming a routine occurrence thanks to more frequent and heavy rains and rising coastal waters. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

David Prescott, Save The Bay’s South County coastkeeper, said Rhode Island’s 39 communities, both coastal and those inland, need to look beyond tax revenue when making development decisions. He said “we need to learn how to live with nature.”

“Our communities need to look at the long-term impacts of their decisions,” Prescott said. “Communities need to embrace decisions that address climate change. There’s been lots of conversation but not a lot of action. We need to start making difficult decisions. We can’t keep spending millions for efforts that aren’t sustainable.”

O’Rourke said the Resilient Rhody plan and the Municipal Resilience Program were created to show municipalities a path forward.

Besides providing funding for climate-resilient municipal projects, O’Rourke, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank and state officials are studying the idea of creating a buyout program for flood-prone properties and planning to create a program to help municipalities receive federal grants and to help them manage the adaptation projects they fund.

Rebuilding, in some instances to the same specifications, in areas that are constantly flooded is not the way to go, according to Rourke. “It’s only going to flood more in the future,” he said.

While dealing with rising waters during this era of ever-changing climate impacts is certainly challenging, it’s no less difficult to relocate homes and businesses. To deal with the logistics of a flooding buyout program, Rourke said Rhode Island is looking at New Jersey’s Blue Acres Buyout Program and a program in Mecklenburg County, N.C.

New Jersey is spending $300 million in federal disaster recovery money to acquire about 1,000 properties in tidal areas impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and another 300 properties that flood repeatedly.

In North Carolina, as a result of floodplain buyouts, Mecklenburg County has gained 185 acres of open space. The program also encourages the development of newer, more-resilient buildings in less-vulnerable locations. The initiative has invested more than $67 million to acquire flooded properties. County and state officials estimate the program has avoided an estimated $25 million in property damage and related losses and prevented $300 million in future losses.

“We’re seeing the changes; they’re happening before our eyes,” Prescott said. “How we adapt will determine our future. The longer we delay, the more it will cost.”

O’Rourke was one of the featured speakers at a January discussion hosted by The Pew Charitable Trusts titled Flood Resilience in the Year Ahead: State Innovation and Opportunities. The event also featured speakers from New Jersey and Wisconsin and from national organizations discussing how to address the challenges posed by the climate crisis.

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