Condition of Easton’s Beach and Ponds, Pummeled By Storms, Worry Newport Officials
January 15, 2024
NEWPORT, R.I. — Opening the garage doors on the Easton’s Beach rotunda used to be a rare event in the middle of winter.
During Superstorm Sandy, when Tom Shevlin was covering the storm as a reporter, he said the rotunda doors were left open for one of the first times, in an attempt to reduce pressure on the building that everyone knew would flood anyway.
Now the evasive storm tactic happens once every couple of weeks, said Shevlin, who is now a communications officer for the city of Newport. Within the past month, big storms and flooding have driven the Recreation Department to open the doors four times.
The increasing intensity and frequency of storms in Rhode Island is starting to take a toll on the beach, its iconic buildings, and the two freshwater ponds behind it, which are used as drinking water sources for Newport Water.
On Friday, a few inches of sand covered the floor of the rotunda, swept in from a rainstorm that had hit earlier in the week.
It usually takes a week to clean up the building after massive flooding but, because more rain and storm surge were expected over the weekend, the sand had yet to be picked up.
“There was no sense in trying to clean it up,” Shevlin said.
Further down the beach, evidence of the storm’s toll revealed itself not in the abundance of sand but the lack of it.
A sign for a dune restoration project listed sideways, in line with rods stuck into the ground that were meant to mark where the dune began, now 15 feet from where the wind and tide had pushed it back.
The vegetation on the dune could come back, but “it will take a long time,” said David Vieira, recreation program supervisor and beach manager for the city. “It took so long to build.”
Newport’s director of utilities, Rob Shultz, said the storm had also done a number on South Easton Pond, behind the beach and across Memorial Boulevard.
Usually, Newport Water draws on the south pond for drinking water because it’s less polluted and takes less effort to treat. But salt spray from the storm last Tuesday meant that Newport Water had to stop using the south pond and switch to the north pond.
“We’re used to it, but it’s happening much more frequently,” Shultz said.
The salt spray pollution is coupled with runoff that contaminates the drinking water sources, making them harder and more expensive to treat — a cost that will likely be carried by ratepayers, he said.
With all these issues, the city is looking at a wish list with an estimated $80 million price tag. Those fixes would include tearing down the damaged buildings on the beach and replacing them (at about $35 million), as well as fortifying the ponds behind the beach (which could cost about $50 million).
Interim city manager Laura Sitrin said Newport has already applied for several grants and will apply for more, but she noted the problems at Easton’s Beach are just some of many issues that are appearing as climate change starts to show its face on Aquidneck Island.
“All over the city we’re seeing significantly more issues than historically,” she said. “The expenses are significant.”
The exact plan and cost for the beach is still up in the air and will require permitting, grant acquisitions, and bidding, she said.
The city plans to host a public workshop to look at the issues around Newport, including those at Easton’s Beach. The meeting is scheduled for Jan. 31 at 5 p.m. in the City Council chambers.