With rising sea levels, and with each storm, the Warwick coastline is retreating.
That effect is perhaps no more pronounced than where streets that once led to the beach, and even to roads parallel to the beach, as the case in Riverview, are now yards away from high tide. In the hurricane of 1938 an entire community of Riverview, Grant Station, named for the trolley stop, was lost to the bay.
While it won’t halt the rise in sea level, which scientists say could be as much as five feet by the end of this century, Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and Save the Bay have teamed up to reduce the erosive effects of storms and the management of storm water runoff. At the same time, the projects are designed to improve water filtration, thereby reducing the flow of pollutants into the bay.
Five streets that end at the bay, four in Riverview and a fifth in Conimicut, are being pulled back with the removal of asphalt and its replacement with a combination of rock-lined swales, earthen berms and plantings. What is happening in Warwick is part of similar projects in other coastal communities funded by a $1 million 2009 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant.
NOAA funds were used to re-contour the beach at City Park after Hurricane Irene undermined the beach boardwalk and overlook and the embankment. The wooden structure was removed and the beach pulled back.
“We’re identifying areas where structures are failing and adapting them to sea level rise,” said Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration at Save the Bay.
Ferguson is coordinating the current round of projects with Caitlin Chaffee of CRMC. Save the Bay is acting as contract managers and subcontracting the work.
In the case of Warwick’s end of road projects at Mill Cove, Grove, Pender and Van Zandt in Riverview and Rock Avenue in Conimicut, the work is being done by Contemporary Landscaping. It is the same company Save the Bay and Edgewood residents worked with to restore the eroded embankment of Stillhouse Cove, overlooking the Rhode Island Yacht Club, in Cranston.
CRMC director Grover Fugate described the road end projects as models for what can be adapted on a larger scale to meet the effects of sea level rise.
“It will build up a set of practices that can help us adapt to sea level rise,” he said.
He said retreating from the water, rather than rebuilding infrastructure after it has been destroyed by storm floodwaters and surges, can be more “green” and a less costly way of addressing the inevitable. He described the North Atlantic basin as a comparatively “small basin,” meaning it is going to be more rapidly affected by sea level rise than other areas. He said studies that are now about 10 years old showed a three- to five-foot rise in sea level by 2100. Current NOAA studies, as well as other scientific projections, are now saying that could happen as soon as 2050.
Fugate said maps are being developed illustrating what such a rise in sea level would mean to the state. Giving a rise of five feet, combined by the 19-foot surge created by the 1938 hurricane, he said, would cut off Warwick Neck from the rest of the city.
On a far smaller scale, the crew working on the end of roads projects had their work put to the test on July 4. With more than two inches of rain, a portion of the work done at the end of Grove Avenue washed out. The others held.
Ferguson sees the elimination of asphalt and improvements to storm water management as “pilot projects” that can be used for other, similar locations in Warwick.
One of those is Edgewater Drive along Apponaug Cove.
“It’s a low lying area with huge potholes,” she said of the road that parallels the east side of the cove. She envisions eliminating the road and planting the area with sea grasses. Leaving it as is, she imagined, “is a huge liability to the city.”
The five end of road projects, which were coordinated through the city engineering department, cost $30,000 said Ferguson.