Posted by: coastlinesproject | May 15, 2012

Sea Level Rise; The Rhode Island Story.

In Rhode Island, Protecting a Shoreline and a Lifeline

Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

LOSING GROUND Coastal erosion has shrunk parts of the beach near the Ocean Mist, a seaside bar in Matunuck, the structure on the far left, to less than a dozen feet during high tide. More Photos »

By JESS BIDGOOD
Published: May 12, 2012

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Mike Couchie looked up from his Heineken as an opened door ushered an unearthly roar into the Ocean Mist, a seaside bar here.

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“Was that the waves?” he asked, as high tide pulled sheets of foamy water underneath the building’s raised decks, confirming the guess.

Mr. Couchie, who has lived here all 57 years of his life, can remember when there was more than 100 feet of beach in front of the Ocean Mist, a watering hole in Matunuck, a mostly working-class neighborhood on the open southern coast of Rhode Island.

Coastal erosion, a natural effect of Matunuck’s direct exposure to the elements in an area prone to sand-sucking northeasters, has shrunk parts of the beach to less than a dozen feet during high tide, not only imperiling seafront structures like the Ocean Mist but also threatening the only road that residents can use to get in and out of here, as well as the water line beneath it that serves over 1,600 customers.

As the beach washes away — it lost about 20 feet in a recent 12-year period, estimates a state geologist, Janet Freedman — one effort to shore up the waterfront and another to protect the road have moved slowly. They have been limited by state regulations that discourage building walls along the coastline because when waves reflect off their hard surfaces they can take sand with them, accelerating erosion.

Now, some residents and officials are looking to a combined strategy of one wall and additional efforts to hold the shore together. But this sliver of sand has become a flash point for the state’s coastal management strategy, with officials well aware that what happens here could set precedents up and down this wilting coastline.

“The whole shoreline is eroding,” Ms. Freedman said. “If people are allowed to build sea walls here, then most of the objections to this were that then other areas would be able to do this too.”

The problematic part of Matunuck is about 1,400 feet of beach, parceled into private lots, between two old sea walls that extend in opposite directions and were built before state regulations came into effect. Along some parts of this open stretch, there are less than a dozen feet of sand protecting the road — the town’s lifeline — from the water.

In theory, this leaves the neighborhood with three basic courses of action. It can protect the beachfront, it can protect the road or it can retreat and move away from the encroaching shoreline, as a growing number of environmentalists and scientists recommend.

Almost nobody here likes that last option. “If we do this, how far do we retreat?” asked Frank Tassoni, the president of the Mary Carpenter’s Homeowners’ Association, which includes residents who keep trailers and small cottages on the tract of land across the road from the beach. “If we keep doing this, Rhode Island will be gone. We’re trying to find a balance. We’re not killing baby seals out here.”

South Kingstown’s town manager, Stephen Alfred, said the town had no choice but to protect that road. “If we were to lose the road, we would lose all public safety access and egress,” he said.

So it came as a relief to many when the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council last week approved, on appeal, the town’s application to shore up the road with a sheet-pile wall, a metal wall that will be pounded into the ground. The council denied the town’s first application last month, saying it needed to do a more thorough review.

“The town needs a temporary stopgap measure — put the sheet pile in,” Grover Fugate, the executive director of the coastal council, which he advises but is not part of, said in an interview before the meeting. “And then what we need to do in the long term is have a study on the long-term erosion threat and see what the ramifications are and what the cost implications are going to be.”

Read more in “Storm Surge,” “Just Seconds From the Ocean.” and “Sea Level Rising the Chatham Story.” See UPNE and Schifferbook tabs at the top of this page.


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