Planning for Future Shoreline Conflicts

In many cases, buildings, roads, and railroad tracks were not sited and constructed with a long future of gradual, natural shoreline change in mind. Now, concerns are growing due to accelerating rates of sea level rise, again, with estimates of nine feet of rise by 2100 in Rhode Island. One current example of issues caused by shoreline erosion is in Matunuck, where a seawall was recently completed to protect Matunuck Beach Road and prevent a water pipeline from being undercut by erosion. The road is essential to many homes and businesses, but the seawall was not a slam-dunk decision since such hardened shorelines can have negative ecological impacts and may even accelerate overall erosion. Such debates are likely to take place in more Rhode Island cities and towns as erosion and rates of sea level rise continue to accelerate in the coming years.

The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), URI Coastal Resources Center, University of Rhode Island (College of the Environment and Life Sciences, Graduate School of Oceanography, and Environmental Data Center), and Rhode Island Sea Grant, are currently working on the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (more commonly known as the Beach SAMP) to help navigate these future conflicts. The final plan will include data on the practical impacts of erosion, flooding and sea level rise, all of which contribute to shoreline change. Areas for consideration when addressing shore line change include: tools and best practices, policy framework for evaluating associated risks, and suggestions for state policies to better address expected impacts.

Recognizing the size and wide-ranging communities that will take the brunt of the problem, the Beach SAMP partners are working closely with a stakeholder committee composed of federal, state and local governments, non-profit groups, and business leaders. In addition, stakeholder committee meetings are open to the public and all of these participants are given intermittent opportunities to ask questions and offer comments. It is expected that the wide scope and number of contributors to the process will produce a well-vetted plan that provides applicable strategies for significant segments of the community. It cannot be overlooked, however, that not all plans will satisfy everyone since one of the players, Mother Nature, has a more persistent voice than other participants.

STORMTOOLS shows future coastal flooding potential. Image courtesy of CRMC.