Shoreline communities across Connecticut face an unprecedented foe that threatens the very foundation upon which these communities are built: climate change.
So the Connecticut General Assembly established a Shoreline Preservation Task Force to study the effects of climate change, which has led to sea levels rising in the Northeast three to four times faster than the global average, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report. The task force met at Penfield Pavilion in Fairfield on Monday, July 23, to hear testimony from residents and area experts about what’s been happening and what can be done about it.
State Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven) serves as chairman of the task force, and told the crowd of 40-plus people that there were three problems his group was trying to tackle: sea level rise, flooding, and extreme weather events.
Trumbull Conservation Commission member Donald Watson said he has worked on sea level rise for the past five years, and has also written a book about flooding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, called “Design for Flooding: Architecture, Landscape, and Urban Design for Resilience to Climate Change,” co-authored with Michele Adams.
“We can see this is an overwhelming topic,” Watson told the task force. “There are literally thousands of people having this conversation today.”
Fairfield resident Kathy Strachan heads her town’s Flood Erosion Control Commission, and lives one block from the beach.
“A couple more [Tropical Storm] Irenes and I’ll have a waterfront home,” Strachan said, adding that regulatory hurdles, lack of regulation enforcement, and excessive red tape continue to hinder residents’ ability to protect their properties and maintain the littoral ecosystems.
Fairfield resident Bill Pitman fell in love with his Fairfield Beach Road home when he and his wife first saw it nearly a decade ago. But constant flooding problems have tried his small piece of paradise.
“We’ve had numerous times when flooding occurred,” Pitman said. “The storm last year was a perfect storm, with the high tide and full moon. We all sit and pray this doesn’t happen again for a very long time. If it does, our house will look like stones out on Black Rock.”
Pitman added that he’s still replacing shrubbery that won’t grow after Irene saturated his lawn with sea water.
“People along the coastline aren’t complaining,” Strachan said. “They want help. They have to get help from the town, state and federal governments.”
One thing that might help is creating incentives for residents and towns to develop and maintain properties in line with certain environmental standards, said Alicia Mozian, Westport’s conservation director and representative of the Long Island Sound Assembly, a 72-member panel that submits annual reports to the General Assembly on the use and preservation of the sound.
In 1995, Mozian helped bring Westport into FEMA’s Community Rating System, which allows residents in that town to get discounts on home insurance as the town adopts stringent flood mitigation strategies and floodplain management systems.
There are currently only 12 Connecticut towns on the FEMA system, although five towns are rated 10, which is essentially the same as a town not involved in the program. Stamford is rated 7, meaning residents in that town are eligible for a 15% discount, depending on where they live. If a town earns a 1, residents can get up to 45% off. Westport is rated 8.
Even if residents can save money, some properties simply will not be able to be salvaged, said state Rep. Terrie Backer (D-Stratford). “There’s going to be loses,” Backer said. “There are places you just can’t protect and that can’t be reclaimed.”
Backer added that moving established infrastructure is also something that the task force should consider. Fairfield’s first selectman, Michael Tetreau, noted that much of his town’s buildings and resources are located within a flood plain.
“We need the best minds in the country at work on this,” Tetreau said. “What municipalities are not good at is thinking long term. That’s where we need [the task force’s] help… How do we change our infrastructure so that 50 years from now we don’t kick this can down to another generation when it’s more expensive to solve for everybody?”
Several coastline residents lamented the bureaucracy at the state level that has caused wait times as long as three years for permits to build structures that combat erosion. Fairfield beach resident Larry Paine paid a permitting expert $5,000 to try and fast-track an application with the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, or DEEP, to rebuild a decrepit groyne. It still took more than a year for his application to be approved, he said.
“It wouldn’t have worked without him,” Paine said of the permitting expert. State Rep. Brenda Kupchick (R-Fairfield) said she’s heard many complaints against the state’s environmental agency.
“It’s almost impossible dealing with DEEP,” Kupchick said. “DEEP is not helpful to people trying to navigate through the system. I think that’s something we’ve heard loud and clear and we need to do something about it.”
Fairfield’s Strachan said that she worked to establish a bill in 2006 that provided for $450,000 to study the use of underwater stabilizing bars in Milford and Fairfield to determine if these structures would help return sand to the beaches. The bill passed the House and Senate, but failed to be implemented by DEEP.
Kupchick said the funds are now expired and the project would have to start from square one again.
What’s being done
The General Assembly passed a law this year that looks to streamline permitting without compromising environmental integrity. It allows for qualified environmental professionals to determine whether projects requiring a stormwater or wastewater discharge permit meet state requirements. State officials would then have the power to audit these decisions.
The Coastal Management Act was also amended to expand its list of land uses that can be protected by using structures, such as a groyne or bulkhead. Westport’s Mozian, who lives in Orange, cautioned that structures should not be viewed as a panacea for rising seas.
“We have to consider how these have the potential to create more erosion,” Mozian said. “They’ll protect from small storms, but they won’t protect you from hurricanes.”
Legislators also set a goal to include sea level rise when planning coastal development, and modified coastal site plan approval requirements for shoreline flood and erosion control structures. The bill defines a rise in sea level as “the average of the most recent equivalent per decade rise in state tidal and coastal waters surface level documented for annual, decadal, or centenary periods at any state site specified in National Oceanic and Atmospheric online or printed publications.”
If there’s money available, lawmakers authorized the state’s environmental commissioner to establish a pilot program to encourage innovative and low-impact approaches to shoreline protection and adaptation to sea level rise. These approaches could include “living shoreline techniques” to protect the shore and maintain or restore coastal resources and habitat with various “structural and organic materials,” including tidal wetland plants, submerged aquatic vegetation, coir fiber logs, sand fill and stone.
Lawmakers also set rules for reducing phosphorus emissions into waterways. There is also a renewed emphasis on collaboration with the state’s university system to develop strategies to help counteract the effects of climate change, rising seas, flooding and severe storms.
What could be done
Trumbull’s Donald Watson offered four steps that he said would help guide the task force on its difficult quest to protect the shoreline: Flood mitigation planning; hiring of certified flood managers for each town, which could be a town engineer who receives flood land management certification; involving all towns in FEMA’s rating system to provide incentives for towns to exceed flood management standards; and educating people on flood risk and emergency preparedness measures.
Westport’s Alicia Mozian advised that only inhabitable structures be protected, and not tennis courts, pools or lawns. She also advised that water quality been given a higher consideration, that towns use more porous asphalt, and to concentrate dollars on incentives to relocate homes that are in a flood plain and on grants for open space acquisitions.
“Building a house on pilings and letting the water go where it wants might be a better solution,” Mozian said, adding that in some circumstances it is realistic to buy people out of their homes.
Peter Wiswell’s family has lived in Fairfield for the better part of a century, and he emphasized the need for collaboration to meet the daunting challenge ahead. Wiswell added that he would like the state to be more proactive in guiding residents as they work outside of regulated areas with suggestions for fencing and flora that would help conserve the shore.
Some residents advocated dredging local waterways to replaced eroded beaches with the accreted sediment in rivers and streams.
Darien resident Nina Miller, a Representative Town Meeting member and co-founder of the Choose to Reuse environmental group, had state Rep. Terrie Wood (R-Darien) read Miller’s prepared statement about her concerns regarding the coastline.
“I’m sympathetic to homeowners’ concerns for sea level rise and what we can do,” Miller said through Wood. “We need to rebuild marshes not only for homes, but to rebuild the ecosystem.”
Miller added that the U.S. is the third largest contributor of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, behind India and China, and that melting glacial ice caps are contributing to the rising seas. Experts say that thermal expansion is the cause for most sea level rise, caused by increasing temperatures that make the water molecules move faster, which expands the water’s volume.
Fairfield’s Bill Pitman said he merely wants his grandchildren to experience the beach as he has. “Maybe in time Mother Nature will take it all away,” Pitman said, “but in the meantime we’re going to enjoy it.”