Climate change and coastal communities
By: Eric Walberg, Senior Program Leader, Climate Services Program
Excerpted from the Nature-based infrastructure: The multiple benefits approach to coastal resiliency article in Manomet’s Partnerships for Sustainability FALL 2016/WINTER 2017 Magazine
Climate change underscores the need for a green infrastructure-based approach to conservation planning. Coastlines around the world will be dramatically reshaped by sea level rise. Processes that have been set in motion by a warming planet, such as thermal expansion of sea water and melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, will continue to unfold for centuries to come. In the immediate future, sea level rise will continue to exacerbate vulnerability to storm surge flooding by providing a higher launch point for coastal storms. The Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. are particularly vulnerable due to a mix of factors including ocean currents that are exacerbating sea level rise rates and subsidence of the land in many locations.
In addition to the threats posed by sea level rise, coastal communities also face challenges posed by changing precipitation patterns. The eastern U.S. is getting wetter over time, with annual precipitation increasing along with the prevalence of heavy downpours. This combination is increasing flooding and nonpoint source water pollution in urban watersheds.
These changes are driving a difficult set of decisions in the coastal zone. High-value waterfront real estate—a mainstay of the tax base in many communities—will become a liability as flooding and erosion take a toll on buildings and infrastructure. Communities will be called upon to determine the feasibility of maintaining roads, utilities, and services such as fire and rescue. While there are no easy solutions for communities where existing development and infrastructure are in harm’s way, decisions on new development and redevelopment can either move communities in the direction of resiliency or further in the direction of increasing vulnerability, risk, and expense. Land use decisions made over the next 25 years will have a strong bearing on the long-term cost and liability that coastal communities face.
Manomet is currently working with an interdisciplinary team in the Taunton River watershed in southeastern Massachusetts. The project is dedicated to making holistic green infrastructure approaches available to local land managers.
Location of Taunton Watershed
The watershed presents several opportunities to demonstrate the value of strategic conservation and land use decision making. The natural resource base within the watershed is still substantially intact, providing an opportunity to emphasize protection of high value resources rather than costly ecological restoration. Over 60% of the watershed is undeveloped but only 15% of the land is protected. The watershed is rich in species diversity with more than 154 species of birds, 29 native species of fish, and is part of the region’s largest herring run.
Secondly, the watershed is highly vulnerable to climate-related threats, primarily a combination of freshwater and storm surge flooding. The mix of increasing prevalence of heavy downpours, increasing annual precipitation, and rising sea level will be problematic for citizens of the watershed and will be a significant stressor of natural systems.
Thirdly, most of the localities in the watershed face significant limitations in their ability to fund new infrastructure projects, a situation that highlights the need for strategic planning to maximize benefits and limit costs. The Taunton watershed contains one of the highest concentrations of environmental justice communities of any region in Massachusetts, a factor that underscores the need to emphasize linkages between quality of life and ecological integrity in community planning.
Finally, communities in the watershed are required to comply with evolving regulations for stormwater management, water balance, and water quality. The combined impacts of increasing urbanization and climate change are making regulatory compliance an uphill battle.
Working with a consortium of nonprofit and governmental organizations, the project is comprised of four components: (1) mapping of green infrastructure resources; (2) quantification of the costs and benefits associated with differing land use futures; (3) development of case studies that highlight the multiple benefits associated with strategic conservation planning; and (4) creation of a training program for local elected officials and board members, municipal staff, and citizens in the watershed.
Manomet is leading the first part of the project—the analysis and mapping of green infrastructure resources in the watershed and modeling land use alternatives. The Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District is leading the development of the case studies, and Mass Audubon is leading the development of the educational curriculum. The training program will engage local leaders on how to use the newly developed tools and information.
The challenges and opportunities in the Taunton watershed are present in many of the communities fronting the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Manomet is currently involved in the planning and discussions on additional efforts that would apply the tools, techniques, and stakeholder engagement approach developed in the Taunton watershed to other coastal zone communities in New England. Our goal is to make consideration of green infrastructure solutions a standard feature of local and regional planning as these communities confront rising seas. With 39% of the U.S. population living in coastal counties, and growing, this will be one of our biggest challenges in the 21st century.1
For more information on the Taunton watershed project and other nature-based infrastructure projects, please contact Eric Walberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read the complete article, please download the Partnerships magazine here.