State of the Beach/State Reports/RI/Erosion Response

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Rhode Island Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access86
Water Quality64
Beach Erosion8-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill5-
Shoreline Structures6 2
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas48
Website6-

Introduction

Erosion response is a measure of how well a state's policies and procedures limit the extent of shoreline armoring, unsafe coastal development, and costly beach nourishment projects. Evaluation of this indicator brings attention to the states that are taking proactive roles in natural beach preservation and natural hazard avoidance. Through the formulation (if not already in place), implementation, and strict adherence of the specific criteria within the indicator, states can overcome two fundamental obstacles to alternative erosion response practices outlined by the Oceans Studies Board (2007):

  1. A lack of knowledge and experience among decision-makers regarding alternative options for shoreline erosion response, the relative level of erosion mitigation afforded by the alternative approaches and their expected life time, and the nature of the associated impacts and benefits.
  2. The current legal and regulatory framework itself, which discriminates against innovative solutions because of the complex and lengthy permitting process that almost always considers these options on a case-by-case basis.


For example, are statewide oceanfront construction setbacks used to site new development and are these based on the latest erosion rates? When existing development is damaged during a storm does a state prohibit reconstruction or provide incentives for relocation? Before permitting shoreline stabilization does a state require: that there is demonstrated need via geo-technical reports with content standards; that alternatives to armoring including managed retreat/relocation are fully explored; and that potential adverse impacts and cumulative effects are taken into account? If a state can answer 'yes' to most of these questions then its rank is high and if the answers are mostly 'no' then its rank is low.

Also see the "Policies" discussion of the Shoreline Structures section of this report for more information on Rhode Island's erosion response.

Possible quantitative measures for this indicator include the number of new structures located within setback areas, number of damaged structures reconstructed in identified erosion zones, number of instances where alternatives to 'hard' shore protection were employed, the number of shoreline structures permitted under 'emergency' provisions, and the number of permits for shoreline structures reviewed, approved or denied. We have found that such information is rarely available.


Policies and Guidance

A telling comment is this one received from CRMC staff:
"Much of the state-owned coastal land is undeveloped barrier. There is no maintenance necessary for these areas."

According to Bernd-Cohen and Gordon (1999), the Rhode Island coastal program regulates defined coastal features. The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) regulates activities within and 200 feet landward of coastal beaches and dunes, barrier beaches, bluffs, cliffs, banks, rocky shores, and man-made shorelines. Complex coastal zoning designates what types of activities are permissible on shoreline features, tied to six state water classifications. About 75% of the shoreline is adjacent to Type I Waters (conservation) or Type II Waters (low intensity use areas), where alteration or construction of shoreline features and undeveloped beaches is prohibited. In addition, activities are regulated by different setbacks from beaches and dunes, critical erosion areas, and coastal buffer zones.

Section 140.C of the Coastal Zone Buffer Program reads:

Setbacks shall extend a minimum distance of either 50 feet from the inland boundary of the coastal feature or 25 feet inland of the edge of a Coastal Buffer Zone, whichever is further landward. In areas designated by the Council as Critical Erosion Areas, the minimum distance of the setback shall be not less than 30 times the calculated average annual erosion rate for less than four dwelling units and not less than 60 times the calculated average annual erosion rate for projects proposing more than 4 dwellings units.


Unfortunately, much of the coastal lands have been subdivided in Rhode Island. Older homes are allowed to be rebuilt in-kind to FEMA standards within setback areas if they cannot meet the setback. In Rhode Island the setbacks are measured from the edge of the coastal feature, not from the mean high tide line or the vegetation line. So a dune, for instance, is defined as 25 feet landward of the dune crest. This creates a wider setback.

As in many coastal areas around the country, buffer zones are often challenged by property owners who want to build larger structures than allowed by the land-side and water-side setback requirements. An example of this is Jamestown where a property owner is trying to get the Coastal Resources Management Council to grant a variance from state coastal buffer rules. In that particular case, Council regulations require a 75-foot setback between a house and a shoreline bluff. The property owner is requesting a 75-percent variance that would provide for only a 19-foot setback.

For structures that have been damaged by coastal flooding, if they are damaged by more than 50% they must follow all current regulations, including meeting erosion setbacks.

There are also regulations for specific types of activities, such as dredging, filling, and new residential structures, as well as 17 designated coastal hazard areas and 18 identified erosion-prone areas. On the dunes of barrier beaches, residential or non-water dependent structures destroyed by more than 50% may not be rebuilt regardless of insurance carrier coverage. Additions are allowed to structures designated for priority permissible uses. CRMC policies prohibit new development on undeveloped and moderately developed barrier beaches. Data show that at least 65% of all barrier beaches have had no new permitted development or shoreline stabilizations since 1971.

CRMC has a very nice Hurricanes and Coastal Storms website. Following is text from that website.

The Coastal Resources Management Program (CRMP) has developed regulations for reconstruction after "the big one" as well as other severe storms (Section 180. Emergency Assents). More important are the regulations that are designed to minimize the impact of coastal hazards. Policies regulating where to build on a vulnerable property (Section 140. Setbacks), construction of shoreline protection facilities (various sections), and beneficial reuse of dredged materials help to mitigate some of the hazards associated with coastal living. Sea level rise is a hazard that is only indirectly addressed in the CRMP. Erosion setbacks are very effective regulations that protect the homeowner and the public resources. Much of the Rhode Island shoreline is eroding. Erosion rates are calculated by comparing the shoreline location from historic aerial photographs to the most recent shoreline position. Sections of the south shore barriers have erosion rates of more than three feet per year. That is an average rate over time. In reality, the shoreline may erode tens of feet in a single storm, followed by some accretion. In critical erosion areas on barriers, all residential construction with less than six units must be set back 30 times and commercial property 60 times the average annual erosion rate. The farther the house or commercial structure is setback from the shore, the longer it will last. Unfortunately, these regulations were enacted about thirty years ago. The Council may want to consider policy for when the setback is gone and the structure is on the active beach.


Shoreline Protection Structures are prohibited along Type 1 shorelines except where they are used to protect historic structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (Section 220). There are several reasons for this prohibition. The structures reflect wave energy, often causing erosion around the sides of the structure and can cause scouring seaward of the structure. In addition, the structures disrupt sediment transport, both by sequestering sediment that would normally erode from a bank or dune to form new beaches, and by physically blocking the sand movement along the shoreline. Shoreline protection structures often impact lateral public access along the shoreline. In other words, these structures help protect the property where they are built, but often harm adjacent properties. They are a contributing factor in the narrowing and loss of beaches, and they inhibit the public's right to lateral shoreline access. Many of the structures that were built prior to the CRMP cannot withstand moderate storms.


There are no real estate disclosure laws in Rhode Island for areas with high erosion rates.

A new coastal development plan for the Providence metropolitan area is being developed. There are 14 new policies and actions that the CRMC will be asked to approve after a public hearing scheduled for May 2008. The recommendations include:

  • Adopting an increase in the required first-floor elevation for new and improved structures in high hazard areas along the coast.
  • Creating a standard method for determining whether improvements to buildings damaged by storms amount to more than 50 percent of the size or the value of the building — a determination that would force the owner to comply with more stringent, and expensive, building standards.
  • Establishing a plan to remove debris that a storm would bring up the Bay and dump on the shores of East Providence and Providence.
  • Tightening standards for structures built in so-called A-zones, where only minor wave damage would be expected.


It is likely that some of the new rules, such as raising the minimum first-floor elevation and settling on a uniform 50-percent storm damage standard, will eventually be adopted statewide.

Rhode Island has developed Special Area Management Plans for several areas, including Greenwich Bay. This management plan includes locations of shoreline structures and average erosion rates throughout Greenwich Bay.

The Urban Coastal Greenways (UCG) Policy for the Metro Bay Region and the Urban Coast Greenway Design Manual describe a new regulatory approach toward coastal vegetative buffers for the urbanized environment of northern Narragansett Bay. Urban Coastal Greenways offer a mechanism to redevelop the urban waterfront of the Metro Bay Region in a manner that integrates economic development, expanded public access along and to the shoreline, and provides for the management, protection, and restoration of valuable coastal habitats.

With the development of these new regulations, applicants have a choice between following the coastal buffer and setback regulations as set forth in the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Program (RICRMP) or using the UCG option. The UCG policy is intended to provide a permitting option that clarifies and streamlines the regulatory process for urban coastal development, and to create greater flexibility in meeting the Coastal Resources Management Council requirements. The new policy therefore establishes specific standards regarding overall vegetation of the site, management of stormwater runoff using Low Impact Development (LID) techniques, and public access, as described in UCG Section 150. The increased regulatory flexibility is reflected in the establishment of four Urban Coastal Greenway Zones within the planning boundary of the Metro Bay Special Area Management Plan (SAMP): Residential Zone, Area of Particular Concern Zone, Inner Harbor and River Zone, and Development Zone. The boundaries of these zones have been determined by the existing conditions of coastal habitat, public access infrastructure, single and two-family residential areas, and current municipal plans for development and/or redevelopment. The requirements for each Zone are described in UCG Sections 160 through 190.

In April 2011 the Coastal Resources Management Council issued a report on short-term and long-term alternatives to address erosion along Matunuck Beach Road in South Kingstown. This case illustrates the problems and limited options available to address coastal erosion when houses and associated infrastructure are built too close to an eroding shoreline. The report explores the possibility of allowing wooden bulkheads as a short-term solution, but offers the following assessment of long-term solutions:

"As detailed above and in great detail in the appendices, this is an existing erosion problem with very limited solutions that will prove satisfactory in the long run. It is a problem that is occurring across the country with greater frequency. Mr. Rick Murray who is a professor of earth science from Boston University and a Scituate, MA selectman said it best recently in the Boston Globe (April 3, 2011) “Not everything we love can be saved”. Coastal defense structures are very expensive, require constant maintenance, and significantly degrade the beach, public access, and benthic resources in the vicinity. Soft solutions are expensive and require significant amounts of maintenance. Beach nourishment projects are expensive and require a steady supply of compatible dredge projects. These dredge projects may have adverse impacts at the dredge location. Retreat is expensive, unacceptable to many waterfront owners and in many cases not practical. The common node here is that all of the solutions are expensive and don’t protect fully against storm surge and damage from a hurricane. This issue must be carefully debated at the state and local level as to how much should we pay for coastal shoreline defenses, particularly when the benefits are very local, and more importantly who should pay."


Also see the NY Times article on this issue.

In May 2011 Rhode Island became the seventh member of the StormSmart Coasts network. StormSmart Coasts is a website designed for local officials whose towns face risks from storms, flooding, and sea level rise. Rhode Island is only the second state in New England to launch its own StormSmart website. The site contains resources to help communities take action to improve coastal resiliency. The StormSmart Coasts Rhode Island site includes real-time data as a storm is approaching, information to prepare communities before the storm, emergency contacts during the storm, and advice on recovering after the storm. It also includes information about funding available to support emergency preparedness.

In April 2013 Rhode Island began work on a Beach Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) which will provide coastal communities with practical guidance for adapting to short-term and long-term shoreline change. Here is an 18-minute presentation on the project. Here is the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP) website, which will provide science-backed policies and planning tools to improve the state’s coastal resilience. The Shoreline Change SAMP is focused on improving the state's understanding of how fast erosion is occurring and what areas and infrastructure are at risk of flooding during storms or from future sea level rise.

Climate Change Adaptation

Introduction

While Rhode Island has undertaken climate change mitigation initiatives, it is the State’s coastal adaptation efforts that deserve particular attention. Amended coastal building codes now explicitly address sea level rise and climate change, and the RI Coastal Resource Management Council recently adopted a specific climate change and sea level rise policy. State-wide mandated coastal setbacks and numerous shoreline protection and coastal construction regulations have also led much of the State’s coastal zone to adopt an implicit policy of “rolling easements” that allow the shore to naturally migrate as sea levels rise. The State fully acknowledges climate change as influenced by anthropogenic GHG emissions, and has sought to increase the number of educational and outreach materials available concerning climate change.

Despite the numerous adaptation recommendations and staunch commitment to climate change adaptation expressed by the Coastal Resources Management Council, the state lacks shoreline and erosion data are lacking, and coastal setbacks, nevertheless, do not explicitly account for accelerated sea level rise. And although the State has just received funding for statewide LiDAR acquisition to be completed during 2010, there is currently no centralized mapping or erosion data portal. Rhode Island furthermore lacks a State Adaptation Plan and has no sort of climate change adaptation committee to guide adaptation efforts in either the coastal zone or the state as a whole. In the future, this type of leadership will prove vital to the success of any comprehensive adaptation plan. There is also no sea level rise task force, and while a sea level rise policy has recently been adopted, sea level rise is still largely addressed implicitly through various regulations and policies. It is thus suggested that the State centralize its adaptation efforts and create a comprehensive coastal adaptation strategy that follows a list of specific policy options and recommendations.

Mitigation

In August of 2001, the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (NEG/ECP) formally adopted a regional Climate Change Action Plan designed to reduce GHG emissions to a level that would stabilize the earth’s climate and mitigate negative impacts. The Plan called for a reduction in regional GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, 10% below 1990 levels by 2020, and a long-term goal of reductions to eliminate any dangerous threat to the climate (75-85%). In response to the NEG/ECP initiative, Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, State Energy Office, and Governor’s Office convened the Rhode Island Greenhouse Gas Stakeholder Project. The Project, headed by a Stakeholder Committee comprised of over 30 organizations and representing a wide range of interests, was charged with developing the State’s Greenhouse Gas Action Plan in order to meet the NEG/ECP’s aggressive reduction goals.

The Stakeholder Committee, under the guidance of the Raab Associates, Ltd and Tellus Institute consulting services, developed the three phase Rhode Island Greenhouse Gas Process:

  • Phase I - Stakeholders develop a GHG Action Plan and prioritized and evaluated a list of greenhouse gas reduction options.
  • Phase II - Stakeholders continue to research, analyze, and (as warranted) design implementation strategies for key high priority program and policy options.
  • Phase III -Actual program implementation of the highest priority options and development of implementation plans for other options.


In July 2002, the Stakeholder Steering Committee completed Phase 1 of the Process with the publishing of the Rhode Island Greenhouse Gas Action Plan. With input from three additional Working Groups - 1) Buildings and Facilities; 2) Transportation and Land Use; and 3) Energy Supply and Solid Waste – the Committee identified 52 program and policy options to help Rhode Island meet its GHG reduction goals. Of the 52 options, the majority included in-state actions (49 of 52), while the remaining three options require regional or national level action. In addition to these 52 options, the Stakeholders also identified numerous other potentially rewarding areas for Rhode Island to possibly include in future updates to the Plan. The final Plan is dedicated solely to climate change mitigation actions, and thus includes no consideration of climate change adaptation or the development of a State Adaptation Plan.

Since the publication of the RIGHG action plan, the group has continued to further research, analyze and design ways to implement some or all of the recommended actions and implementation of many priority options is underway. For more detailed information please see the April 2004 Status Report. Since September 2002, the Stakeholders have been developing the highest-priority programs for implementation.

In July of 2002 the Attorney General of Rhode Island also joined the Chief Legal Officers of Alaska, Connecticut, California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont in a letter to President George W. Bush, asking the current administration to address the issue of climate change through comprehensive national policies on GHG emissions.

In March 2005, the U.S. EPA recognized the Rhode Island Greenhouse Gas Stakeholders for their 'exceptional contributions to global environmental protection', bestowing upon them the 2005 Climate Protection Award.

The State of Rhode Island maintains an official Climate Change and Rhode Island website administered by the Department of Environmental Management. Through a series of four climate change Fact Sheets, the website details the science behind climate change and describes how climate change is expected to impact Rhode Island. The website also describes Rhode Island’s actions to mitigate climate change, specifically the Rhode Island Greenhouse Gas Project, Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

There is also a Climate Change Rhode Island educational resource sponsored by Brown University Center for Environmental Studies and the RI DEM. The site is a resource for Rhode Island middle and high-school students and teachers, and contains links, exercise, and information on climate change and greenhouse gases. For more information visit the website.

Adaptation

In recent years, amendments to coastal construction regulations and adoption of the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Policy by the Coastal Resources Management Council, has catapulted Rhode Island to the forefront of climate change adaptation efforts. With these policies, among the first of their kind in the nation, Rhode Island has solidified its commitment to addressing climate change in the coastal zone. Already ahead of many states that still refuse to acknowledge the link between anthropogenic GHG emissions and accelerated sea level rise, Rhode Island is now working towards the implementation and integration of these new management perspectives into the state’s coastal management strategy.

In February 2014, Governor Lincoln Chafee was joined by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, other government leaders and environmental advocates to announce an executive order to create the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Council (ECCC), a nine-person council dedicated to looking at the challenges global climate change poses to the state and evaluating steps the state can take to combat those challenges. The executive order says that there is strong evidence and scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions have caused changes in global climate, weather patterns and ocean conditions, specifically mentioning “higher peak summer temperatures, rising sea levels, warmer and wetter winters, ocean acidification, increased periods of drought, increased coastal erosion, and increased frequency of severe precipitation events and flooding” as just some of the changes occurring throughout the world.

A few days after Governor Chafee signed his executive order establishing this new council, the University of Rhode Island Climate Change Collaborative Team launched their new website in collaboration with Senator Whitehouse. The new site, Rhode Island’s Climate Challenge: Waves of Change aims to promote the issues of climate change in a public-friendly way, designed so people with varying levels of scientific knowledge, political and cultural opinions, and personal and professional concerns can understand. It aims to guide Rhode Islanders through the changes, impacts and actions that are relative to climate change.

In December 2006 the Rhode Island Legislature passed a novel amendment to the state building code (R.I.G.L. § 23-27.3-100.1.5.5), explicitly addressing sea level rise and climate change, declaring that “…code provisions shall…take into account climatic changes and potential climatic changes and sea level rise.” The amendment further authorized the Rhode Island Coastal Program’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to collaborate with the state building commissioner and adopt freeboard calculations, helping to ensure buildings are raised above anticipated flood levels.

Rhode Island continued to lead climate change adaptation initiatives when, in 2008, the Coastal Resources Management Council officially adopted its revolutionary sea level rise policy. Section 145: Climate Change and Sea Level Rise of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Plan not only acknowledges sea level rise, but the phenomena of accelerated sea level rise as a direct consequence of global climate change. Basing its claims on the Newport tide gauge readings, which indicate a rate of 10.1 in +/- 1.2 in of relative sea level rise over the last century, the Council declares it will:

“…. review its policies, plans, and regulations to proactively plan for and adapt to climate change and sea level rise..[and] integrate climate change and sea level rise scenarios into its operations to prepare Rhode Island for these new, evolving conditions and make our coastal areas more resilient”


The Council warns that Rhode Island’s south shore will “migrate continuously landward,”, and further explains that in the face of rising sea levels, existing seawalls won’t be effective, coastal infrastructure will be damaged, salt water will intrude into fresh-water aquifers, and coastal marshes won’t be able to keep up with the rate of movement and will be lost. In addition to describing the above climate change impacts, the Policy document details climate change science, the history of sea level rise in Rhode Island, and how climate change will affect Rhode Island’s coastal regions.

The Council bases the addition of these policies on the CRMC’s legislative mandate to “preserve, protect, and where possible, restore the coastal resources of the state through comprehensive and coordinated long-range planning”. Although the Policy document does not specifically detail the policies that will be designed to mitigate climate change effects, the above legislation nevertheless gives the CRCM considerable freedom in developing and adopting the policies and regulations it sees fit to effectively manage the state’s coastal resources from projected sea level rise, as quoted below:

“…it is the Council’s policy to accommodate a base rate of expected 3- to 5- foot rise in sea level by 2100 in the siting, design, and implementation of public and private coastal activities and to insure proactive stewardship of coastal ecosystems under these changing conditions.”


The Council additionally recognizes that the greatest insurance policy against rising sea levels is to consider a range of various risk tolerances for differing types of activities under different sea level rise scenarios. In addition, the long term sea level change base rate will be revisited by the Council periodically to address new scientific evidence. The CRMC is in the process of developing standards and criteria for implementing the policy. Tools being considered include identifying a project “design life” as a factor multiplied by sea-level-rise rate for use in freeboard and/or setbacks and living shorelines (i.e. perched wetlands) in areas of fringing wetlands.

These regulatory changes were also referenced by NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management Program as particularly significant adaptation initiatives to be modeled by other coastal management agencies. For more information visit NOAA’s CMP climate change case studies webpage titled Rhode Island Develops New Regulations for Sea Level Rise, in addition to the report Summary of Coastal Program Initiatives that Address Sea Level Rise as a Result of Global Climate Change.

In addition to the above management policies, the Rhode Island coastal zone is governed by number of existing coastal regulations and restrictions that are also applicable to sea level rise adaptation. Through a complex system of coastal zone designations (see the above Erosion Response Section), Rhode Island regulates coastal zone activities utilizing different statewide mandated setbacks from beaches and dunes, critical erosion areas, and coastal buffer zones. Section 140.C of the Coastal Zone Buffer Program creates setbacks that extend a minimum distance of either 50 ft from the inland boundary of the coastal feature, or 25 ft inland of the edge of a Coastal Buffer Zone, whichever is further landward. In Critical Erosion Areas, the minimum distance of the setback is 30 times the calculated average annual erosion rate for less than four dwelling units, and not less than 60 times the calculated average annual erosion rate for projects proposing more than 4 dwellings units.

Erosion rates are calculated using average historic erosion rates, determined by comparing the shoreline location from historic aerial photographs to the most recent shoreline position. These setback calculations thus do not take into account accelerated sea level rise. It is, however, important to note that Rhode Island’s setbacks are measured from the edge of the coastal feature, not from the mean high tide line or the vegetation line, in essence creating a wider setback than in many coastal states. Further, although the state does not explicitly employ “rolling easements” in the coastal zone, the use of regulated coastal setbacks from shoreline features does ensure that as the sea rises, the public’s easement will simultaneously “roll” inland.

Additional CRCM policies that implicitly account for sea-level rise include: policies regulating the location of structures on vulnerable properties; construction of shoreline protection facilities (various sections;, and beneficial reuse of dredged materials to help mitigate some of the hazards associated with coastal living. The Rhode Island State plan provides for implementation of Special Area Management Plans, in which policies, strategies, and tools can be tailored to a specific ecosystem and localized concerns, which have included coastal hazards. The Rhode Island Coastal Program also implements a Coastal Buffer Zone Program for lands adjacent to a shoreline (coastal) feature that is, or will be, vegetated with native shoreline species and that acts as a natural transition zone between the coast and adjacent upland development. The coastal buffer zone is important in enhancing erosion and flood control, and also provides a buffer allowing wetlands to migrate landward in the face of future sea level rises.

An example of adaptation to sea level rise through managed retreat, removal of structures and paving, and replacement with "green infrastructure" is occurring at five streets that end at the bay along the Warwick coastline in Narragansett Bay, four in Riverview and a fifth in Conimicut. The street ends 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. CRMC director Grover Fugate has described the road end projects as models for what can be adapted on a larger scale to meet the effects of sea level rise. Read more.

Due to the inherently dynamic nature of barrier beaches and spits, the Coastal Program has deemed large-scale public infrastructure improvements and dense development inappropriate, thereby prohibiting construction or expansion of new infrastructure or utilities (including water, gas, and sewer) on all barriers. The Council also prohibits construction of new structural shoreline protection structures on barrier islands, allowing these areas to naturally adapt to sea level rise.

Regarding potential impacts of sea level rise and the adaptation measures, the council also favors non-structural methods for controlling erosion such as stabilization with vegetation and beach nourishment. When structural shoreline protection is proposed, the council requires the owner exhaust all reasonable and practical alternatives including, but not limited to, the relocation of the structure and nonstructural shoreline protection methods (see Section 300.7.E.1). Additionally, structural shoreline protection is prohibited when proposed to be used to regain property lost through historical erosion or storm events.

In the State Coastal Policy (2007), the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, maintains that the Council will “proactively plan for and adapt … integrate climate change and sea level rise scenarios into its operations” to accommodate a base rate of expected 3-5 foot rise in sea level by 2100. In May, 2009 the Council released to the public draft policies and standards for new and substantially improved buildings and structures, public infrastructure, and reconstruction of storm damaged buildings. These standards include coastal construction guidelines that recommend taking into account a 5 foot freeboard into the design of roads, bridges, wastewater treatment facilities, etc. to account for rising sea levels.

For more information concerning sea level rise policy in Rhode Island, see also Pam Rubinoff’s (the RI Sea Grant, URI Coastal Resources Center) PowerPoint Presentation Establishing Sea Level Rise Policy in Rhode Island (2008). While the presentation provides a background of management options and tools to help RI respond to sea level, she stresses the importance of adaptation as an essential element of policies, programs, and projects. As information is available “at all levels” and with a “cadre of climate change adaptation professionals”, there should be no excuse to not implement necessary adaptation policy.

The Council also proposed a series of Shoreline Change Maps, the purpose being to show shoreline rates of change that will be applied to pertinent sections of the Council’s regional programs to address issues such as setback requirements. For more information, see here. Under a recent grant from the USGS to the Northeast LiDAR Constorium, LiDAR mapping will be completed for the entire state of Rhode Island during 2010, and will prove an extremely useful data set for visualizing, and thus adapting to, sea level rise. More information.

On Feb 11, 2010 Senator Joshua Miller introduced Senate Bill 2439: The Rhode Island Climate Risk Reduction Act of 2010, calling for the creation of a study commission to monitor the impacts of climate change in Rhode Island, and recommend responses to the government. The identical House Bill 7719 would also require cities and towns to account for climate change when completing comprehensive plans, and further mandate the Rhode Island’s Emergency Management Agency to maintain an automated alert system. Introduced Feb 25, 2010 by Representatives Segal and Fierro, the HB mandates the State conduct a comprehensive overview of risks RI may face as a result of rising temperatures, sea level rise, and more intense droughts and rainfall events.

Rhode Island Sea Grant has also proactively pursued initiatives relative to climate change adaptation, and for three decades has engaged local communities in coastal hazards planning. The RI Sea Grant was integral in helping the state adopt its first sea level rise policy, as described above, and has continually strived to educate communities about the impacts of climate change on the built environment. The program has also assisted in facilitating the development of the country's first set of Coastal Smart Growth Principles and ensuring climate change adaptation is an overarching context of coastal planning. RI Sea Grant is also addressing climate change through habitat protection, promotion of Living Shorelines, and increasing community awareness. The Rhode Island Sea Grant also sought to learn from the lessons of other adaptation initiatives, leading to the creation of a summary of sea level rise initiatives of coastal programs across the nation. See Summary of Coastal Program Initiatives that address Sea Level Rise as a result of Climate Change.

Recognizing the need to broaden climate change understanding, RI Sea Grant launched the Climate Change Collaborative (CCC), an interdisciplinary project that attempts to bridge the gap between coastal communities and climate change adaptation. Applying a behavior change model from the public health sector to coastal communities the project will determine how to most effectively aid communities coping with the environmental and socio-economic impacts of climate change. For more information on the CCC project and other climate change adaptation initiatives currently pursued by the RI Sea Grant, visit their website.

In February 2010, Brown University released the report Summary: Preliminary Assessment of Rhode Island’s Vulnerability to Climate Change and its Options for Adaptation Action. While the document does cover the effects of climate change in Rhode Island, it importantly attempts to bridge the gap existing between climate change impacts and community response. The report emphasizes that any effort to address climate change must both mitigate GHG emissions and simultaneously adapt to the impacts. Focusing exclusively on a broad range of adaptation issues arising from likely climate change, the report helps Rhode Island prepare for climate change risks by assessing and prioritizing the threats to its communities, infrastructure, ecosystems, and economic sectors, stating:

“Our goal is to encourage the state’s active response to climate change impacts by identifying some of the most critical issues that will have to be addressed…in suggesting actions we have sought to build on existing initiatives and local strengths”


In order to obtain a basic understanding of Rhode Island’s adaptive capacity, the report conducted a small survey to explore Rhode Islander’s views on climate change and its causes, to learn how they are already being impacted by climate change, and to collect their ideas of possible steps that the state could take to adapt to climate change and build community resilience and sustainability. Of those interviewed, approximately 69% of participants attributed the causes of climate change to anthropogenic GHG emissions, and approximately 73% rating climate change as a serious problem. Although these statistics are only a brief, and preliminary, assessment of citizens’ perceptions on climate change, they hint at the fact that many Rhode Islanders understand the need to adapt to a changing climate.

As a first step towards creating a comprehensive adaptation strategy, the report recommends the State form a Study Commission for Climate Change Adaptation that includes representatives from a broad range of sectors and backgrounds. The Commission would be charged with completing a comprehensive study on the effects and impacts of sea level rise and climate change in Rhode Island. The Report sets forth an extensive list of mitigation and adaptation recommendations, which briefly include:

  • Improve data collection and availability through advanced topographic technologies like LiDAR
  • Continued monitoring of climate change impacts across the state
  • Mandate the notification of potential home buyers of a property’s flooding and sea level rise risk
  • Mandate tougher building codes along the coast to protect citizens from Hurricanes and severe weather
  • Create a comprehensive education/outreach plan to enhance climate change understanding and adaptation within the community
  • Boost collaboration between institutions and individuals
  • Increase the number of coastal buffer sites (riparian buffer sites)
  • Reduce disincentives for adaptation (ie. exclude climate disasters in high-risk areas from “natural disasters” so certain tax reliefs will not be available to businesses whose facilities experience substantial damage due to sea level rise, etc)


In April 2013 Rhode Island began work on a Beach Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) which will provide coastal communities with practical guidance for adapting to short-term and long-term shoreline change. Here is an 18-minute presentation on the project.

Additional References


Coastal Barrier Resources Act

The federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), passed in 1982, was designed to "minimize the loss of human life, wasteful expenditure of federal revenues, and the damage to fish, wildlife and other natural resources" by denying federal support for everything from sewer construction to flood insurance in undeveloped or little-developed coastal areas such as barrier islands. CBRA does not restrict development in these areas, but it indirectly discourages development by denying the use of federal funds for development projects or redevelopment after storm or flood damage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers this program, which identified 1.3 million acres of coastal land to be covered by the act. Unfortunately, pressure by property owners and developers in these areas has lead Congress to pass dozens of exemption bills which exclude certain areas from CBRA, thus thwarting the intent of the Act.

The Coastal Barrier Improvement Act (CBIA) was enacted on November 16, 1990. The CBIA resulted in reauthorization of the CBRA of 1982. The CBRA establishes the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) to protect areas such as undeveloped coastal barrier islands. There is a discussion of CBRA on NOAA's web site that concludes:

"Although the removal of federal funding assistance has discouraged development in some coastal barrier islands, development has continued in other areas despite designation as a unit of the CBRS. CBIA is not intended to prevent or regulate development in high-risk areas; rather the intent is to direct that federal dollars not be spent for development in these areas. Activities conducted in areas adjacent to CBRS units may adversely impact these sensitive areas; these activities are not regulated under CBIA. In addition, CBIA does not restrict the use of private, local, or state funding within CBRS units. Some coastal states have initiated legislation that limits state funding of certain projects."

A report released in March 2007 reviews the extent to which (1) development has occurred in CBRS units since their inclusion in the system and (2) federal financial assistance and permits have been provided to entities in CBRS units. GAO electronically mapped address data for structures within 91 randomly selected CBRS units and collected information on federal financial assistance and permits for eight federal agencies. GAO found multiple federal agencies have provided some financial assistance to property owners in CBRS units that is expressly prohibited by CBRA; some assistance allowed under CBRA; and hundreds of permits for federally regulated development activities within the unit. GAO recommended, among other things, the four agencies that provided prohibited loan guarantees or insurance policies to CBRS units first verify and then cancel those that are in violation of CBRA.

On April 7, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released to the public its Report to Congress: John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System Digital Mapping Pilot Project. The report, which was directed by the Coastal Barrier Resources Reauthorization Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-514), highlights the benefits of updating Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) maps with more accurate and precise digital maps to better protect people, coastal areas and natural resources. A 2016 report is now available.

FEMA has now developed a fact sheet on CBRA. The fact sheet outlines the responsibilities and restrictions that various programs within FEMA have under CBRA.


CBRA is also referenced as part of CRMC's Redbook regulations (section 210.2)

General Reference Documents

EPA's Risk-Based Adaptation website (under the heading of Climate-Ready Estuaries) provides several resources and tools to help users identify, analyze, prioritize and reduce their climate change risks.

An informative publication is Ten Principles for Coastal Development (2007) by the Urban Land Institute.

The Coastal States Organization (CSO) has published two reports relating to climate change adaptation. The first is Coastal Community Resilience: An Evaluation of Resilience as a Potential Performance Measure of the Coastal Zone Management Act (July 2008). (No link to this could be found.) Developed by CSO staff and CSO’s Coastal Resilience Steering Committee, the document demonstrates the value of resilience to coastal management and offers concrete recommendations for enhancing resilience at the state and local level. The second document is The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs in Adaptation to Climate Change (September 2008)(PDF, 732KB). The report includes detailed results of a 2008 adaptation survey designed to obtain up to date information on the status of adaptation planning, priority information needs, and the anticipated resource needs of the coastal states, commonwealths, and territories.

In April 2009, the Heinz Center and Ceres announced the release of their Resilient Coasts - A Blueprint for Action, to outline steps to reduce risks and losses in the face of growing threats. The Heinz Center and Ceres produced the blueprint with a coalition of leading insurers, public officials, risk experts, builders, and conservation groups. The blueprint is endorsed by many groups, including The Travelers Institute, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wharton School, and the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The blueprint includes policy changes and common sense actions that could reduce economic losses from future storms and rising sea levels by as much as half along U.S. coastlines. The blueprint outlines specific recommendations, including: enabling planning for climate impacts by providing the necessary science and decision-making tools; requiring risk-based land use planning; designing adaptable infrastructure and building code standards to meet future risk; strengthening ecosystems as part of a risk mitigation strategy; developing flexible adaptation plans; maintaining a viable private property and casualty insurance market; and integrating climate change impacts into due diligence for investment and lending. The coalition urges the Obama administration, Congress, local leaders and the private sector to see that blueprint actions are implemented through regulation, investment, education, and other means.

In January 2010 the National Association of Counties released Building Resilient Coastal Communities: Counties and the Digital Coast which highlights many of the Digital Coast resources that counties use to address coastal flooding, habitat conservation and land use. More resources, tools and data are available through NOAA's Digital Coast website.

More recently, NOAA Coastal Management has developed a Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer as part of its Digital Coast website. Being able to visualize potential impacts from sea level rise is a powerful teaching and planning tool, and the Sea Level Rise Viewer brings this capability to coastal communities. A slider bar is used to show how various levels of sea level rise will impact coastal communities. Completed areas include Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, with additional coastal counties to be added in the near future. Visuals and the accompanying data and information cover sea level rise inundation, uncertainty, flood frequency, marsh impacts, and socioeconomics.

StormSmart Coasts is a resource for coastal decision makers looking for the latest and best information on how to protect their communities from weather and climate hazards. StormSmart Legal is a new addition to the StormSmart Coasts Network that provides information about property rights, regulatory takings, and permissible government regulation in coastal areas.

In December 2012 NOAA's Climate Program Office released a report Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment. The report was produced in response to a request from the U.S. National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee. It provides a synthesis of the scientific literature on global sea level rise, and a set of four scenarios of future global sea level rise. The report includes input from national experts in climate science, physical coastal processes, and coastal management.

NOAA's Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth website is organized into 10 chapters describing different elements essential for communities interested in implementing coastal and waterfront smart growth. By clicking on the individual chapters, you can get a description of each Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth Element, how this relates to the Coastal and Waterfront Issues, Tools and Techniques you can use in your community, and Case Studies of successes. Each chapter contains a navigation box allowing quick access to the information and the ability to download the content of each page. A 2012 report by NOAA and EPA on Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth presents ideas shared by smart growth and hazard mitigation experts related to building hazard-resilient coastal communities.

EPA has a website devoted to preparing for rising sea level and other consequences of changing climate. The premise of the Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise website is that society should take measures to make our coastal development and ecosystems less vulnerable to a rise in sea level. The papers on this site demonstrate that numerous low-cost measures, if implemented, would make the United States less vulnerable to rising sea level. A more recent EPA website is Adapting to Climate Change, but was removed by the Trump administration.

Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities (USGS-NOAA, January 2013) emphasizes the need for increased coordination and planning to ensure U.S. coastal communities are resilient against the effects of climate change. The report examines and describes climate change impacts on coastal ecosystems and human economies and communities, as well as the kinds of scientific data, planning tools and resources that coastal communities and resource managers need to help them adapt to these changes. Case studies are presented for Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In December 2012 the Lincoln Institute released Coastal States’ Climate Adaptation Initiatives: Sea Level Rise and Municipal Engagement (Working Paper). This paper explores how states and municipalities interact to address sea level rise, providing an overview of the state of practice, some reasons for different levels of action, and some of the needs of municipalities. It includes recommendations for ways states can provide adaptation support to municipalities.

Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, (pdf, 1.2 MB) published in September 2013, discusses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' capabilities to help reduce risks to coastal areas and improve resilience to coastal hazards through an integrated planning approach. Federal, state, local, non-governmental organization and private sector interests connected to our coastal communities possess a complementary set of authorities and capabilities for developing more integrated coastal systems. The effective implementation of an integrated approach to flood and coastal flood hazard mitigation relies on a collaborative, shared responsibility framework between Federal, state, and local agencies and the public.

The National Climate Assessment is an extensive report released through the U.S. Global Change Research Program and produced by a large team of experts with the guidance of the Federal Advisory Committee. The report is put out every few years, with the most recent one being the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the next report expected to be released in 2018-2019. It includes numerous studies on the impacts of climate change on different economic sectors and geographic regions in the U.S. An important and applicable portion of the report is the Response Strategies section, which lays out actionable ways that decision-makers ranging from the federal government to private-sector companies can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change.




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