WESTERLY — Sea level rise, the effects of increasing air and water surface temperatures, and threats to water supplies emerged as priority concerns Wednesday during a roundtable discussion conducted as part of an effort to develop a state-wide climate change resiliency plan.
About 30 municipal officials and residents representing themselves and a variety of organizations attended the forum at the Westerly Education Center, which was called by Shaun O’Rourke, who was named the state’s first resiliency officer in September. The session, which focused on Charlestown and Westerly, was sponsored by the Westerly Economic Development Commission and the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce.
O’Rourke started by citing scientific data to establish the reality of climate change: air temperatures have increased 3 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century; 2016 was recorded as the warmest year on record globally; and surface water temperatures in Narragansett Bay have increased by 2.5 to 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit during the last 50 years.
“Our climate is changing. We’re not, through this work, debating why its changing, but we’re going with the measurements and scientific data that shows we are seeing changes in our water and on our land here in Rhode Island,” said O’Rourke, who is also director of stormwater at the state Infrastructure Bank.
For purposes of his work on the state-wide plan, O’Rourke said resiliency is being defined as the capacity of individuals, institutions, businesses, and natural systems in the state to survive climate change and adapt to it. The roundtable was the fifth such session of 10 planned throughout the state. In addition to the roundtables, O’Rourke said he would continue gathering information across the state and also integrate the work of established organizations working on climate change responses. He said an executive summary will likely be released for review and input in April.
Other topics that have emerged at previous roundtable discussions are coastal and upland flooding, prolonged drought, changes to natural systems, inconsistent emergency preparedness, and education. “What is the best research? Planning board and elected officials are not always up to speed,” O’Rourke said.
Other climate change stressors that arose from the local audience included coastal erosion and a lack of information on flood zone building requirements. Sergio Cherenzia, a licensed engineer and project manager with Cherenzia & Associates, said property owners his firm represents are often mystified at restrictions they face for shoreline area building projects. He recommended expansion of pre-application informational meetings that town and state agencies, including the Department of Environmental Management, have made available.
“Our clients don’t want to be told what they can or cannot do with their property… people coming into the area don’t know the [environmental] stresses we are under,” Cherenzia said.
David Prescott , South County Coast Keeper for Save the Bay, agreed and said real estate agents should take steps to educate potential buyers. He also touched on one of the potential financial consequences of climate change and related increases in the frequency and severity of storms.
“Our property tax structure. Our highest property taxes are along the coast. When the next big storm comes that could remove a lot of those taxes that Town Hall relies on for a lot of things,” Prescott said. A time could also come, Prescott said, when municipalities are forced to assess whether they can continue to send police, fire and other emergency personnel to coastal areas during severe storms.
O’Rourke asked what local towns are doing to address the potential loss of tax revenue. He received no response except for Prescott saying, “I think that’s going to have to come from up North,” a reference to state leaders and legislators in Providence.
State Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, said municipalities will eventually have to face making a decision on, “is that really where we want to put that vulnerable infrastructure when it’s already at risk and has already been knocked out three times before.”
Handy, chairman of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, attended the roundtable in Westerly because he was not able to attend a previous one held closer to Cranston.
Handy also referenced a potential decimating consequence of climate change — salt water intrusion into drinking water supplies. “That would be an economic disaster for a community,” he said.
While climate change poses a dilemna for coastal property owners it also effects a less affluent socio-economic group who live along the state’s rivers, those in attendance said.
The state’s utility systems, particularly the electric grid, is also vulnerable. Harvey Perry, a Margin Street resident, said his family lost power for five days during each of several severe storms in recent years. He pushed for relocating utility wires underground.
Laura Bozzi, manager of the state Department of Health’s Climate Change Program, helped O’Rourke facilitate the discussion by asking those in attendance to consider the effects of climate change on state residents and their health.
Information on Rhode Island’s response to climate change is available at http://www.climatechange.ri.gov/ate.ri.gov