WESTERLY — Protecting the town's sewage treatment plant and its drinking water supply emerged as two of the top priorities during a six-hour community resilience building workshop conducted Thursday at the Westerly Education Center.
A group of about 60 people including residents, town and state government staff members, police and other emergency responders, elected and appointed officials, environmental advocates and members of the business community participated in the workshop. It was sponsored by the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District and presented in partnership with the town and the state Infrastructure Bank. The Nature Conservancy served as facilitator.
Amy Grzybowski, the town's emergency management director, addressed the need for resiliency planning and projects to protect vulnerable areas and infrastructure. She noted that the federal government declared five disasters in the state from 2010 to 2015: the flood of 2010, Hurricane Irene in 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and major snowstorms in 2013 and 2015.
"We have road closures, power outages, erosion, loss of beaches, economic impact and climate change as well. This is real for us here in Westerly," said Grzybowski, who formerly served as municipal director director of code enforcement and as interim town manager.
Gina Fuller, the conservation district's manager, Town Council President Christopher Duhamel, Shaun O'Rourke, state chief resiliency officer, and Adam Whelchel, director of science for the Nature Conservancy, presented introductory remarks. The participants then broke into four working groups. The groups, facilitated by Nature Conservancy personnel, identified vulnerabilities and strengths as well as priority actions to address problems presented by climate change. In Rhode Island, the problems are manifested in such things as sea level rise and increasing water and air temperatures.
Whelchel asked the groups to include a focus on the social aspects of climate change, including "parts of the population that are disproportionately disadvantaged."
The Margin Street wastewater treatment plant was mentioned by each of the four working groups as either a top or near-top priority. Duhamel said the Pawcatuck River "came up to the brim of the existing berm" during the 2010 flood. "We need to be certain [the berm] is going to be raised," he said.
Lisa Pellegrini, director of the town's Development Services Department, said town officials are hopeful that identifying the plant's vulnerabilities will help free up funding from the federal government to construct a more resilient berm. The stakes are high, workshop participants noted, because a breach of the berm could cause a release of chemicals from the plant and put untreated sewage into the river.
Protecting the aquifer and wellheads that feed the town's drinking water supply was also cited as a top priority. Development of a municipal pier and a ferry termina to broaden commercial fishing opportunities and transportation alternatives also emerged as top priorities. Westerly resident Jason Jarvis, a commercial fisherman, said travel by boat can play a critical role when roads are impassable because of flooding.
Salt marsh restoration and dredging the town's salt ponds and Weekapaug Breachway were also assigned high priority status. "The salt marshes are the most productive ecosystems in the Northeast," said Harvey Perry, a former president of the Westerly Land Trust, who functioned as spokesman for one of the working groups.
The town's roads, bridges and stormwater drainage systems must also be addressed, one of the working groups said. The groups identified storm surge, drought, sea level rise, flooding, and wind as the top potential hazards.
Richard Constantine, a member of the Planning Board, said the workshop was an eye opening exercise.
"One thing that came to light for me is that we're all aware of the impact of climate change and so we're concerned about it, but until you sit down within a group like this you don't really recognize how many aspects of our lives and the town are going to be affected by those climate changes, and I was kind of surprised at the general agreement among a lot of different people with a lot of different beliefs and agendas that there are three or four areas that need immediate attention. I thought it was a very valuable lesson," Constantine said.
Lisa Konicki, Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce president, said she was struck by the number of participants and the range of community stakeholders who were represented. "It brings a richness to the conversation and I was thrilled that so many people were able to give such an expansive amount of time," Konicki said.
The workshop ws part of the state Municipal Resilience Program. Westerly, along with Barrington, Warren, Portsmouth and South Kingstown were selected by the state Infrastructure Bank as participants in the first round of the program, which grew out of the state's Climate Resilience Action Strategy, called Resilient Rhody.
The bank has committed $2 million in funding to implement climate resilience projects based on specific needs identified through the program. Later this year the towns will be able to apply for the funds, which O'Rourke said will be released this year.
Roundtable meetings conducted last year as part of the Climate Resilience Action Strategy showed state officials that "cities and towns are a critical partner in developing that statewide approach," O'Rourke said.
O'Rourke praised Westerly officials for "stepping up" to participate in the Municipal Resilience Program and said remarks from last year's roundtable in Westerly convinced the state of the importance of natural systems "as a tier-one climate resilience opportunity but also a vulnerability." The same session helped state officials realize they "need to work better with the municipalities" to move from effective planning to actual implementation, he said.
The Nature Conservancy has conducted about 250 resilience building workshops in Massachusetts and Connecticut and three in Rhode Island, including the one on Thursday.
"It means Rhode Island is starting to meet and actually have conversations about what they want to address, which is really important to developing the type of trust that is needed to propel a community like Westerly," Whelchel said.
Attendance at the workshop, especially the participation of elected officials, was strong and unusual, Whelchel said.
"To see this type of turnout is exceptional. I think it says they recognize these are serious issues and Westerly is on the front line of extreme weather events," Whelchel said.