Mapping the Road to Resilience
By Hugh Markey
Photographs by Monica Allard Cox
If you live in one of the 21 communities that abut Rhode Island’s coastline, you probably know the place. There’s a road in the neighborhood that pretty much leads to nowhere.
At one point it might have led to a beach, but now the end of the road has collapsed as storms and sea level rise have undermined the pavement. There’s trash along the edge, and whatever precipitation falls carries that trash and other unpleasantries right into the body of water at the edge of the street. Few people go there now except those looking for an easy way to dump construction debris. There should be a way to fix the place up, but who do we contact to find out?
Teresa Crean, coastal management extension specialist for the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) and Rhode Island Sea Grant, says there have been efforts to map out coastline adaptation possibilities like the theoretical one above for a decade or more. Back then, CRC decided to map all 400 miles of the Rhode Island coastline for vulnerabilities to storm surge, sea level rise, and coastal erosion. At the same time, she says, Save The Bay was working on a series of road conversion projects to remove or reduce impervious surfaces and replace them with more natural materials. “The smaller-scale projects began to add up,” Crean says.
“THEY REALLY CREATED A RESILIENT SYSTEM. THE SAILS CAN BE REMOVED IN A DAY IF A MAJOR STORM IS IN THE FORECAST.”
Eventually, Caitlin Chaffee, policy analyst for the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), recognized the need to put those and other projects into one central portal so that a variety of organizations could access the information and pass along grant opportunities. In 2018, she received a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to create the Shoreline Adaptation, Inventory, and Design (SAID) project. The project is a map of roughly 100 current and potential projects identified by state agencies, cities and towns, and local groups.
“The kinds of projects we’re looking for involve adapting to sea level rise, coastal hazards, and improving public safety, but also incorporating some nature-based infrastructure, [like] vegetation around coastal areas where habitat can retreat inland,” Chaffee says, adding that having an inventory of proposed projects at the ready will make applying for grants simpler, which in turn will result in more shoreline improvements. “When a funding source comes up, you often don’t have a lot of time to put together a proposal; they need a quick turnaround time.”
The SAID site is a storage place for an inventory of shoreline adaptation projects that could move forward rapidly if money becomes available. “We’re really excited to have shovel-ready projects and to move others to shovel-ready status. We hope our coastal communities will be better ready to access these resources. We want to give them the tools to apply for these funds if there are projects they have in mind.”
Although the project predates the SAID program, Crean points to Grinnell’s Beach in Tiverton as a perfect example of the sort of shoreline restoration project SAID was designed to facilitate.
Grinnell Beach: From Eyesore to Example
On a warm June day, a group of perhaps 30 people mingle on a cement platform overlooking tidy plantings and a small, picturesque beach. Overhead, a series of triangular pieces of cloth referred to as “sails” shields those gathered from the intense sun. It’s a celebration of the area’s complete transformation. Save The Bay’s Wenley Ferguson explains.
“There was a dilapidated vacant gas station on this lot. Some random trash cans kind of marked the edge, that was it. Trash cans, not boulders, nothing. You could drive right up to the edge, and there was some playground equipment in the area that was in poor condition, and a storm drain in the middle of the beach.”
A group calling itself the Grinnell Beach Improvement Committee had been trying to get renovations done for years, to no avail. Tricia Hilton, town council member and chair of the committee, says that before Ferguson came on the scene, they had design work proposed for years but no money to fund it. “People in town were incredibly cooperative, but the feeling was like, ‘We wish them well, but we’re not holding our breath.’”
Ferguson, Save The Bay’s director of habitat restoration, had recently done work with Barrington to improve an area that included moving a parking lot inland, creating a protective berm, and planting beach grass. The project had several characteristics in common with Grinnell. “I met with [the committee] and brought the Barrington project as an example,” Ferguson says. “I suggested creating a parking area inland marked off with boulders and creating a dune on the other side. They loved the idea. So we started applying for funds for that project.”
She describes the dune that now rises to the cement platform that replaced the gas station as the “veneer” of a habitat. The planting began two years earlier.
“We did some native planting, and we did get some funding for planting from CRMC. The big grant that took care of the bulk of the project was a DEM [Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management] Parks grant, as well as a Rhode Island Foundation Centennial Grant, plus a lot of in-kind services from the community, which went to funding the removal of the building, the creation of the sail structure, and replacing the cesspool with a tight tank at the bathhouse.”
“Even the sails were chosen for maximum sustainability,” she adds. “They went with a sail structure that can be stored in winter. They really created a resilient system. The sails can be removed in a day if a major storm is in the forecast.” The completed renovations should inspire similar projects throughout the state.
“We’re using projects like Grinnell as examples [of SAID-eligible projects] and as launching pads to say, ‘OK, what about this next site?’ There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit,” Ferguson says.
Featured at the celebration are photos of Grinnell’s Beach before renovations. The gas station sits abandoned, cars are drawn up to the water’s edge in random parking, and the entire area looks decidedly uninviting. Hilton laughs at her group’s inexperience before the project began: “I was struck by looking at the pictures. I have no idea what we were thinking when we went into this. If we had known what needed to be done, we would have just said, ‘Are you kidding?’ But we did it. We were pretty naïve when we started this, but I think it turned out OK. Wenley Ferguson was our guardian angel.”
“I hope [our success] might encourage other communities around Rhode Island that might have these gems of waterfront spots that have fallen into disrepair or are in danger of being swallowed up by the bay to see that it’s not impossible.”