A question from Ric Gerace, Alma Road, Falmouth:
I would like to know why, in all the discussion on the half-billion dollar sewer project, there has been not one word on global warming and sea level rise. There is no question that the sea level is rising, and this century it is likely to rise sufficiently to make the health of the coastal ponds a moot question. … It seems to me that spending that much money to protect ponds that will soon enough be part of the Atlantic is a huge waste of resources.
Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best
Ric brings up an interesting point that is not often considered in the great sewering debate that Falmouth and other coastal towns are engaging in these days. Then again, very little planning is being done with climate change and sea level rise in mind in this country.
In a shift from that trend, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM) is taking an active role in planning for changes to the coastline, by mapping the seafloor and making recommendations for how to mitigate impacts. They’re working on legislation so that towns have clear guidelines for what to do, should buildings and beaches start to disappear into the ocean, or should get-rich-quick contractors attempt to build in vulnerable coastal zones.
Regarding building public infrastructure such as sewer pipes and roads, the CZM posted these guidelines:
- Roads and utilities are absolutely critical during evacuation, disaster response, and recovery. If they’re flooded or damaged, they can become yet another liability, rather than an asset.
- Placing public infrastructure in areas where it may be damaged makes it extremely likely that your community will end up repairing it—an added strain to municipal staff, budgets, and available services.
- Putting public infrastructure (e.g., water and sewer) in a hazard-prone area increases the likelihood that the area will be developed, or that existing development will be expanded, thereby putting more structures and people at risk.
In Chatham, a local bylaw prevented new construction of a house in a floodplain, a landmark decision upheld by the MA Supreme Court. One of the prohibited uses of the land in these Flood Hazard Zones is the discharge of sewage. In a model bylaw developed by the Cape Cod Commission, towns would be able to repair or replace their existing sewer and water mains, but not build new ones in high-risk flood zones “in order to avoid impairment of or contamination from them during flooding.”
Despite these regulatory strides, Ric’s question brings up an important point about long-term planning for climate change on Cape Cod, which includes planning for a region-wide sewer system.
It strikes me that the egos and possibly greed of town officials are leading people astray. To refuse to address this question, based on the best science available, is arrogant, short-sighted, and ultimately just plain stupid. It’s not improbable that by the end of the century, if not considerably sooner, that Falmouth Plaza will be the new Falmouth Heights Beach. Perhaps money might be better spent protecting the fresh water supply from salt incursion, though in time that will also be moot.
-Ric Gerace, Falmouth
As I’ve reported in the Enterprise, sea level rise is already a reality on Cape Cod, although occuring at a miniscule rate of 3 millimeters per year. That amount is expected to accelerate as the polar ice caps melt. A very conservative– yet widely accepted–projection from the IPCC of a 2-11 °F increase in average global temperatures would cause an average one meter (3 foot) rise in sea level.
Again, that might not sound like much, but with storm surges, high tides, and erosion over time, Main Street, Falmouth (as we know it), will be waterfront property. Ric’s prediction that Staples will be the next Falmouth Heights Beach may not be too far from the truth. (Click here for an excellent PowerPoint presentation on the issue from Falmouth resident and USGS researcher, Rob Thieler.)
Long Term Gain for Short Term Pain
In 2003, the Coastal Resources Working Group completed a report to Falmouth selectmen on how to deal with the threat of sea level rise. In order to prevent an apocalyptic, beach-less town by 2100, the group made the following recommendations (among others):
- Beaches and dunes will be wide enough for protection from storms and for public access and use.
- Water quality, habitat and fisheries resources of the coastal zone, estuaries, ponds and marshes will be sustained and enhanced.
- A minimum of hard structures (e.g., groins, seawalls, jetties, etc.) will be found in the coastal zone, to reduce
maintenance costs, allow natural sediment transport, and for ease and safety of public use; adverse impacts of their presence will be mitigated by passive and active management approaches.
- Public infrastructure will be relocated from the immediate coast to reduce maintenance and repair costs and to reduce its impact on the coastal system.
These recommendations contain two important aspects of the issue that Ric brought up: protection of water quality for the health of marine life, and the costs of building and maintaining public infrastructure in flood zones. They needn’t be mutually exclusive goals, however. With proper planning, the main sewer line (if that is what happens) should be located well beyond the reach of the flood zone. By restoring the estuarine ecosystem, especially south of Route 28, where nitrogen pollution is most severe, nature’s defenses against erosion will be able to do their job. Eel grass and dune grass are essential for keeping sand and sediment in place. Natural migration of sand (which is rapidly moving eastward in Falmouth) will protect the coastline from erosion and sea level rise.
From there, yes, it would be a matter of time before the residences that connect to the sewer main are compromised by rising water levels. But that will likely take centuries. We may not be able to stop global climate change, but at least we can do something now to restore the local marine ecosystem.
The views and opinions in the Enterprise blogs are those of the author and are not neccessarily shared by Falmouth Publishing.