Demand for climate grants outpaces funds

Christian M. Wade, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.

Apr. 1—BOSTON — Nearly 100 cities and towns applied for funding from the state last year for climate change resiliency and adaptation projects, only to be turned away.

The state's Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness grant gives local governments money to fortify seawalls, prevent coastal erosion and plant trees, but it has limited resources as demand for the funding has skyrocketed.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides says the program is extremely successful, though the funds available are not adequate.

"Cities and towns across Massachusetts are in dire need of funding and assistance to protect the residents from the impacts of climate change," Theoharides said during a recent live-streamed budget hearing. "And a dedicated revenue stream is a critical tool to protecting our most vulnerable populations."

The Baker administration filed a proposal in the previous legislative session to provide more than $1 billion over the next decade for the preparedness grant and other climate change initiatives by increasing real estate transfer taxes.

The proposal never made it out of the legislative committee for a vote.

"We've seen the need, again and again, to build resilient communities to prepare in advance for that next big storm, and to help our environmental justice communities that are least able to adapt to a changing climate, access funding and protect our most vulnerable residents," Theoharides said.

For the previous round of grants, the state received 142 requests for funding totaling $46 million. But the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees the program, but only had funding to award 41 grants totaling about $10.5 million, according to the agency.

The average grant per community was about $250,000, the agency said.

Salisbury was approved for a $250,000 "action" grant this year for a project to alleviate coastal flooding along the roads leading to Rings Island.

Haverhill was approved for a $129,693 grant to study whether the removal of the Little River dam would ease flooding further upstream.

Newburyport and Newbury received a $217,451 "planning" grant in 2020 to study how Plum Island can harden its infrastructure to the impacts of climate change.

The next round of grant requests got underway this month with $11 million available for cities and towns.

Kara Runsten, the vulnerability program's coordinator, said an informal query to gauge interest in the grants received about 160 ideas.

"So I think we can expect that this round will be just as competitive or even more so than the last one," Runsten said during a recent webinar.

The state Office of Coastal Zone Management also has a grant program that provides limited funding to communities to fortify their coastlines against storms driven by climate change.

This year, that program doled out about $4 million in grants to a dozen or so coastal communities including Beverly, Ipswich and Essex.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com