WESTPORT — In a field at Westport Town Farm, above the flat, grassy wetlands that lie on the banks of the Westport River, the Trustees of Reservations shared dire warnings about the future of the Southcoast’s shorelines.
"We know that climate change is having a profound impact on our vulnerable coastal areas — and we also know that we cannot wait to act," John Judge, president and CEO of The Trustees, told a group of local public officials and representatives of the area’s congressional delegation.
The nonprofit Boston-based land conservation group chose the spot to issue its 2022 State of the Coast report, a 44-page document culled from publicly available environmental science data that raises alarming projections about the effects of manmade climate change on coastlines from Falmouth to Swansea.
The Trustees owns and manages over 120 properties across the state, with eight in the region including Copicut Woods in Fall River and Slocum’s River Reserve in Dartmouth. The report outlines the threat to the region from rising sea levels and water temperatures, and their effects on the ecology and the economy.
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“As the state’s largest private owner of coastline, the Trustees have an obligation across the state of Massachusetts," Judge said, “and the only way we can do it is in partnership and collaboration with all of you.”
Here are six takeaways from the Trustees’ report:
Everyday hurricane barrier closures
The report notes that New Bedford’s hurricane barrier, built in 1966 to protect the port from storms, closed 26 times in 2019. With water levels rising, the barrier is projected to close with shocking frequency in the coming years.
“Closing the barrier at the same water level as is done currently would mean one to two closures a day as soon as 2050,” the report states.
Cynthia Dittbrenner, the Trustees’ director of coast and natural resources, noted that New Bedford’s commercial fishing port is the nation’s largest by revenue. The port generated $451 million in 2019, and according to an economic impact study supports $1.8 billion in personal wages per year. Closing the hurricane barrier that often, Dittbrenner said, is “not sustainable for a working port.”
Increasingly flooded roads and buildings
Sea level rise is also expected to have a profound impact on flooding in low-lying areas. By 2050, in Fall River and Somerset, 1.5 miles of road and 86 buildings are expected to be affected by flooding just due to the daily tide alone, with roads like Atlantic Boulevard and Ferry Street at greatest risk. In a 10-year storm, 28 miles of roads and 1,600 buildings are predicted to be affected. A 100-year storm would flood 46 miles of roads and 2,600 buildings.
Beach erosion and flooding in Westport
Westport, wedged between two branches of the Westport River and with 10 miles of shoreline, faces significant threats from climate change, according to the report.
Daily tides could flood 104 buildings in town by 2050, with the area of East Beach Road and Horseneck Road most vulnerable. Beach erosion, which has already affected East Beach, is expected to get worse as sea levels rise and storms become more intense. A 100-year storm event is projected to affect nearly all of the southern Horseneck area of Westport and homes in Westport Point — 19.5 miles of road and 1,026 buildings.
In the next few decades, daily tides could cause infrastructure issues in the southern part of town.
“Within a few short years we run the risk of having almost a mile of road continually flooding, and that road is one of the only accesses to a large population base," said state Rep. Paul Schmid, a Westport resident and farmer.
Salt marshes are disappearing
The Southcoast’s 250 miles of shoreline includes 4,900 acres of salt marsh — about a third of the shoreline. Salt marshes are naturally able to flood and drain regularly, with some areas flooding daily and higher marshes flooding a few times a month. Salt marshes provide crucial benefits including supporting wildlife that make up the aquatic food web, filtering pollution from the bay, and protecting coastal communities from storm surges and excess rainwater. But according to the Trustees’ report, higher sea levels are overwhelming the marshes, causing land to be lost.
According to the report, 23% of the salt marshes in the region could be lost by 2050. In Dartmouth, 86% of the salt marshes could be lost to flooding or conversion to “low marsh,” which floods daily — about 30% of the town’s salt marshes could be lost completely. Westport’s salt marshes would fare even worse, with 48% of salt marsh acreage at risk of disappearing.
“We’re concerned about what we’re leaving behind for the future generations,” said Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Councilman David Weeden. “And we need to all take the responsibility to do whatever we can to combat the effects that are harming our waters. … We’re going to move toward a 'blue economy,' but if the water’s not healthy, I’m not sure how that works.”
Bringing environmental justice to Fall River and New Bedford
The Trustees’ report isn’t just focused on beach communities and residents who live by the bay. It also focuses on environmental justice for poorer communities like Fall River and New Bedford that may experience increased flooding but don’t have the resources to adapt — and the residents who work in the maritime economy connected to the fishing industry.
“The needs of these communities should be a focus when prioritizing resources to assist with adaptation and relocation,” the report reads.
“For too long, conservation has been the three W’s: white, well-connected and wealthy," Judge said. “We really need to do a better job at making sure we’re reaching all communities. … But also we need all hands on deck more than ever before.”
What hope is there for the future?
The report isn’t only a series of dire predictions; it also includes suggestions to stem the tide.
Among the solutions noted in the report is a call to protect more coastal land, especially land where salt marshes are expected to retreat. The report also says communities need to rethink the construction of hard coastal structures like seawalls and jetties, which could contribute to erosion, and adapt infrastructure like bridges, roads and wastewater treatment facilities to meet the threat of rising water levels.
"We are the generation that knows what’s happening,” Judge said, “and we are the generation that can act on it.”
Dan Medeiros can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Herald News today.
This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Trustees of Reservations issue stark State of the Coast report