Wickford Tour Looks at Threat of Growing Floodplain

Coastweeks tour through Wickford looks at challenges of sea level rise and storm surge, and adaptation measures to protect historic town.

Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse joined Sea Grant and municipal officials along the North Kingstown village of Wickford’s waterfront on October 2 for a tour that showcased some of the challenges this historic village faces in light of climate change. The tour also covered the adaptation measures some in the community have taken to prepare for sea level rise and storm damage.

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R.I. Sen.Sheldon Whitehouse talks about the importance of planning for climate change to start the Coastweeks Wickford Tour focused on community resilience

“We have an enormous investment and reliance in and on our coasts,” said Whitehouse, noting how resiliency is an important part of managing the impacts of rising sea levels and storm surges. “Planning is vital in looking forward and see what we’re doing.”

Wickford’s municipal parking lot floods regularly at moon tides. During Superstorm Sandy, the village suffered flooded basements, damaged septic systems, and a power outage, and street flooding turned some residential properties nearest the water into islands.  With these vulnerabilities, the state selected North Kingstown for a pilot project in a a statewide effort to develop  adaptation measures. One of the first steps was to map areas in the town vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding, and then to identify priority at-risk infrastructure and assets in those areas.

“[North Kingstown has] been a guinea pig in testing out the adaptation strategies we’ve learned from other places and trying to apply in Rhode Island,” said Teresa Crean, Rhode Island Sea Grant extension specialist, who led the tour through Wickford, which began at the Brown Street bridge, adjacent to the municipal lot.

“One of the infrastructure questions the town is faced with is what to do with this bridge long-term to withstand rising seas and surge events?”

The two issues Crean cited as important to planning efforts are storm events that can happen at any time and sea level rise over the next 85 years, which is the timeframe current climate models are using.

The tour continued down West Main Street to the Wickford Package Store, which abuts a wetland, to look at how businesses recovered from Sandy and adaptation efforts being undertaken, if any. Owner Jeff Ryan explained some measures his business has taken to alleviate storm damage, including installing water vents to allow water flow, and elevating all of the mechanical operations behind the store 13.5 feet above sea level.

From left: Joe Dube, Teresa Crean, and Donna Dube outside of Wickford Gourmet Factory Outlet.

From left: Joe Dube, Teresa Crean, and Donna Dube outside of Wickford Gourmet Factory Outlet.

From here, the tour Wickford Gourmet Factory Outlet, where owners Joe and Donna Dube spoke about changes they’ve seen over the years.

“It’s important to remember that in 25 years, we were only flooded during major hurricanes,” said Donna Dube, explaining how the water from the wetlands behind the building would come in the back door but never reach the front. But Sandy changed that, with a surge that was four feet higher than the mean high tide water. “This time it came in the back and the front door. It is such a big change from what it used to be.”

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Gardiner’s Wharf Seafood

Near the town dock, Pete Chevalier, owner of Gardiner’s Wharf Seafood, showed how he upgraded an existing bulkhead and used plantings, riprap, and large boulders to offset wave impact in an effort to reduce erosion.

“We actually didn’t see any water except in some low-lying spots,” said Chevalier, explaining how his property was turned into an island during Sandy because of the surrounding, lower-lying areas being more heavily flooded. “It did identify erosion issues. And what we’ve done since then is add stones to the outside edge and increased plantings to stop some of the erosion.”

Preserving History

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“Captain Richard Barney House, 1804”

The tour also visited the Wickford Historic District – home to the largest collection of 18th century homes in the Northeast, the majority of which still have their original foundations, and are vulnerable to projected sea level rise.

“How do we balance preserving the historical integrity of these homes and also getting them out of the way?” said Crean, explaining the complexities of coastal adaptation with little guidance from the federal government.

“We’re really talking to the state and the historic preservation and heritage commission to better understand the issues and opportunities for if folks in a historic district want to elevate their property, can there be height restriction allowances,” she said, siting the Point neighborhood in Newport as a good example of how some homeowners have elevated their property to get out of the flood zone. “But then there’s the ongoing discussion on consistency and what historic district commissions will allow.”

Septic systems are also an issue in this area. Although most of the town is primed to be sewered by 2017, the historic district will not be, and will be required to upgrade septic systems. This raises another concern about what kind of impacts sea level rise and storm surges will have on septics.

“At what point do you allow properties to be occupied when you can’t flush a toilet?” asked Crean. “It’s another tough question we’re struggling with to honor property rights and protect public safety.”

Improving overall infrastructure is supported by the town’s annual capital improvement fund, which gives the ability to prioritize municipal tax money expenditures – whether that be roadways, sewers or other municipal services. This includes utilities, which are often located in basements that are more vulnerable to flooding as a result of raised groundwater tables.

Public meetings have been ongoing for the last few years since the project began in 2010, and many of wondered, At what point is it more cost-effective to relocate to higher ground? And what would Wickford become? Some thoughts circulating are whether Wickford develop into a more maritime village instead of one that’s centered on retail and commercial uses.

“Are there opportunities for the community to shift? It’s an excellent question and a long-term planning challenge future planners and officials will have to grapple with,” said Crean.

The North Kingstown Wickford project was funded by Rhode Island Sea Grant , R.I. Statewide Planning, and the Rhode Island Foundation. It is being replicated in Newport, and is serving as a model for other communities.

For more photos of the tour, find us on Flickr