Rising sea levels and increasing development and tourism squeeze an already limited space that separates the Atlantic Ocean and Easton’s Pond. This sliver of shoreline, about 400-feet wide, is sandwiched between two highly trafficked areas, Newport and Middletown. It includes one of Newport’s prime beaches, Easton’s Beach, which also acts as a storm buffer for the road and pond, which in turn supplies drinking water to the city.
For years, heavy rainfalls poured runoff and sewage discharge from both Newport and Middletown into the beach and pond, raising bacterial levels that triggered beach closures and algal blooms, which have increased nearly 70 percent over the last two decades. The ultraviolet treatment plant installed in 2011 has improved water quality, but now rising sea levels also threaten the area with projections of a 3- to 5- foot increase by 2100. This increase will be exacerbated by storm surge, as was seen during Superstorm Sandy, whose 5-foot storm surge almost breached the berm across Memorial Boulevard that protects Easton’s Pond.
“And it will breach some day,” said Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s director of advocacy and policy, to Rhode Island Public Radio last year. “A stronger storm will come and it will breach, and [Easton’s Pond] is a very important part of the water supply for Newport. It’s at high risk, I would say.”
With residential housing and development on one side and the advancing ocean on the other, Easton’s Beach and Pond have nowhere to go, leaving many to wonder about the future.
“The distance between the beach and pond was really a challenge,” said Doug Stonis, a landscape architecture student at the University of Rhode Island, during final presentations on April 21 as part of the URI’s Senior Landscape Architecture Studio. Stonis and over a dozen other students were tasked with developing adaptive designs as part of their studio project, Building a Resilient Newport, to address current and future challenges to the area regarding water quality, user traffic, dune restoration, as well as elevated sea levels and storm hazards.
“There’s just not enough space to do all the things you want to do,” said Stonis, describing the hurdles he and his fellow students had in coming up with ideas to address current challenges of maintaining the beach and pond while at the same time accommodating for future climate change scenarios with regard to erosion, sea level rise, and storm events.
To enhance water quality efforts, many students wanted to increase space for wetland or dune habitats to balance the amount of existing impervious cover (roads, parking lots, etc.), which contributes to high phosphorous levels and algal blooms in the pond, according to Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access. Impervious cover prevents rain and snow from soaking into the ground, turning it into stormwater runoff that carries organic matter, fertilizers, pesticides, oil and grease and other contaminants into the pond and surrounding streams. This not only adds higher concentrations of contaminants, but increases the amount of runoff that leads to flooding and higher rates of erosion (Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management). The added natural cover, said many students, will add another level of water treatment and reduce erosion while also providing additional space for wildlife.
“The UV plant works well, but any natural filtration added upstream will help reduce pollution,” said McLaughlin, who supported the idea of more natural cover. Some of the student designs filled in part of the pond as added wetlands to protect a portion of Easton’s Pond from future salt water intrusion, with one student incorporating a golf course into the pond to add another use while also adding coverage to mediate heavy rainfall and runoff.
The usability of the space was also very important in the designs to ensure that visitors and locals had year-round access to the beach, surrounding tourist attractions, and between Newport and Middletown during storm events. This included “complete streets” that are pedestrian- and bike-friendly, elevated roads or tunnels, new plaza designs, and public transportation. Other designs included floating trails or elevated walks to protect habitat, provide access during floods, and alter user traffic by relocating parking or reducing parking altogether.
“There are a lot of fresh ideas that are pushing boundaries,” said Teresa Crean, Rhode Island Sea Grant and Coastal Resources Center extension specialist, who has been involved with the landscape architecture studios at URI the last few years to connect students with coastal communities looking for new ideas to be more resilient.
“It’s really interesting to see how [the students] are looking into the future, especially in a time of rapid change,” said Alan Desbonnet, assistant director of Rhode Island Sea Grant, which sponsored the studio project.
Consistent throughout all of the designs was the elevation of the berm, dike, and road anywhere from 13 to 15 feet address a rising sea, storm surge, and flooding.
“Nature will take its course, and maybe there won’t even be a beach anymore,” said J R Frey, water pollution control engineer for Newport, explaining that it would be a hard sell to locals who have grown up going to Easton’s Beach, but that Newport is already taking steps to preserve this area as long as possible. This includes dune restoration along Easton’s Beach, adopting 1 foot of freeboard, and placing electrical systems about 14 feet above ground so that utility infrastructure, like the water treatment facilities, can still operate during high storm surges and flooding.
But one of the immediate hurdles, pointed out by Crean, is the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure, and determining where that money will come from. But one of the benefits of these studios, she said, is that omitting economic restraints allow students the freedom to propose some unexpected visions for the area.
“Every single project has really great ideas to explore,” she said.
“We live in a built-in environment, and it’s going to change,” said Frey. “Having ideas about what that future may hold are all good things.”
[divider style=”solid” color=”#eeeeee” width=”1px”]Notes:
Adapting to Climate Change in the Ocean State: Rhode Island Climate Change Commission 2012 report
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Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications