AP NEWS

Official alert: Greenwich must prepare for rising Long Island Sound

February 28, 2019

GREENWICH — Coastal communities need to start acting to prepare for a coming rise in sea levels, or Long Island Sound is going to cause significant infrastructure damage in the decades ahead.

That is the message Patricia Sesto is urging residents and officials to accept. Citing data supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the town director of Environmental Affairs warns that climate change could cause seas levels along the state’s shoreline to rise drastically by 2050, putting coastal communities like Greenwich at risk.

“This is very important,” Sesto sad. “It would be a shame to sit back and wait. It’s much harder to fix something after the fact than do it as a pre-emptive effort.”

Government and residents need to change their thinking, she said.

The Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, a joint effort of the University of Connecticut and state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, is calling on coastal communities to plan for a rise in the Sound of 20 inches over the next 30 years.

The institute is not predicting the Sound actually will rise by that degree, but it is among the possibilities based on a range of factors in a report CIRCA Executive Director James O’Donnell presented to the Legislature’s Environment Committee.

“It’s on the upper end of the likely range,” O’Donnell said this week.

Sesto recalled strong resident opposition last year that helped scuttle a Department of Public Works proposal to raise Sound Beach Avenue in front of the Perrot Memorial Library. The DPW said the project was needed to deal with flooding, but residents spoke out so strongly against it the project was shelved to be redesigned.

“The public isn’t embracing what’s coming,” Sesto said. “This is a concept that many towns struggle with dedicating a good amount of money to. ... That’s an important road to access a lot of residents and it’s needed for emergency services and yet they said they didn’t like the way it was going to look.”

Public Works Commissioner Amy Siebert said another part of the project that focuses on the Sound Beach Avenue Bridge will proceed alone, with a completion goal of the 2021-22 fiscal year.

Greenwich has already made some preparations for an increase in flooding, like elevating pump stations on Huested Road and Ballwood Road, she said, and taken steps to address flood vulnerability at Grass Island.

“Determining what infrastructure should be addressed and when is all part of long-term capital planning,” Siebert said. “It is also important for property owners to be self-aware of their circumstances and their relation to the shore and sea level rise.”

Post Superstorm Sandy, federal agencies including HUD and FEMA focused on protecting housing on the coasts. The emphasis now has to be on infrastructure, said town Emergency Management Director Dan Warzoha.

“We need to harden our infrastructure in case of what could happen if we get a lot more flooding,” Warzoha said, pointing to protection of the wastewater management facility at Grass Island as a priority.

He praised the work on the pump stations, but said more has to be done to protect the town’s “nuts and bolts” infrastructure, which would reuqire allocation of more resources from the town, state and federal government.

The biggest area of concern is low-lying Old Greenwich. There are other areas of town that flood, including Byram, but those problems are largely storm driven. The bigger danger posed by a rising sea level is frequent, even permanent, saturation, not just flooding after a storm. The most immediate goal, Sesto said, is to fully understand the potential effects of the anticipated rise in sea level on the town’s infrastructure and tidal ponds.

“Areas that flood occasionally are going to flood more often,” Sesto said. “We need to have an understanding of what roads will be impacted by that and how is our storm and sewer water management impacted and what it will mean for our fire stations and pump houses and lower elevation structures.”

Town government approved $75,000 for a study to support a climate change strategy last year; an additional $75,000 has been proposed for a second study as part of the 2019-20 municipal budget.

The first study will look at what the projected rise in sea level will mean for town infrastructure. The second will examine the effect on tidal ponds, including Binney Pond, Bruce Park Pond, Mill Pond and Eagle Pond at Greenwich Point.

“Look at Binney Pond. That’s a fresh water system that occasionally has salt water intrusions during real high tides,” Sesto said. “If you add sea level rise to that, where’s the tipping point where it’s no longer a fresh water system and it’s going to transition into a brackish or salt water system? How do we retain the aesthetics of our parks? Our use of our parks? Are we going to be more vulnerable to invasive species and that means aquatic invasives as well as plants?”

The two studies will be done together so both $75,000 allocations have to be passed before the work can commence. Sesto she is optimistic the Board of Estimate and Taxation will approve the pond study; its chair, Jill Oberlander, said the issue is a priority.

“It is important for the town to plan and prepare for future conditions, such as the impact of climate change,” Oberlander said. “In making budget decisions, the BET considers the concerns of the residents. We encourage the interested public to communicate their viewpoints to us.”

First Selectman Peter Tesei, who put the allocations in the proposed budget, is not running for a new term but said he hopes future leaders will continue to prepare for the effects of climate change.

“The town’s resiliency and preparation to deal with rising sea levels is evidenced by the work that has been done since superstorms Irene and Sandy,” Tesei said. “It is my hope that the next administration will continue that work with appropriate financial commitments needed to effectuate protection of the town’s assets.”

What comes after those studies could be the tricky part. Sesto noted they are just the first step — and the cheap step. She said she hopes the results of the studies change attitudes like the ones that stopped the Sound Beach project, and help people realize what needs to be done to protect the future of the town.

“I can’t predict what the costs are going to be, that’s part of what the study is going to do,” Sesto said. “We have to look at what the issues are and suggest actions to minimize or alleviate the stress on our infrastructure. For sure there will be things we just can’t fix. We’re not raising all the roads. We’re not raising all of the storm drainage. The report will help people assess how all of this will affect them.”

kborsuk@greenwichtime.com