One of the most cherished natural resources Rhode Islanders have is miles and miles of coastline. Rhode Islanders take significant pride in the fact that while the State is small, people travel from all over the world to walk along our beaches. But, the beaches are in trouble.
One serious coastal erosion issue in Matunuck village in South Kingstown is leading the State’s coastal resources management agency down a slippery policy slope and it doesn’t bode well for the state’s coastline. Matunuck is essentially falling into the ocean, or the ocean is coming to take Matunuck. However you look at it, the rates of coastal erosion are accelerating.
The state road that provides the only evacuation route to our fellow Rhode Islanders that live in Matunuck is being undermined and will be lost to the sea without action from the coastal agency. Homes and businesses are also in jeopardy. The challenge, however, isn’t in identifying the problem. The challenge is in identifying a solution.
Climate change is causing more significant storm events and increasing wave energy along certain segments of our coastline. Irresponsible and short-sighted permitting decisions have allowed hardened structures to be placed on Matunuck’s coastal features, structures that only increase and accelerate erosion. The past five decades of science has allowed coastal managers to evolve in their thinking about the best beach management practices, and time and again, experienced coastal managers tell us that allowing hardended shoreline protection (like sheet pile walls) to be built on coastal features seriously undermines the ability of the beach to re-nourish and restore the sand, and exacerbates erosion. Indeed, the State of Rhode Island’s coastal plan strictly prohibits hardened structures or other shoreline protection devices to be used for the purpose of regaining what has been lost to historical erosion.
Despite this prohibition in the state’s plan, and despite what the science tells us, the state’s coastal agency is considering changes to the coastal program that will allow the long-term continued maintenance of hardened structures without a public dialogue about whether those structures should be removed. And, on April 24th the coastal agency will consider a petition to allow Matunuck and several private property owners to build a seawall around the village, wiping out what little there is left of the beach and the public’s right to access it.
This issue isn’t just about Matunuck. It’s about how we will manage our environment in the face of climate change. And, it’s about the coastline and the need to protect the policies that were established to protect it – for today and the future.
As climate change continues to advance, these are the kinds of issues that we will continue to be faced with, both in our coastal and river communities. We will have an opportunity to make the right policy choices, but they won’t be easy choices to make. Will we have the courage to base our choices on science?