Surf Drive Forum

Attendees break into smaller discussion groups at four different stations during the forum on coastal resiliency.

Surprise at the extent and magnitude of the flood risk in the Surf Drive area projected over the next 50 years was among the reactions from attendees at the December 5 public forum on coastal resiliency.

The need to balance environmental and physical solutions with societal and political solutions on one of Falmouth’s most important and vulnerable stretches of coastline was also a common theme of the meeting.

Presenters from Woods Hole Group, the Town of Falmouth’s environmental consultant on the Surf Drive resiliency study, stressed they are still in the data-gathering phase and are not yet ready to make recommendations.

“In addition to sea level rise’s impact on daily mean high water, it will also have an impact on the extent and depth of inundation during storm events,” the Woods Hole Group’s online “story map” indicates. “The initial townwide results confirmed the extreme vulnerability of the Surf Drive area to storm flooding even in present-day conditions, with projections for increased vulnerability in the future [2030 to 2070]. This vulnerability has far-reaching implications for transportation, emergency access, infrastructure, recreation and tourism, and the integrity of natural ecosystems.”

The interactive resource will soon be available at www.falmouthmass.us/776/Coastal-Resiliency-Action-Committee and will include a “public survey” tab.

A final report on the Surf Drive area is due to the state in June, as part of the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program, which provided funding for the study, said Elise Leduc, a coastal scientist for Woods Hole Group.

A report on the town-wide climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning project is due by the end of this year, using data developed for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s coast flood risk model, senior coastal engineer Kirk F. Bosma said.

In the meantime, Woods Hole Group will work with a steering committee that includes the coastal resiliency action committee and several town department heads.

William B. Kerfoot of Ransom Road in Quissett, which is near Oyster Pond, said the extent of the flooding risk due to sea-level rise and storm surges “far exceeds what I would have thought originally.”

“It’s almost like shock value at the present time. The purpose of the coastal resiliency committee and the planning board is to institute changes to try to bring this focus to the people of the town,” he said. “It’s tough to digest the extent of the information being presented, but I think that this special meeting for people who are along Surf Drive has allowed many questions to be answered.”

Dealing with coastal flooding will require communities across the Cape and the commonwealth to come together to share resources, Mr. Kerfoot added.

“There is no question that the rise of water along the entire coast of Massachusetts is going to affect Boston like it’s going to affect us here, so it’s not just a Falmouth problem. It’s not just going to be the pond in your backyard,” he said.

Leonard W. Johnson of Wild Harbor Road, North Falmouth, said he also attended the town-wide resiliency presentation in October and was impressed with both forums.

“They’re very informative. They’ve done a brilliant job. The town paid $50,000 to have this study done, and they’ve gotten their money back in spades,” he said. “I think they’re going to work on the issue of the cost of some of the mitigation to what might happen. Eventually, my grandchildren will have to come to grips with a retreat or conversion scenario.”

Mr. Johnson was referring to the possibility of moving town infrastructure and residential properties away from the water in the Surf Drive area—a topic raised briefly at both forums.

Alison S. Leschen of Lantern Lane, Falmouth, called Surf Drive’s flooding risk “a very real, pressing issue” and said that solutions must be a combination of physical and societal efforts.

“I think that there are infrastructure, engineering or nature-based solutions to these huge challenges. It’s a question of whether we’ll have the political or societal will to implement them,” she said. “I’m thinking about all the houses that are going to be underwater in 30 years. Are we going to be able to say to those people, ‘We need to tear your house down and take your land?’ Are we going to be able to have the political will to do that without being tied up in court for the next thousand years?”

Current mean high water elevations—0.8 feet in the baseline year of 2008—are based on the Woods Hole tide gauge, while the future mean high water elevations are based on the high sea-level rise scenario, Ms. Leduc said. In 2030, mean high water is expected to rise 2.2 feet; by 2050, 3.5 feet; and by 2070, 5.3 feet.

The following areas will be affected by high tide flooding by 2070: 350 linear feet of Oyster Pond Road; two sections of the Shining Sea Bikeway; 800 linear feet of Elm Road and Sakonet Road; and town-owned amenities at Surf Drive Beach, including the bathhouse, the parking lot and the sewer lift station, Ms. Leduc said.

High tide flooding will impact the Mill Road parking lot by 2050, along with portions of Fresh River Lane, Stratford Road and Bywater Court. Daily flooding will impact 975 linear feet of Mill Road by 2050. Also, daily flooding will impact the lower portion of the town hall parking lot by 2070, Ms. Leduc said.

The Woods Hole Group’s flood risk models do not factor in erosion and assume a static landscape without any beach nourishment and sediment movement or building of sea walls, berms or dunes. However, researchers will integrate new statewide data into the models, Mr. Bosma said.

When asked how proactively the major utility companies are addressing flood risks, Mr. Bosma said National Grid is actively planning for climate change, along with state and local agencies, but Eversource is not yet doing using the state data.

Another question focused on how federal, state and local environmental regulations might change in the future, if they will become more flexible over time based on necessity.

“The Office of Coastal Zone Management sees this and asks how we’re going to deal with this going forward,” Ms. Leduc said, noting communities that have roads that run on causeways through salt marshes. “The initial permitting changes are likely to be project driven. We are already at that point.”

Mr. Bosma agreed, saying, “It’s coming, and it’s not only coming for regulations. It’s also coming for building codes, so we’re already working with the state in all of their capital projects where they’re developing new resiliency and design standards that will have to be applied at a statewide level for state-based projects.”

“The building code is antiquated in some respects because it’s founded on the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] maps. I certainly know the shortcomings of those. That’s definitely going to change, and the regulations will have to evolve with that,” he said.

The projections the Woods Hole Group is using are based on the “high but not extreme” MassDOT standards statewide, Mr. Bosma said.

“When this might actually occur depends on a lot of different things. This isn’t happening tomorrow. We don’t have to take all the actions today. There are certainly phased implementations and approaches, and we might not actually see this depending on what happens with sea-level rise,” he said. “This assumes we don’t do anything, that we let the landscape stay the way it is, that we don’t change the way we’re handling emissions.”

Mr. Bosma urged the audience to see “an opportunity to envision an area in a different way, to think about how you can protect, change and evolve with what’s happening.”

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