By Karen Savage
Nestled between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound on the southern edge of Cape Cod, iconic Falmouth, Mass., is known for its pristine beaches, picturesque views and quaint New England feel.
With the most coastline of any municipality in the state—nearly 70-miles—Falmouth also sits at the mercy of climate change, a reality its leaders have begun to wrestle with.
One of the most proactive in Massachusetts when it comes to resiliency planning, the town has held public meetings and commissioned studies to assess what is at risk and how to protect the town and its residents.
What Falmouth hasn’t figured out is how to pay for it all.
“That’s the multi-million dollar question and it is unanswered,” Town Manager Julian M. Suso said. “We want to remain in a position where we’re making good decisions about the extreme unlimited taxpayer resources, and therein lies the challenge with being head of the curve.”
It is a dilemma common to many municipalities across the country, which are dealing with the many impacts of climate change: wildfires, sea level rise, heatwaves, drought, increasingly intense storms and more extreme rainfall.
A growing list of them are turning to the courts, suing fossil fuel companies for selling the product they know drives those impacts and for deceiving the public about it. Some are large cities like Oakland, San Francisco and Washington D.C., and others are smaller towns like Imperial Beach, Calif. and Hoboken, N.J. All have done it for the same reason: to cover skyrocketing costs they don’t believe should fall entirely to their taxpayers.
The municipalities allege that companies have known for decades the extent to which their products damaged the climate, but instead of warning the public, they engaged in coordinated campaigns to confuse the public and to block policies to curb climate change.
“That’s something I would consider maybe in the future,” Suso said of the litigation, adding that town leaders have not yet discussed the possibility.
Like most coastal communities, Falmouth is already feeling the effects of climate change. NOAA scientists predict Falmouth will experience up to 20 days of high tide (otherwise known as sunny day) flooding by 2030 and up to 135 days by 2050.
Although Superstorm Sandy delivered its biggest blows further south when it ravaged the East Coast in 2012, it still flooded 140 properties in Falmouth. Storms are expected to become even more extreme as the atmosphere heats up, and storm surges will be even deadlier because of sea level rise.
Falmouth has always been vulnerable to coastal storms, but climate change has exacerbated that vulnerability, Charles McCaffrey, chairman of Falmouth’s Coastal Resiliency Action Committee said.
“It’s one thing if something is destroyed by flooding and wind and waves from the storm and the water leaves—well, in the future, the water is not going to leave everywhere, and the shoreline will gradually move inland,” McCaffrey said.
The committee commissioned a study to assess the town’s vulnerability and its results, released last year, were sobering. A school, town hall, several sewer stations, and residential streets are increasingly likely to be submerged by storm or high tide flooding.
Town hall currently has about a 5 percent chance of flooding in any given year during a major storm. By 2070, that’s projected to increase to a 100 percent chance.
Boat docks, piers, a bike path, and several wetlands and salt marshes that draw hundreds of thousands of tourists—and much needed revenue—to Falmouth each year are also threatened.
Particularly at-risk is the Surf Drive area, which hugs Vineyard Sound along the southern end of town. By 2070—or sooner in some cases—parts of two residential neighborhoods, Falmouth town hall, sewer infrastructure, and a beloved coastal roadway could all be submerged on a daily basis due to high tide flooding.
Following the report, the town set out to come up with potential strategies to reduce those risks. The possible scenarios, compiled and released in August by Woods Hole Group, a Falmouth-based environmental consulting group, drive home the grim reality.
Town hall will either need to be relocated or protected through the construction of 1,000-foot earthen berm.
Residents will be forced to decide whether to continue to maintain and protect Surf Drive, a scenic coastal roadway and popular tourist attraction, or abandon it through a managed retreat. The same decision must be made for a bikeway parallel to the road.
A short-term solution, which involves building up dunes and beach areas to protect the roadway will cost an estimated $7.2 million. Longer-term solutions, such as elevation or the construction of a bridge over portions of the roadway could exceed $140 million.
Nearby homes, which are already vulnerable to storm surge flooding, will need to be protected by the elevation of Surf Drive, bought out or removed by the town, or protected through the construction of natural barriers.
Short-term solutions would run between $13 and $17 million. Removing the homes altogether could cost up to $83 million, not counting the emotional toll for those uprooted.
With an economy largely reliant on tourism and the value of its coastal resources, McCaffrey said seawalls and other large structures, which all offer protection, aren’t good options because they could destroy the shoreline the town depends on.
“You’ll end up with a hard structure and no beach, no wetlands, no dunes,” McCaffrey said. “Or you can maintain the character, the shoreline, beach dunes, wetlands, but you can’t maintain them in place. All would have to move inland.”
Regardless of which options the town choses, the projected costs are staggering.
“We certainly expect as a small town, that there will need to be significant state and federal support for resiliency efforts, and then we’ll have the state of Massachusetts, which is certainly aware of that and putting money into this effort,” McCaffrey said.
Researchers warned that while managed retreat is often the most controversial, it may be needed in the long run. The impact on residents will be life-altering, particularly for those living in low-lying neighborhoods.
“Some areas of the study area are at extremely high risk of inundation both from storm surge, as well as from future high tide flooding,” researchers wrote. “In these areas, protecting and maintaining infrastructure may not be feasible. Managed retreat reduces spending on repeated repairs while allowing ecosystems to migrate landward as sea level rises.”
McCaffrey said so far, the hardest part of the process has been to ensure that individual homeowners and the town work together and resist the urge to act too quickly and without adequate long-term planning.
“We need to look at what is the development that will occur or be planned for, say, 2050 or 2070, and ask, ‘how do we make that resilient?’” McCaffrey said, adding that similar analyses will be conducted for other areas of town.
“You can’t say, ‘Let’s build a seawall to defend my house now,’ and not be concerned that how you defend your house could be making it worse for others.”
Falmouth’s most immediate step is how to protect Surf Drive, something Suso said the town “is striving to make soundly in terms of what is responsible and financially feasible to taxpayers.”
“All we have done is made a major effort to identify the challenge, but financing is a matter yet to be determined.”