Sea Level Rise Committee sets sail

Thu, 11/11/2021 - 2:15pm
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The newly created and appointed Sea Level Rise Committee held its first meeting this week. On Monday, Nov. 8 the committee held what was dubbed a “housekeeping” meeting – electing a chair and vice-chair, choosing terms, and setting a meeting schedule.

It is an often-repeated joke on Block Island that if you are absent from a meeting when officers are elected, you may inadvertently become one. In her absence, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration retiree Judy Gray was nominated as chairperson. According to Second Warden Sven Risom, who is also on the committee, Gray was in Singapore for a professional conference and had been asked in advance if she objected to being chair. She did not.

Clair Stover Comings, who has recently stepped down as director of the Block Island Conservancy, was elected as vice-chair.

The nine-member committee has a variety of citizens of all ages and experiences and also includes Tadgh O’Neill, George Davis, Kim Gaffett, Nigel Grindley, Mary Anderson, Socha Cohen, and Amira Wilson, besides Risom, Gray and Comings. Wilson, the youngest, is a senior at the Block Island School and although her status as a voting member of the committee is not yet clear, she is considered the “student representative.” Her potential contributions to the committee became clear when she said she was doing her senior project on global warming, including how Block Island will be impacted by it. She said her research is “data driven” and that she was gathering scientific data on the island.
Sea level rise and global warming are daunting subjects, and there was a “where do we start” aspect to the meeting that eventually led to a strategy.

Risom identified two groups of people that the committee would need to work with. “One group is all the folks in the town who will be significantly impacted by sea level rise,” he said. That group includes people from the water and sewer departments, and other infrastructure agencies on the island. The other group would include “industry experts” such as part-time resident and environmental scientist and Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, and staff from the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.

Risom said these people could become an advisory board of sorts, that could assist the committee and increase the dialogue. “They are hearing all the newest” research, said Risom.

“That Michael Oppenheimer is available to us is incredible,” said Stover Comings.

After some discussion, it was decided that the best way to utilize outside expertise would be to invite various people to give presentations to the committee.
“Maybe we need some one to give us some basic knowledge” as an orientation, said Stover Comings.
Risom said that he was doing a lot of work with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management and the CRMC and “could probably get them to do a
‘101.’”
The CRMC has done workshops on Block Island in the past few years, including one specifically on its Beach SAMP project, which included mapping predictions of sea level rise scenarios over the coming century. There were also planning studies after Super-storm Sandy that focused on Corn Neck Road.

These and other studies will be taken down from the proverbial shelf and dusted off.

What makes the mission of this committee different is the emphasis on recommending very specific projects and to “assist the town to assess, recommend and implement mitigation projects that will improve Block Island’s coastal resiliency.” That’s because this time around there may be money available from federal and state sources, and actually finding and securing that money will be a focus.
For that and other reasons, committee members suggested divvying up certain duties according to individual expertise in a “divide and conquer” manner. Some thought perhaps that should be done from the outset; others thought it should be done on an as-needed basis.
“I wouldn’t structure that right now,” said Cohen. “We don’t know what we don’t know yet.”