Judy Benson: Road flooding becoming the 'new normal'

“We don’t have to be heroes, but we can’t be cowards.”

In the middle of this rainy winter when coastal roads were flooding every other week in some towns, Sidney Gale’s soothsaying statement to a roomful of land use professionals caught no one by surprise. It was more than six years after the Superstorm Sandy crisis hit the coastline. Even though the state had escaped major hurricanes since then, the everyday creep of rising sea level into roads and neighborhoods had become chronic. Climate change is making this already watery world even more so, and we can’t simply hit the brakes and stop what our emissions have already set in motion.

“We’ve got to face the facts about what’s coming our way,” Gale said.

A retired businessman, CPA and Guilford resident who’s been sounding out about climate change impacts for over a decade, Gale had found an audience that understood he wasn’t just being an alarmist. The 80 public works directors and town land use officials at the Middlesex County Extension Center that January day had spent the morning and afternoon collectively ruminating on the big, knotty problem they’re facing. Clearly, cost-effective solutions are elusive. Tax revenues generated by pricey shoreline homes are at risk. But so are the salt marshes critical to the health of Long Island Sound and coastal wildlife.

“Marshes are incredibly important to Long Island Sound,” said David Kozak, senior coastal planner at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, during a presentation on projections for increased road flooding as sea levels rise 20 inches by 2050 and four feet by 2100.

Milford’s acting Assistant Public Works Director Steve Johnson talked about watching a school bus drive through two feet of water the day before to get the kids home from school. He had spent the rest of that day answering calls from residents who couldn’t get to their houses because of flooded roads.

“This is getting to be the new normal,” he said.

Guilford Town Engineer Janice Plaziak showed a list of 10 flood-prone roads, three of which have been elevated so far. But that’s a solution that won’t work everywhere, even if the resources to accomplish it were readily available.

“We’re putting our finger in the dike day in and day out,” said Attorney Jane Stahl, co-coordinator of the workshop, run by Connecticut Sea Grant and UConn CLEAR as part of its Climate Adaptation Academy series. “There doesn’t seem to be anybody looking at the longer-term prospects.”

So what would it mean to take up Gale’s charge not to be a coward when it comes to climate change impacts, particularly sea level rise?

For starters, officials from the state to the local level need to recognize the need for comprehensive planning to adapt the “new normal.” Taking a piecemeal approach — fixing one section of flooded road here, another there — could waste a lot of money and only work temporarily. Residents with shoreline homes also need to understand this is a complex problem with no easy solution. Some areas may be destined to become islands without huge investments to raise bridges and replace undersized culverts.

“The longer-term solution that our political leaders don’t want to talk about is shoreline retreat,” said Jeff Jacobson, one of the workshop speakers. He’s with the Chester-based civil and environmental engineering firm Nathan Jacobson & Associates.

Perhaps the state should start buyout programs in some of the most vulnerable areas. When a house goes on the market, it could be sold to the state rather than reoccupied by another homeowner intent on living on land being reclaimed by the sea.

Sea level rise isn’t going away. The sooner Connecticut stops being cowardly, confronts the challenge and starts making some hard decisions, the better off we’ll all be.

Judy Benson is the communications coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant, which supports healthy coastal ecosystems, aquaculture and fisheries, resilient communities, seafood safety, marine science education and research in Long Island Sound. One of 33 Sea Grant programs nationwide, it is a partnership of the University of Connecticut and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at UConn’s Avery Point campus in Groton. For information, visit seagrant.uconn.edu. She can be reached at judy.benson@uconn.edu.