Old Saybrook Committee Recommends Adapting, Mitigating, and Retreating When It Comes to Addressing the Impacts of Sea Level Rise and Climate Change

By Maya Thompson, 2015-2016 CIRCA Undergraduate Intern

In May 2014, the Old Saybrook Board of Selectmen established the Town’s Sea Level Rise and Climate Adaptation Committee (SLRCAC). It was comprised of residents concerned about the growing impacts of sea level rise. The Committee, which met bi-weekly for 18 months, formally issued its Report of Findings to the Board of Selectmen on January 12, 2016. In developing its many recommendations to address sea level rise, the SLRCAC considered three general categories of actions:

  • “to adapt – accommodate these natural, dynamic processes”
  • “to mitigate – reduce impacts where feasible or prudent; or, as a last resort”
  • “to retreat – abandon areas permanently flooded or where the cost of adapting or mitigating is too high.”

The Committee also suggested initiatives for immediate action including:

  • Charging a new group to continue the work of the Committee and monitor changes to sea level rise forecasts
  • Engaging a consulting firm for costal resilience planning
  • Considering sea level rise and climate change in long-range and current planning, including the natural hazard mitigation plan update and the plan of conservation and development
  • Budgeting for design and construction of physical solutions
  • Continuing to keep sea level rise and climate change on the front burner of community dialog

When I began my undergraduate student internship with the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA) in the summer of 2015, I was tasked with following the work on the SLRCAC to learn about Old Saybrook’s process for addressing the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. I interviewed Sandy Prisloe, the Environmental Planner for Old Saybrook, in July 2015 to learn more about the Committee’s work. The following blog describes what I learned about how the Committee came to the conclusions in its Report of Findings.

The SLRCAC started out by inviting experts to its meetings to help educate the Committee about sea level rise and coastal geography within the Old Saybrook area. By learning about the various impacts that sea level rise will have on Old Saybrook in the short and long term, the group provided insight on actions that the town could do to adapt and mitigate against the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. The Committee’s goal was to educate the Town about its findings. Technical support was given to help analyze the various impacts of sea level rise, including looking at future scenarios through an online coastal resilience mapping tool from The Nature Conservancy and the Army Corps of Engineers sea level rise projections. CIRCA Executive Director, Jim O’Donnell was one of the invited speakers at the Committee’s meetings. He explained how sea level rise would increase the frequency of flooding in Old Saybrook. The various speakers and tools helped the Committee look at future flood scenarios within the Town that could be caused by hurricane events like Superstorm Sandy. (See CIRCA blog “Interactive Mapping Tools for Sea Level Rise and Storms: A Review and User Guide” – for more information on mapping tools).

Sea Level Rise Map of Old Saybrook: This map depicts the extent of inundation during mean high high water (MHHW) under current conditions and for SLR scenarios of 1, 4 and 6 feet. MHHW is the average of the higher high water height of each tidal day observed over the National Tidal Datum Epoch. These data were prepared by NOAA and are suitable for general planning analyses. All inundation areas reflect flooding under non-storm conditions. (Source: Report of Findings from a Study of the Effects of Sea Level Rise and Climate Change on Old Saybrook, Connecticut, December 2015)

Mr. Prisloe said that throughout its work the SLRCAC focused on three major components of life that might be impacted in Old Saybrook: the environment, social and culture aspects of the Town, and the economy. The Committee made recommendations that the Town could do or follow up on, while keeping those three components in mind. Members of the Committee that were drafting the recommendations were not experts in climate change science, but they did have an interest and wanted to educate the Town as well. The Committee’s hope was that once this topic was brought to the Town government’s attention and they began to do something about sea level rise, then more people in the community would be aware of the situation happening in Old Saybrook.

Throughout the process various stakeholders were identified to become involved with preparing for sea level rise in the community. There were different outreach efforts that were done by members of the Committee. Civic associations were identified and asked to present to the Town. There are about eight to nine beach associations, as well as historic communities and clusters of houses in geographic places in Old Saybrook that were also identified as being affected by sea level rise. The plan was to reach out to different business groups and organizations in the area as well as the schools. In addition to reaching out to groups within Old Saybrook, the Committee believed that the Town should reach out to other shoreline municipalities that also share the similar risk of sea level rise. This would allow towns to come together to access and share practices that could be done in each town. The Committee thought that making connections between the towns would help to implement the best practices along the Connecticut shoreline and perhaps identify grant opportunities to fund these activities.

During the Committee’s work there were multiple points that the SLRCAC learned about Old Saybrook and sea level rise. One major point that Mr. Prisloe said the Committee realized was that “while we might not know the exact date that sea level will reach a certain point, we know it will get there.” The Old Saybrook municipal staff was also able to provide basic vulnerability assessments that looked at the FEMA flood insurance rate map 1% annual chance flood zone and showed that 35% of residences are in the 1% annual chance floodplain. This helped to point out areas where roads need to be elevated, for example. A hurricane storm surge map was also overlaid on the floodplains, which helped the Committee identify areas that could become isolated during coastal floods. Residents remaining in these areas could become trapped and would have to wait out the storm since rescue could be impossible. Members also looked at real estate in the area and realized that the majority of the SLRCAC members were currently living in those areas and would become exposed to flooding on a regular basis in the future. Mr. Prisloe explained that the Committee looked at the impacts on the Town of the worst case scenario of sea level rise (5-6 feet of rise) because they wanted to be sure that when they make adjustments to roads and structures that they would be able to last longer and would be able to withstand the floods in the future.

The Committee found that Chalker Beach in Old Saybrook is already dealing with sea level rise. This area has low-lying roads, which often flood during monthly astronomical high tides. When this happens the town’s beach “disappears” and gets covered by the ocean. It is expected that as sea level becomes higher, this type of flooding will increase in frequency and scope. One of the biggest concerns here is the degree of flooding that could occur with future storm surges caused by coastal storms. When surges occur with higher sea levels, flooding will increase and extend further inland, causing greater damage and creating more problems.

Over the past year, awareness of climate change and sea level rise has increased for the residents of Old Saybrook, due to the work of the Committee and will continue to increase as more people become involved. The Committee learned that within the scientific community there is ongoing debate about the magnitude and speed of sea level rise, but the consensus is that sea level rise is occurring and that it could worsen in the future. As the Report of Findings states, “we can hope that the forecasts of sea level rise are wrong, but hope is not a strategy.”

The Committee’s proposed strategy is that “we need to adapt, mitigate and retreat.” The Committee believes that sea level rise and climate change are the greatest challenges in the coming decades that Old Saybrook has to face, along with many other shoreline towns. Modeling done by the Army Corps of Engineers predicts that by the end of the century there could be 1-5 feet of sea level rise, though it could be even higher than that. This issue cannot be done and handled alone by just one shoreline community. The Committee thinks other towns within the area need take sea level rise into account within their own town, by finding ways to help adapt and to mitigate against these predicted changes in the coming years. The Committee wants the members of the town to stay informed of the issue and bring ideas that could help the community become more resilient.

As of early January 2016, Old Saybrook was awarded a $125,000 planning grant from the Connecticut Department of Housing. This grant was supported through the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery program to fund the development of the Old Saybrook coastal resiliency study and infrastructure assessment. The planning process will also provide information to prepare for the next update to the Town’s Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan. The Town and the US Geological Survey have also installed a tide gage and weather station located at Harbor One Marina at Saybrook Point. The station will monitor and record water levels and weather data (air temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, relative humidity and precipitation) and send these data via a satellite link to the Internet. Near real-time data from the station can be accessed here. Over the long term data from the gage will help scientists measure changes in sea level in the Old Saybrook area.

For more information go to:

REPORT of FINDINGS from a Study of the Effects of Sea Level Rise and Climate Change on Old Saybrook, Connecticut
December 2015