Branford Connecticut’s Coastal Resilience Plan

Author – Rafeed Hussain, CIRCA Summer 2016 Undergraduate Student Intern.

Rafeed is an environmental science major at the University of Connecticut. He will graduate in fall 2016. He is from Niantic, Connecticut.

Branford Connecticut’s Coastal Resilience Plan

The world is changing. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that by the turn of the century sea levels could rise up to 6 feet (NOAA CPO- 1 Report), effectively inundating the coastlines of every country on the planet. The frequency and intensity of droughts and storms alike are on the rise. June 2016 was the hottest month, globally, in recorded history, and this most recent heat wave in the South Western United States is shattering records of its own. The impacts of climate change are being felt right now. We as a society, a nation, and a state must take measures to adapt and become more resilient to these impending changes.

The Town of Branford is already experiencing coastal hazards. Several neighborhoods regularly endure flooding events during spring tides and low-pressure systems. Other portions of the town are consistently flooding because of aging infrastructure including tide gates and drainage systems. Additionally, parts of the town’s sewage infrastructure and roads are being threatened by wave erosion, especially during storms.

Recently, Branford created its own Coastal Resilience Plan to help protect its 28,225 citizens from the effects of climate change. The “coastal resilience program” aims to protect Branford’s twenty miles of coastline from current and future social, economic, and ecological hurdles associated with rising seas, as well as the predicted increase in the frequency of severe storms. The planning process includes four key phases:

  1. Generating awareness of coastal risks
  2. Assessing coastal vulnerabilities, risks, and opportunities
  3. Identifying options or choices for addressing risks
  4. Developing and implementing an action plan to pursue selected options

The Plan also includes the creation of specific designs for protecting two highly vulnerable neighborhoods and infrastructure assets in Branford. Some of these steps were completed years ago through the implementation of other projects like the Hazard Mitigation Plan. Vulnerability and risk assessments were conducted from September 2015 through January 2016, and the option identification phase was completed in April 2016. The final draft plan was completed in May 2016.

Sea level rise increases still water inundation and hazards including, wave action, erosion of coastal banks, erosion of beaches, and drainage related to flooding. These vulnerabilities can negatively affect any town’s infrastructure assets, utilities, emergency services, and natural systems. After these immediate impacts of a storm, the town then faces social and economic harm.

Vulnerabilities specific to Branford were determined through discussions with Town representatives, public meetings, an online survey, The Nature Conservancy’s Coastal Resilience Mapping Portal, and reviewing specific documents like the SCRCOG Multi-Jurisdiction Hazard Mitigation Plan. Through this process the Town found that over time multiple neighborhoods near the coastline and wetlands would become inaccessible due to erosion and flooding of roads. Several other low-lying neighborhoods with inadequate drainage systems are at risk of flooding as well.

The Coastal Resilience Plan outlined several actions that can be taken to help mitigate vulnerabilities and prevent future consequences of climate change. One potential solution is hardening shorelines using seawalls, bulkheads and revetments in locations with high banks, naturally rocky shorelines, and where structures are vulnerable to intense wave action. This alternative takes advantage of the town’s geographic assets to cost effectively help protect the coastline from wave driven erosion and inundation from storm surges.

Although the Plan concluded that most of Branford’s coastline is best suited for hard shorelines, there are some locations where creating soft shoreline protection, like beach and dune nourishment, would be more beneficial. Soft shorelines are more environmentally friendly, require less construction and reduce erosion as well. The only caveat to this preventative measure is that it requires beaches to be at least 50 and 100 feet from the waterline, and greater than 20 feet in width. Other green infrastructure options can be built in specific areas.

The Coastal Resilience Plan also calls for the implementation of living shorelines in appropriate locations. Parts of Branford that do not experience strong wave action can benefit from the construction of bioengineered banks as an alternate to hard structures. These banks provide protection from erosion while better maintaining ecological processes and biodiversity. Maintaining the Town’s marshlands would deliver similar results in coves and inlets.

One example of a living shoreline that could endure stronger waves is an artificial reef. Like bioengineered banks, they reduce erosion while creating habitats, increasing water quality, and sustaining natural coastal processes. This alternative was recently enacted in Stratford with reef balls, showing that it is a feasible option.

Creating different kinds of protective barriers are not the only actions suggested by Branford’s Coastal Resilience Plan. To deal with the predicted increase in frequency of inundated roads and neighborhoods, the Plan seeks to increase the elevation of vulnerable roadways, homes, and businesses to heights above the forecasted increase in sea level. Upgrading the town’s struggling drainage system will also greatly help in future flood reduction.

The Plan highlights wastewater as another area of concern. Based on FEMA maps, parts of The Branford Water Pollution Control Facility (WPCF), along with some of its sewer pumping stations will be underwater within the next century. The plan suggests sealing any ports along the facility that may allow water to leak in, as well as installing deployable flood doors or hatches. Additionally, flood-proofed housing should be built to protect vulnerable sewer pumping stations along the coastline. As for the 15% of residents using private septic systems, the Town could develop a community system that homeowners can join. Creating and protecting one large system is simpler than protecting a multitude of smaller systems.

A key feature of the Branford Coastal Resilience Plan is the creation of specific conceptual designs for two of its neighborhoods and two of its infrastructure assets especially vulnerable to future hazards. After public meetings, reviewing impacts from Superstorm Sandy, considering the location of low to moderate-income populations, considering the location of critical community facilities, and a vulnerability and risk assessment, the following neighborhoods were selected for conceptual designs: Branford Center area, Blackstone Acres, the Meadow Street Railroad Underpass, and Lanphier Cove. Due to their geography, importance, and vulnerability, each of these locations is highly susceptible to flooding caused by strong storms, high tides, or poor drainage systems. The plan includes several unique alternatives that specifically mitigate each location’s current and future hazards. These alternatives include creating “floodable neighborhoods”, constructing floodwalls in key locations, building dikes or levees, installing floodgates, and stabilizing banks. Each alternative has its own set of tradeoffs, and optimal alternatives have yet to be selected and executed.

A central factor in the implementation of any project is funding. The Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA), in partnership with the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection offers two sources of funding, each valued at up to $100,000 to which Branford and any other Connecticut municipality can apply to fund demonstration projects.

CIRCA’s Municipal Resilience Grant Program is seeking proposals for initiatives that implement resilience projects, including the creation of conceptual designs, construction, or the design of practices and policies that increase the resilience to climate change and severe weather. Project proposals should have well defined and measurable goals and develop knowledge that can be applied to multiple locations throughout the state.

Like the Municipal Resilience Grant Program, CIRCA’s Matching Funds Program is also seeking proposals that address the mission of the institute. This program will match up to 25% of a primary funder, provided that those funds are not coming from a municipality or the State. The program is meant to help organizations leverage outside funding for projects in Connecticut.

As nations slowly realize the disastrous impact that climate change could have on their citizens, funding for resiliency projects is becoming more abundant. Money is not the only answer, however. No matter how many grants there are, no matter how comprehensive a resilience plan may be, where there is no will, there is no way. Although Branford’s Coastal Resilience Plan is a crucial step in the right direction, it cannot be implemented if the Town’s residents and leadership do not put it into action. Education can help citizens understand why this resilience should be a town priority. Information must be made available for everyday citizens that show them why they should spend their tax dollars on protection. Society as a whole must understand how climate change will change their lives and their children’s lives and many more generations to come. When this happens, politicians aiming to guard their people will be elected, and real change will occur on a global stage. Until then, however, Katrina’s and Sandy’s will continue to teach the world the hard way.

For the latest updates about the Branford Coastal Resilience Plan please go to the Town of Branford Engineering Department website.