To ward off a deluge, a trickle of cash

In spite of a dire ’09 warning, little movement to fix sea walls

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / April 3, 2011

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Eighteen months ago, the state issued a sweeping review of its coastal sea walls, estimating that they needed $600 million in repairs, including about $160 million in communities north of Boston.

Using language that could alarm many shore residents, the Department of Conservation and Recreation warned that there was an urgent need to maintain the coastal barriers. “It is feared that without rehabilitation of these structures,’’ the department said, “a storm equivalent to the Blizzard of 1978 or Hurricane Bob . . . will cause incalculable damage to the coastline and upland areas of the Commonwealth.’’

Since the report, however, little money has been allocated for repairs, and few communities have even taken the time to create a sea wall master plan, according to municipal officials.

At least one of the sea walls north of Boston, in Revere Beach, dates to 1896. The towns facing the costliest bills for sea walls are Rockport, which the state says needs $20 million in repairs, and Gloucester, which needs $18 million. Local officials insist the walls are not in danger of crumbling further.

Since 2004, the state has spent about $9 million on sea wall repairs, but it has earmarked just $105,000 for fixes this fiscal year. While the DCR has not made sea walls a priority in recent years, it has included some repairs to walls in two existing projects. In Nahant, the department is spending $20 million to reconstruct the Nahant Causeway and some funds are being used to repair the causeway’s sea wall, said DCR spokeswoman Wendy Fox. At Short Beach, on the Revere/Winthrop border, a $3.45 million project also includes work to replace a deteriorated sea wall cap.

Fox said the downturn in the economy has slowed state funding on the sea walls. “That’s all the money that has been available,’’ she said.

Across northeastern Massachusetts, some cities and towns have applied for state and federal grants, but in many cases, the subsidies have not been available. In Gloucester, for example, the city faces an estimated $18 million in sea wall repairs. In December, parts of two sea walls were toppled in a storm. Close to $6 million is needed for repairs to sea walls that protect the storied Fisherman’s Memorial.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said the city — which has faced serious fiscal challenges in recent years — needs state subsidies to have the sea walls repaired. She noted that Gloucester has spent $70 million in the last two years to repair its sewage treatment plant, water filtration plants, and on other underground water pipe construction projects. “I think state government has to find a way to be much more helpful than to just give us a scorecard on an isolated piece of infrastructure,’’ said Kirk.

In Beverly, the state put a $6 million price tag on city sea wall repairs. Like Kirk, Mayor William Scanlon wondered how the city could pay for the maintenance. “Obviously, we’d like to invest in the walls, but where is the money going to come from?’’ he asked.

The state needs to make work on the sea walls a priority, as roads are, with permanent funding as part of the annual capital plan, said a former state representative from Marshfield, Frank M. Hynes, who chaired the committee that put together the report.

“We treat the coast as though we were an inland state, like Ohio or Nebraska,’’ said Hynes. He thought when the report was issued that momentum was gathering in the Legislature, after years of effort, to address the issue in a systemic way. But the recession derailed those efforts, he said.

In Marblehead, town officials huddled several years ago and decided to hire a consultant to assess the sea walls and create a master plan to maintain 37 sites. It is the only Massachusetts community north of Boston where voters approved a proposal to override Proposition 2 1/2 to build a new sea wall. That referendum allowed the town to borrow $6 million to construct a new sea wall that protects the causeway at Devereux Beach, Marblehead Neck, and Marblehead Harbor. That project was completed two years ago.

“We’re trying to be proactive. It’s very helpful because it tells you what you need to focus on,’’ said town planner Rebecca Curran. This year, the town budgeted around $300,000 for sea wall repairs, and is finishing up a $47,000 project to add boulders in front of the causeway to protect the new sea wall.

Salem also has a priority plan for sea walls, but has been hampered by lack of funding for the work, which would cost about $10 million, said its city engineer, David Knowlton. “All the projects are good projects and they’ll definitely extend the life of our walls, but we just don’t have the money to start addressing them. It really is overwhelming,’’ said Knowlton. “We don’t have $10 million to spend on sea walls. We have a need of $10 million for roadway improvements throughout the city and we have a difficult time chipping away at that because funding is so limited.’’

Rockport is in the process of following Marblehead’s lead, and is hoping to create a master plan. According to the DCR report, it has $20 million in sea wall repairs that still needs to be done. “We’ve got a lot of expensive coastal work to do, and we need to really focus on what the priorities are,’’ said Rockport Town Administrator Linda Sanders, who wants to establish an advisory group of beach associations that could possibly raise funds to help pay for the repairs.

Other communities such as Lynn are hoping that new development projects absorb some of the cost of sea wall repair. Jay Fink, Lynn’s Department of Public Works commissioner, said the area next to the sea walls at Riley Way Extension is slated for private redevelopment. Those sea walls need $11 million in repairs, according to the state report.

In Winthrop, the state has unsuccessfully tried for 14 years to come up with a plan that would address the erosion at Winthrop Beach — which needs $7 million in sea wall repairs. Also, the town is in need of another $10 million of work elsewhere, said the DCR report. Town Manager James McKenna said the town plans to spend $500,000 soon to repair parts of the beach at Coughlin Park, which does not have a sea wall.

Like other municipal officials, McKenna said coastal towns are facing difficult fiscal times in which they don’t have the luxury of including major sea wall projects into their budgets.

“It’s not a sexy thing,’’ said McKenna. “But it’s our primary protection against storm damage, and it’s not something that gets the attention that it deserves. It’s a money problem.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this article.