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Lawmakers turn eye to state’s battered sea walls

Hearing set tomorrow on how to fund repair

Parts of a Scituate sea wall were damaged by a ferocious winter storm in December that left many residents flooded out. Parts of a Scituate sea wall were damaged by a ferocious winter storm in December that left many residents flooded out. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / April 4, 2011

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Lawmakers deeply concerned over Massachusetts’ aging sea walls will meet tomorrow to discuss how to fund repairs needed to adequately armor residents against the ocean’s fury.

A hearing will be held in the State House at 10:30 a.m. in part to discuss legislation filed by Representative James Cantwell for the state to create a low-interest loan program to help communities offset the estimated $1 billion price tag to repair Bay State sea walls and fortify them against rising sea levels.

“These sea walls have really been neglected since they’ve been built,’’ said Cantwell, a Democrat who represents Scituate and Marshfield, where several sea walls have failed catastrophically in recent years, including one in Scituate that partially opened to raging seas during a storm in late December. “We have not spent enough to keep them up.’’

Yesterday, the Globe highlighted growing concerns by state officials over the 140 miles of publicly owned sea walls and other structures in the state, many built in the 1930s and 1940s, that serve as the primary protection for billions of dollars worth of property. While a state inventory shows most to be in good shape, dozens that protect valuable property are not.

State officials also said the structures may not be able to handle rising seas over this century that may disproportionately raise sea levels in the Northeast compared with the global average.

The hearing will also discuss repairing dams and other infrastructure that face a similar backlog of needed repairs.

This weekend, Richard K. Sullivan, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said his office views protection of its residents against threatening waters as a top priority.

“We will continue working with our partners in the Legislature to find solutions for improving freshwater and marine infrastructure, including dams and sea walls in need of repair,’’ Sullivan said in a statement.

Cantwell has also filed legislation to allow cities and towns to set aside up to 10 percent of the funds they raise under the Community Preservation Act and use them for sea wall repair and maintenance, beach nourishment, or dune restoration. The Community Preservation Act, enacted in 2004, allows communities to raise money through a surcharge on property tax bills. At present the funds are used for open space, affordable housing, and other betterment projects.

Cantwell has also filed a request for $10 million from the state Legislature to reconstruct and maintain sea walls in Scituate and Marshfield — a request he acknowledged may not go far, given the budget crisis.

But after a large section of Scituate sea wall — one that was rated in adequate shape — broke apart during the late-December storm, he is growing increasingly concerned about the sea walls that protect the towns he represents.

Cantwell also proposes using a small fraction of gas tax proceeds to dredge harbors to keep them safe and help repair sea walls, in part to benefit fishermen and other boat owners who use gas to operate their vessels.

“Scituate is a canary in a coal mine,’’ Cantwell said. “We need to really start looking at this.’’

The state has not ignored the issue: State officials were so concerned about sea wall integrity and rising seas that in 2007 they commissioned a massive inventory of every publicly owned sea wall in the state. The results came out in 2009.

The report assessed more than 1,300 seawalls and other coastal barriers along the state’s coast. Overall, 92 percent were considered stable, and 8 percent needed repair.

But the report noted that most sea walls were older than 50 years — a sea wall’s expected life — and if fiercer storms struck, the state could see catastrophic problems.

“It is feared that without rehabilitation of these structures, a storm equivalent to the Blizzard of 1978 or Hurricane Bob will caused incalculable damage to the coastline and upland areas of the Commonwealth,’’ the report said.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com