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Scituate exploring the possibility of sea wall alternatives

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  March 1, 2013 04:20 PM

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Scituate Conservation Agent Pat Gallivan has only been in the position a month, but already he is seeking out solutions to the town’s ever-growing sea wall problem.

Gallivan, along with Conservation Agents around the state, will attend the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions in Worcester this Saturday.

Though the convention will feature a number of events, Gallivan, who recently hailed from the Conservation Department in Hanover, said he is most particularly interested in workshops focusing on coastal issues, namely one being hosted by former Scituate Conservation Agent Jim O’Connell.

Titled "Non-Structural Approaches for Managing Coastal Erosion: Do They Really Work?" the workshop will look at what are sometimes called “soft” barriers to the sea, or natural remedies that help protect the coast and prevent erosion.

“In certain places, they would be the best thing you can use,” Gallivan said of the workshop, which will also be hosted by restoration ecologist Seth Wilkinson.

Gallivan said he is interested to see what kinds of options are available at the shoreline, and where in Scituate they might be applicable.

Yet Scituate’s coastal barriers, in many parts, can take many forms.

“[In] Humarock and some other parts, sea walls were created a long time ago. I think there is still a place for it, constructing sand dunes where you can. But you have areas of rip rap, seawalls – it’s much more complicated in a place like Scituate.”

The options are still ones towns should keep in mind, said presenter Wilkinson.

In a regulatory sense, many homes built after 1978 are not allowed to build “coastal engineering structures” – or hard blockers to the sea such as sea walls and revetments.

“There are a lot of folks' homes that fall into that category of not being eligible,” Wilkinson said.

Yet more important to ecologists is the idea that building man-made structures ends up doing more harm than good, often redirecting storm energy to another area of the coast, causing erosion and other problems.

Beach levels drop more dramatically, and the fluidity of the shoreline, meant to be ever changing and responsive to the environment, gets disrupted, Wilkinson said.

“A normal functioning resource area, dune beach, barrier beach, is supposed to be dynamic…it's supposed to be able to migrate within that system,” he said. “When you lock that sediment up, you lock that function and that’s why beaches wash away, get lower, they tend to be damper.”

There are a number of alternatives that would work for some areas, including planting sea grasses in conjunction with man-made organic matting, which helps hold the sand in place.

These things still have to be considered on a case-by-case basis, however, and cost of maintenance and ecological side effects have to be taken into account.

“I wouldn’t say that non-structural alternatives are appropriate in every instance, however I don’t think they are used nearly as often as they should be, and coastal zone management and other state agencies are doing quite an outreach to make sure they are still considered more frequently,” Wilkinson said.

Part of the discussion will also be how well -- or not so well -- some of these alternatives have fared the test of time.

“[Presenter and former Scituate Conservation Agent Jim O’Connel] has a tremendous …institutional memory … He has a phenomenal photographic record of how projects have succeeded or failed. Why they failed is just as important as why they worked,” Wilkinson said.

Having that conversation with conservation agents around the state is vital as communities work through the problems of coastal erosion together.

Yet for Allan Greenberg, who will be moderating the workshop on coastal management, discussions about erosion and coastal barriers need to ultimately go beyond where they are currently focused.

What needs to happen is a plan to move people away from the tumultuous waterfront, he said.

“While I think personally…that soft solutions are better than hard solutions, but in the end neither, as I see it, is going to matter, because they don’t deal with rising water levels,” Greenberg said. “Ultimately … [we need to be] talking about planning for changing water levels, increasing tides, and more severe storm events.

"To me, the very difficult and long-range solution has to be a very drastic one. I don’t think there is any easy answer.”

According to Gallivan, the conversation is ongoing, especially considering a large request for sea wall funding coming up at Town Meeting.

“There is an active sea wall committee, public works, neighborhood association and discussion of what can the town do and what can residents do,” Gallivan said. “Whether doing all these structural things makes a difference if we have sea level rise, putting people up on pilings, it's definitely a conversation that is ongoing.”

For more information about the conference and the associated workshops, click here.

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