Much of the Massachusetts coastline is vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge. Presently, the state relies on a piecemeal approach with each city and town safeguarding its own coastline. The many drawbacks of this approach suggest the need for a new statewide agency to protect communities.
Cities and towns have limited ability to act effectively on their own. Most of their coastlines are privately owned and there are few options for raising funds locally to pay for costly flood control infrastructure. Without a coordinated, systematic approach the actions of one city can negatively affect another. For instance, if Boston were to build infrastructure to safeguard its shore, it could well increase vulnerability in adjoining towns such as Revere, Everett, Quincy, or Chelsea. Further, Boston relies on critical flows of people and goods from its neighbors, so failing to take a regional approach not only exposes important equity gaps between poor and wealthy communities but also leaves wealthier communities more vulnerable. By pooling our common wealth, equitable and resilient solutions are possible.
Public transportation systems such as Logan Airport and the MBTA must also be protected at a regional level. Coastal adaptation planning isn’t about walling off communities from the ocean. The Commonwealth’s blue economy — maritime shipping, off-shore wind, aquaculture, and ferries — require continued access to the water even as we work to keep that same water out of people’s homes. Here too, a piecemeal approach cannot address these challenges and may make things worse. A state-level governance structure is needed to design and implement a comprehensive coastal adaptation strategy to reduce flood risk and provide social justice and environmental co-benefits.
Governor Maura Healey and Climate Chief Melissa Hoffer should convene stakeholders — city and town leaders, environmental activists and experts, business and community groups, and legislators — to devise a comprehensive statewide approach.
The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority is an excellent precedent for this approach. Established by the Legislature in 1985 to lead the cleanup of Boston Harbor, it has broad powers to manage drinking and wastewater for half the Commonwealth’s population in 61 cities and towns. Like the MWRA, the new coastal resilience agency could be granted the authority for financing, design and engineering, project management, contract administration, environmental planning expertise, and eminent domain power for individual projects.
Once established, the idea would be to engage experts locally and internationally to develop approaches to protect the Commonwealth’s entire coastline, prioritizing the most vulnerable areas. Like the MWRA’s harbor cleanup, once the task is accomplished, the agency’s staff could be pared down.
A recent Boston Foundation report identified several barriers to implementing coastal resilience projects that the new agency would have to address. One is regulatory. As an example, the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act of 1972 requires a permit for anyone seeking to “remove, dredge, fill, or alter any bank, fresh water wetland, coastal wetland, beach, dune, flat, marsh, meadow, or swamp bordering on the ocean or on any estuary, creek, river, stream, pond, or lake, or any land under said waters or any land subject to tidal action, coastal storm flowage, or flooding.” The DEP interprets the law to prohibit any engineering structure on coastal banks, which means that nature-based projects could be denied permitting.
Many of the laws to protect waterways originated in the 1970s and ’80s when addressing climate change was not so evidently urgent. The need to update laws to respond to current demands for protecting both coastlines and marine life is pressing and could be undertaken by the new statewide coastal agency.
Finally, Massachusetts needs a dedicated funding stream for coastal protection — estimated to cost between $1.7 billion and $3 billion for Boston alone. Federal funding through FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant program is capped at $50 million per year and is difficult to secure. A combination of state bonding and state and federal earmarks — such as secured for the recent Boston Harbor dredging — will be needed over the course of decades. With climate change upon us and accelerating, the state needs to develop long-term dedicated funding for climate resilience, just as it does for schools and roads.
The state dodged a bullet in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit New York with full force but spared Greater Boston. With accelerating sea level rise and the intensification of some storms, it is only a matter of time before we face a similar potentially devastating storm event. Massachusetts state can prevent large-scale devastation and the associated human suffering efficiently and equitably by creating a new statewide coastal adaptation agency.
Joan Fitzgerald is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Julie Wormser is a senior policy advisor at the Mystic River Watershed Association. Jonathan Lamontagne an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University.