Support grows for bills addressing rising sea level, storm surges

Four bills pending in the state legislature would address coastal change resulting from rising sea levels and more frequent intense storms and storm surges.

At an Environment Committee public hearing on the bills last week, all four received strong support from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, The Nature Conservancy and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment-Save the Sound. The agencies argued that the measures outlined in the bills would help the state understand and adapt to the changes.

During the hearing, spokesmen for the groups and several individuals who testified referred to Superstorm Sandy and to other recent extreme events as evidence that these measures were needed.

One of the bills would require sea level rise to be considered in sewage treatment plant projects funded by the state's Clean Water Fund, so the plants would be better able to withstand the kind of storm surges that forced several plants to discharge untreated sewage during Sandy.

Another bill would require the creation of a best practices guide for coastal structures and permitting so that projects on coastlines are better suited to changing conditions.

The third bill would expand the definition of "rise in sea level" so municipal planners could include a projected rise of 2 to 4 inches per decade. Sea level in Long Island Sound is expected to rise 1½ feet by 2050, according to testimony from Leah Schmalz, Save the Sound's director of legislative and legal affairs.

"Identifying and implementing ways to protect our shoreline will be a long-term project and will require serious commitment and investment by the region," she said in testimony during last week's hearing. The four bills together, she said, "will help build a balanced approach that helps protect our homes and natural resources."

The fourth bill would direct DEEP to work with the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton to create the Connecticut Center for Coasts. The center would conduct research, collect coastal data and guide development of technologies and new regulations to increase protection of ecosystems and coastal properties in response to rising seas.

Among those expressing support for the bill was state Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton.

"This bill takes a logical next step and directs DEEP and the University of Connecticut to develop a plan to establish a Connecticut Center for Coasts to further our understanding about regional climate change and sea level rise related to the critical issue of preservation of the Connecticut shoreline," Wright said in a news release, adding that the center would draw on the expertise of UConn's Marine Sciences Department, located at Avery Point.

UConn marine sciences professor James O'Donnell testified during the hearing that UConn "has a wide range of expertise and facilities that are relevant to the development and assessment of coastal protection and adaptation strategies.

"It is an unfortunate reality that our coasts are changing, and the recent storms and the damage they caused are a sign of things to come," he said. "We can prevent flooding and wave damage in some areas by modifying our construction standards and building sea walls, but these are costly and can compromise natural habitats.

"Reaching an appropriate balance between adaptation strategies requires the dissemination of science and engineering advances to state and municipal officials, practicing engineers and contractors and the public. Some novel development work is also necessary."

j.benson@theday.com

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