Salt marsh advancement, sea level rise focus of Old Lyme talk

Old Lyme — Natural resources, such as salt marshes, can act as "natural infrastructure" that prevents and minimizes risk to both people and property in coastal communities, said Adam Whelchel, the director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut.   

Salt marshes are not only important ecologically, but they also ameliorate flooding along the shoreline by absorbing water and dissipating wave energy, he said.

At a workshop Friday morning, Whelchel encouraged about 40 town officials and residents to consider both where salt marshes are today and the potential for them to creep up on the landscape in the future in the face of rising sea levels.

The workshop on sea level rise and salt marsh advancement was held by the Old Lyme Open Space Commission at Town Hall.

During the presentation, Whelchel pointed to maps of projected salt marsh advancement and critical parcels in Old Lyme at the mouth of the Connecticut River.

The Nature Conservancy had partnered with the University of Connecticut to develop a salt marsh advancement model for the state's two dozen coastal communities.

By the 2080s, the salt marsh advancement zone is projected to encompass 936 acres in Old Lyme, he said.

The analysis splits that land into two categories: suitable land that could support future salt marshes and unsuitable land, which already is built out with roads, parking lots, buildings or other infrastructure.

About 812 acres would be suitable for future salt marshes, while the remaining 124 acres would not.

These 124 acres of current development "will likely be in direct conflict with daily tides and advancing marshes in the future," according to the presentation.

About 18 percent of the 812 acres of land suitable for salt marsh advancement already is protected as open space, but the remaining 82 percent is unprotected. 

These "unprotected parcels will play a vital role in maintaining Old Lyme's salt marsh resources in the future," according to the presentation.

Whelchel said the Nature Conservancy has held community resilience building workshops with 35 communities in Connecticut.

At the workshops, participants discuss improvements in the categories of infrastructure, social resources, such as sheltering capacity, and the environment.

He said open space always comes up as a benefit to reduce communities' risk.

During the workshop, First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said the town is working with the Environmental Committee of the First Congregational Church to collaborate to put together forums in June on climate change and sea level rise.

Open Space Commission Chairwoman Diana Atwood Johnson said in an interview after the meeting that the commission has taken a list of the critical parcels.

She said the commission is very interested in parcels abutting existing protected space, which allow for water flow and help provide greenways.

She pointed out that having more natural habitat can help mitigate flooding, as salt marshes act as sponges to absorb water.

Overall in Connecticut, projected salt marsh advancement by the 2080s encompasses a total of 23,929 acres, according to the presentation.

About 71 percent of that land would support future salt marshes, but the other 29 percent would not.

A tool for viewing maps of potential sea level rise and flooding from major storms is available at, said Whelchel.


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