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Where the 'Live free or die' ethic is being tested by the sea

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Driving past an undulating sea wall on New Hampshire's coast, Steve Miller pointed at the blue ocean and said the placid waters were deceptively calm.

During winter storms now, the ocean gets busier than it has gotten in the past. Sometimes it flings baseball-sized rocks over the barrier onto the road, he said. Just across the road are miles of mansions with their manicured lawns and gazebos. Because of its high property values and the tourism dollars it attracts, the stretch is known as the Gold Coast.

As the climate warms and the sea level rises, though, the Gold Coast could quickly become an expensive problem.

Farther north, Miller turned onto a causeway connecting the city of Portsmouth with the island community of New Castle. The bridge artery is a few feet above the water line on a sunny day, but looks like a floating strip of highway during heavy rains and recent high "king tides."

"Imagine if you add climate change and storm surges to the situation," said Miller, a coastal training program coordinator at the Great Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve who spoke as a private citizen for this article.

"I worry about a day when this entire bridge will be underwater," said Miller, passing floating buoys. "It's the only way in and out. If someone had a heart attack on the island, how would we get them out of here, and who would pay for it?"

These kinds of worries are prevalent in Miller's mind these days as he co-chairs an ad hoc group of organizations, regional planning commissions, state officials, universities, environmentalists, scientists, and city and town members dedicated to educating the cities in New Hampshire's seacoast region about the impacts of climate change.

The members of the New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workgroup, or NHCAW, say they are in a race against time. In New Hampshire, cities like Portsmouth and its surrounding towns are the front line for adapting to the results of warming temperatures and related rising sea levels, since the state delegates much of the power over land-use management and flood control to municipalities.

It is part of the "Live free or die" culture that prohibits income taxes and general sales taxes and advocates local control instead of a strong state government. The resulting financial strain on New Hampshire cities is growing, with ongoing cutbacks in federal and state dollars. In Portsmouth, for example, the state has reduced funding to city programs by 29 percent since 2008, according to city budget officials.

Warnings from models and history

Like much of the rest of the country, folks in cities and towns along the seacoast are focused on other issues and they are often skeptical or apathetic about climate change. They also have a tradition of not working together, noted Miller.

That dynamic means this area currently has no official plan in place to address the widespread flooding, beach erosion and sea-level rise troubles that scientists predict will increasingly threaten much of the Atlantic coastline.

According to Miller, they are operating in an information gap. Matters such as the number of culverts under area roads or the impact of flooding on Seabrook's waterside nuclear plant are not fully known and require extensive mapping and data analysis, he said.

While climate models predict storms will get more powerful, what is happening here has more to do with elemental physics. When ocean water warms, it expands. When polar regions begin to melt, the water from their ice sheets adds to the rise. Recent models estimate the sea could rise on average between 50 centimeters (1.6 feet) and 2 meters (6.5 feet) by 2100, explained Benjamin Horton, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

There are no real regional models of sea level rise, but the New England coast should prepare for at least a 3 feet scenario, he asserts. And that's not all. Because New Hampshire's seacoast -- along with much of the rest of the U.S. Atlantic shoreline -- is sinking at a rate of roughly 1 millimeter annually, this area will be more prone to damage than the Canadian coastline.

"Look at where they've flooded and experienced beach erosion a lot for the past 100 years," Horton explained. That is where they will flood again, and with greater intensity, he said.

Finding 'stuff you don't want to find'

For Portsmouth, which sits inland on the Piscataqua River, flooding typically is caused by rain overflowing inlets and creeks. This happens now during king tides, when water can transform pockets of the city into ponds.

Like many old cities in New England, the culverts in the region were sized for a different era and not capable of carrying heavy volumes of water like those predicted with climate change, said Thomas Ballastero, a civil engineering professor at the University of New Hampshire. Future deluges of water will overflow the culverts and increase flooding.

Miller outlined another issue while standing by the sewage treatment plant on Portsmouth's outskirts. During Nor'easters and storm surges, his neighbors' basements all flood, said Miller. In some cases, their sewer systems back up, as well, he said.

The pipes running underneath the city currently carry a combination of stormwater and sewage, meaning that heavy rains can clog the system and prevent sewage from reaching the treatment plant, which ferries treated water back into the Piscataqua River.

"Climate change has the potential to make this a lot worse," said Miller. It is not an issue with the treatment plant itself, which sits on a hill, but with the underground network, he said.

Portsmouth currently is undergoing a multi-year project to separate much of the sewage and stormwater systems to comply with U.S. EPA water pollution regulations. But there is no guarantee that those projects will separate everything, said Miller.

"When you're looking at a system that's hundreds of years old, you'll find stuff you don't want to find," said Miller.

Currently, the city tends to update the piping when it is constructing a building or addressing some other construction issue, he said. There needs to be a much more thorough mapping of the entire underground system, to ensure that one glitch doesn't disrupt the entire network, he said.

The roads were designed on very specific pathways to keep many of the region's salt marshes intact. Here roads are built low to the ground, on windy paths near waterways.

The salt marshes could be a blessing in terms of absorbing water from floods and storm surges, but they also don't make rerouting of roads a practical solution, according to Miller. You can't easily create a detour through a salt marsh, he said.

A lack of money and backup

"In many cases, they are going to have to raise the roads on their existing path," he said. "And again, money is a big question. Where will it come from?"

Portsmouth has a high percentage of paved roads and parking lots that collect water, he said. It would help if the city used porous concrete and other absorptive materials that could ease the impact of powerful storms, he said.

In nearby towns directly on the Atlantic Ocean, the flooding issues are different, and in some ways, more pressing.

About 17 miles south, beach barrier towns like Seabrook and Hampton Beach face a dual tidal wave effect during storms, as they are sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and a low-lying estuary.

The condominiums and buildings around the estuary can get "completely submerged," said Julie LaBranche of the Rockingham Planning Commission, which includes Portsmouth and the seacoast area. The lack of natural sand dunes, combined with very flat land, exacerbates the situation, she said.

Even though the cities and towns along the seacoast are distinct from each other in terms of governance structure, and in terms of the type of flooding they experience, they need to start working together on the climate issue, she said.

If a bridge is inundated in one area, it could affect water flows and evacuation routes elsewhere, according to LaBranche. Similarly, a culvert close to a town boundary could, when flooded, affect two towns and raise jurisdictional issues, according to Ballastero. "This is much more than just interrupting traffic," he said. "It could also disrupt services from emergency personnel and first-aid responders."

Many local governments also do not have the staff to study flooding and sea-level rise, or handle the process of searching for grants to do so, said Miller who believes there is a need for a coalition.

As of now, most city officials in the area are not thinking about climate vulnerabilities. Indeed, many of the towns are undergoing redevelopment projects that involve construction of buildings designed to last 50 years or longer.

Business as usual, planning not so much

Hampton Beach State Park, for example, recently unveiled a pavilion on the beachfront for wedding receptions and corporate events, without sea-level rise in mind, said Cameron Wake, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire and the director of Carbon Solutions New England, another NHCAW member.

And Portsmouth is expanding a middle school over a tidal pond, said city Planning Director Rick Taintor. The city has not taken climate change into account "as much as it should," because of time and other priorities, said Taintor. "There's so much development pressure, it's hard to step back."

The earliest the city will begin officially examining climate change is 2015, when it updates its master plan -- a document that governs how the city government handles land use, transportation and building codes, he said.

Climate change will definitely be part of the update of that master plan, but any recommendations that come out of the document could take years to implement. Transportation recommendations in the last update in 2005 did not come into regulatory effect until 2009 or later, he said.

The city obtained a grant late last month that Taintor said would give a "head start" on the master plan. The $20,000 in cash from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will allow the city to hire temporary consultants to perform a vulnerability analysis -- using models of land elevation -- to show which areas may be most at risk from flooding because of climate change.

The new staff also will do an inventory of existing land-use regulations and building codes and make preliminary recommendations on possible changes. Land-use regulations, for example, govern whether new construction could be prohibited in more flood-prone, undeveloped areas.

"Of particular concern is the potential for irreplaceable historic property loss in the city's historic district, which is located in a high hazard area or near the waterfront," the grant application said.

Remedial action, though, may slow down. Portsmouth has had to reduce its full-time staff by 9 percent from fiscal 2009 because of financial pressures, according to the city budget. Some of the sewer upgrades in the city were funded via a $3 million grant from President Obama's 2009 economic stimulus package, money that may not be seen again for a while.

LaBranche of the Rockingham Planning Commission noted that the state Department of Transportation has plans for public improvements to roadways, but "a lot of the large infrastructure isn't expected to be touched for a decade because of a lack of funding."

Currently, the seacoast cities have hazard mitigation plans that estimate levels of damage associated with extreme floods, such as what is expected with once-every-100-year or 500-year events, said LaBranche. The plans do a good job at taking into account what has happened in the past with water movements, she said.

3 towns get a starting point

The problem is they tend to be confined to analysis of a limited subset of buildings, particularly municipal buildings, she said. They also don't typically take into account future conditions.

To close that missing link, NHCAW's members are searching for every federal, city and grant available to do a more thorough analysis of how sea-level rise could interact with infrastructure on the ground.

The two-year-old group itself is not applying for funding but is using workshops to exchange ideas among its 16 organizational units, which include the Rockingham Planning Commission, Portsmouth, Seabrook, the Nature Conservancy and the New Hampshire Coastal Program.

One of the first products of their efforts will be ready this spring, funded with a portion of a $70,000 grant. The grant will help produce three-dimensional maps of possible economic damages in the New Hampshire seacoast area from rising seas, using projected property values, said Sam Merrill, a professor at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, who is running the project for the partnership.

It's an exercise that is not without uncertainty, but is one that will provide the three towns undergoing the mapping -- Seabrook, Hampton and Hampton Falls -- something to work with as a starting point, according to Merrill.

"Now they don't know which part of their towns will be hit the most," he said.

Indeed, the term "climate change" still can be a political liability in terms of moving things along in city government, a situation that Miller said he has run into via his position as chairman of the voluntary city conservation commission in Portsmouth. The city is agressive with sustainability programs, but not in the name of climate change, he said.

"I've tried to bring it up at meetings," he said. "It goes nowhere. I wish I could have pictures of some of the eye rolls I get."