NH Coastal Towns Start Preparing for Sea-level Rise and More Extreme Flooding: Spotlight on Rye

By Kirsten Howard, NHDES Coastal Program

Wallis Sands beach in Rye

Wallis Sands beach in Rye

It’s no secret that there are some risks that come with living near the beautiful coastline in Rye. In exchange for the scenic vistas, easy access, and some great backyard bird watching, one tradeoff is that residents are exposed to coastal flooding, especially as storms become more intense, sea levels rise, and people keep moving and building near the coast. In recent years, there has been an uptick in the number of coastal New Hampshire towns talking about increasing storm surge and sea-level rise. But it’s really hard to go from talking about it to actually doing something about it. Rye is one town that is leading the way, using the tools that suit the town’s particular needs and identifying the strategies they want to prioritize in order to better prepare their community for that next Nor’easter and the gradually rising tides.

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In a 2014 summary of the science compiled by the NH Coastal Risk and Hazards Commission Science and Technical Advisory Panel, experts agreed that coastal New Hampshire towns could experience between 1.6 and 6.6 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. The following two maps show possible sea-level rise and storm surge flooding extents for Rye, based on the best map data available. Green and pink color schemes are arranged from lightest to darkest as flood extent scenarios increase.

Map credit: Tides to Storms, Rockingham Planning Commission (2015)

Map credit: Tides to Storms, Rockingham Planning Commission (2015)

A recent vulnerability analysis done by the Rockingham Planning Commission in collaboration with municipal elected officials, staff and land use boards in the Town of Rye, found that up to 1,100 parcels assessed at nearly $810 million, could be at risk of flooding if seas rise 6.3 feet and Rye experiences a 100-year/1-percent-annual-chance storm.

A Discount to Pay for the Future

Rye Planning and Zoning Administrator Kim Reed has secured multiple grants that will help the town check some things off its Climate Resiliency To-Do List.

The first grant project, secured by Reed and the RPC and funded by the Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership, is helping Rye enroll in the Community Rating System (CRS), an incentive program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program. This program requires that Rye go above and beyond minimum floodplain management standards by doing things like providing outreach to residents about flood preparedness, tracking building elevation certificates, providing access to the FEMA floodplain maps and support to help residents interpret them, and passing more protective standards for what can be built in the floodplain.

“Enrolling in the CRS program is an important step for Rye because homeowners are facing rising flood insurance rates along with challenges of preparing for climate change,” says Reed.

In exchange for being part of CRS, Rye is not only better prepared for the next flood, but all floodplain residents with federal flood insurance get at least a 5 percent discount on their policy. And that’s not saying nothin’ in Rye, which holds 11 percent of all FEMA flood insurance policies in the 17 coastal New Hampshire municipalities—second only to Hampton. While other neighboring towns are considering CRS, this grant will enable Rye along with Hampton (who is also in the process of preparing a CRS application funded by PREP) the only coastal New Hampshire municipalities in the CRS program. Though the process of enrolling in CRS takes some time, Reed thinks it’s worth it—so much so, that she completed her Certified Floodplain Manager training and examination—another step that counts toward getting into the CRS program.

Let’s Go Make a Plan

A second grant that Rye recently secured will provide support from the RPC to draft a Coastal Hazards and Climate Adaptation Chapter for the town’s Master Plan. This project, funded by the Northeast Regional Ocean Council and slated to be complete in the fall of 2016, was initially identified as a priority by two previous efforts in Rye; the Preparing for Climate Change Workshop Series led by UNH Cooperative Extension in 2014 and the Tides to Storms vulnerability assessment mapping project led by RPC.

Jenness Beach in Rye

Jenness Beach in Rye

The Workshop Series, funded by yet another grant that Reed applied for, brought together over 40 Rye residents to learn about the basic vulnerabilities associated with climate change, including sea-level rise and intensifying storms, and to identify priority issues for Rye to address.

Phil Winslow, a Rye resident and dedicated volunteer on the Rye Planning Board and Historic District Commission, says the Workshop Series “provided the foundation for gaining insight and charting a future course for the Town in addressing the climate change and sea rise issues.”

The Tides to Storms assessment used detailed mapping data to quantify the infrastructure, roads, properties, and natural resources at risk from storms and sea-level rise and storm surge flooding. With both of these efforts under Rye’s belt, Reed and other town staff decided it was time to create a plan for how Rye will deal with these challenges over the next decade and beyond.

“Our current Master Plan briefly recognizes this subject, however does little to identify what preparations may be needed to help minimize its impact,” says Winslow.

Ultimately, Winslow acknowledges that the determined attitudes of Rye’s Planning and Zoning Administrator and engaged residents are making Rye a Seacoast leader when it comes to adapting to coastal hazards from climate change.

He says, “Kim has been at the forefront of action in support of Rye residents and town leaders. Her willingness to put in substantial additional working hours to obtain outside grants to support work in further preparing Rye for potential sea-level rise (…) is a true benefit to the town going forward.”

Kim Reed (in back in navy jacket) with the Rye Girl Scouts (including her daughter in front row in red) at a beach cleanup

Kim Reed (in back in navy jacket) with the Rye Girl Scouts (including her daughter in front row in red) at a beach cleanup

Many great things are going on to prepare for climate change in New Hampshire’s coastal communities. Check back as we feature more towns and their important projects on the NHCAW blog.

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