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Tides of change

Monday morning's king tide highlighted the potential impact of sea level rise in the Island Park neighborhood in Portsmouth.

By Derek Gomes

Staff writer

PORTSMOUTH - Monday morning's high tide had water reaching the sea wall in Island Park and collecting in the catch basin along Park Avenue.

This particular tide, known as a king tide, occurs three days per year and measured about 5 feet high in the area, according to weather reports. Currently in Portsmouth, about one third of the days in a year see a high tide of 4 feet or more, according to an email from Town Planner Gary Crosby.

But, if the area experiences one foot of sea level rise, Monday's rarity might become more commonplace, according to Crosby. He invited town officials and members of the press to observe the peak high tide around 9 a.m.

Four Town Council candidates - Democrats Leonard B. Katzman, John G. McDaid and Linda L. Ujifusa and independent Judi J. Staven - came to witness it. Town Council Vice President James A. Seveney, a Democrat who is running for election in state Senate District 11, also was there.

The issues of global warming and to what extent human actions are responsible for it have been a fault line in politics, but Assistant Town Planner Michael Asciola exhorted those at the sea wall to focus on the conditions there.

“We're not here to argue about what causes sea level rise,” he said. “It's happening and something we have to deal with.”

Island Park is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge, a draft element of the town's comprehensive plan states. “Currently, at extreme high tides, with no input from rainfall or storm surge conditions, two outfalls along the waterfront roadway back up with seawater flooding the roadway surface,” it states. “The town estimates that even under normal tide and weather conditions, these two drainage outfalls function property only half the time. Future sea level rise will only exacerbate the problem.”

Portsmouth is hardly alone in confronting encroaching seas.

The Rhode Island Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan is an effort to collect new data about the shoreline and help communities use it to protect people and property from harm, and is spearheaded by the state Coastal Resources Management Council. The agency projects the local sea level could rise 3 to 5 feet over the next century.

The candidates who came to the sea wall Monday spoke about sea level rise. The Daily News then reached out to the rest of the 16 candidates vying for seven seats in the Nov. 8 election, asking whether sea level rise is an issue, and if so, what role Town Council should have in mitigating its effects.

There was very little consensus among the 11 candidates who responded Monday (four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents). Even the premise of sea level rise was disputed.

“I don't know there is any direct evidence the seas are rising at all, not saying there are not issues with sea walls in Island Park,” said Larry Fitzmorris, a Republican who is president of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens. “I don't see any data on how high the tide is going to be here, whether shoreline is climbing or subsiding.”

Debra Faber Cardoza, also a Republican, said there must be “concrete evidence” that sea level rise is a threat. “I have seen evidence indicating a very slow rise in sea levels, an inch in a thousand years span,” she wrote in an email. “To me, that does not appear to warrant a dramatic ... action.”

Staven said there is possibly an issue with sea level rise. For now, she suggested, the Town Council should monitor the effectiveness of the sea wall as state and federal agencies craft action plans.

Ujifusa said people who ignore sea level rise “are a bit like ostriches with their heads in the sand.”

“I think it's true the town of Portsmouth cannot stop global warming,” she said, “but we can make sure we take care of our citizens to stay safe in the face of things likely to occur.”

David M. Gleason, an independent incumbent, said: “The reality is we have global warming and tides will rise. Anyone who doesn't believe that should look at the issues further.” He called on state agencies, including CRMC, to continue doing their jobs to protect the waterfront and enforce certain building standards for structures there.

Town Council President Keith E. Hamilton, a Republican, said during a phone interview that sea levels are rising, but doesn't know the source. “Fearmongers will have you think it's man-made, and we'll all be living at waterfront property at the (town's) high school.”

A plan that could be called upon to respond to sea level rise should be in the town's comprehensive plan, he said. Constance L. Harding, an independent, and J. Mark Ryan, a Democrat, echoed that belief.

“We are on an island. Sea level rise is a scientific fact,” Ryan said. “It would be foolish not to plan for its effects. As a town with limited resources, we must work with state and federal authorities to protect our citizens and shoreline.”

Thomas R. Vadney, a Republican and School Committee member who is running for the council, said he believes in global warming and sea level rise. “The very high tides are an early warning sign we need to react now,” he said. “I think I prefer to be proactive than wait for something serious to develop.”

At the sea wall Monday morning, McDaid, whose family has lived in the Island Park neighborhood for decades, said: “Look at this as the new normal in 20 years. This is a real threat to hundreds of houses.”

Katzman, who also serves as chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, noted the importance of electing candidates who take sea level rise and its consequences seriously. “It's up to elected officials to be educated on the issues.”

Even if the next Town Council finds common ground on sea level rise, it's unclear what options they could pursue.

“It's not going to be something easy to implement or fund,” Asciola said.

Portsmouth officials and Town Council candidates gather Monday near the Island Park beach in Portsmouth as the king tide comes in, reaching the sea wall.

Dave Hansen | Staff photographer

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