PROVINCETOWN — Like all coastal areas, the Outer Cape may look unrecognizable in 2100 if worst-case sea-level rise projections — six to eight feet here — come to pass. But while change is inevitable, inaction is not.
In Provincetown, a newly formed Coastal Resilience Advisory Committee (CRAC) began meeting last November. The group is motivated by “a need to understand better what our tools are for coping with the future — and the future is now,” said Mark Adams, the at-large member.
Its first job is to work with community development director Tim Famulare to hone the scope of work for a consultant who will eventually develop a comprehensive coastal resiliency and climate action plan for the town.
Members of the group represent the conservation commission, the planning board, the harbor committee, the historic district commission, and the recycling committee; they meet twice a month.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report says that a “shift in U.S. coastal flood regimes” is to come: major high-tide floods will hit as frequently as moderate and minor ones by 2050. That means what the town saw during the December 2022 storm, with powerful waves that exposed new saltwater flood pathways and caused major damage to homes and businesses, was a taste of what’s to come.
The comprehensive coastal resilience process and its components are modeled on Nantucket’s, Famulare said. Nantucket’s plan assesses high-risk locations and community facilities and offers both island-wide and area-specific projects for the town’s consideration. The options boil down to protection, adaptation, or relocation — “building with the sea,” “living with the sea,” or “moving away from the sea.”
In Provincetown, public infrastructure will be one focus: “our roads, our utilities, our municipal buildings,” Famulare said. “But a critical piece is what needs to be done to protect private property.”
Famulare wants to issue the RFP by September and hire a consultant by Nov. 1. In Nantucket, that process took around 18 months.
Sea Level Rise: No Borders
In 2020, the four Outer Cape towns, the state office of coastal zone management, and scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies linked up to create the Intermunicipal Shoreline Management Program. Phase one was designing a public geodatabase to catalogue the bay coast’s natural resources and human uses.
Phase two studied possibilities for regional sand management to combat beach erosion — with a potential “regional sand bank” in Eastham on the table. This idea has already been beta-tested: when Eversource constructed the new Provincetown Battery Energy Storage System (BESS), Famulare had the utility truck roughly 3,000 cubic yards of displaced sand from the transfer station to the Eastham DPW sand pit for future municipal use.
The towns also conducted a low-lying roads inventory to design storm surge mitigation improvements for vulnerable segments — namely Route 6A from Snail Road to the Truro town line, where it turns from Commercial Street to Shore Road.
In October 2022, the intermunicipal group received a $546,180 state grant to continue these projects through a third phase of analysis and implementation.
In the same round of funding, Provincetown also got a grant of $80,355 to finalize plans for the Ryder Street Beach dune enhancement project, spurred by the 2018 storm that flooded Gosnold Street and town hall.
The intermunicipal shoreline management program’s low-lying roads inventory should not be confused with the Cape Cod Commission’s low-lying roads project, which is conducting similar studies for all the Cape towns.
In Provincetown and Truro, the commission’s work will exclude the segments already being studied by the four-town initiative.
The need for regional coordination is obvious — sea level rise doesn’t recognize town borders. But Provincetown, with its small lots lining the waterfront, faces unique threats. That shore “has all these little low-lying areas in between houses, sometimes below decks, sometimes under an existing house, and you can’t see those things when you’re doing traditional kinds of mapping,” said Mark Borrelli, coastal geologist at the Center for Coastal Studies.
There’s also no room for picking up the whole town and moving it landward — putting aside the political obstacle of getting dozens of private citizens to modify their properties in sync.
The Herring Cove Beach north parking lot relocation in 2018, where the Seashore simply moved the whole plot inland 125 feet and elevated it by 15 feet, followed that approach. But the town, said Borelli, “is not laid out in a way that’s conducive to managed retreat.”
The state Wetlands Protection Act, too, limits town action, like what local bylaws can legally require or what kinds of seawall construction the conservation commission can approve, Famulare said.
Adams and Borrelli both said the key is for changes to happen little by little, thinking of the future rather than waiting to respond to catastrophic events.
“There are towns that are worse off than Provincetown,” Borrelli said. “There are ways you can work with water. There are places where they build floodable parks. You can build parts of town where if they flood, they flood.
“I said I was hopeful,” he added. “I didn’t say it was going to be easy.”