Coastal Management | Adaptation | Policy

September 6, 2023

Plum Island, Merrimack River entrance, 40 minutes after high tide, January 23, 2023 (courtesy of Massachusetts the Office of Coastal Management via

A sea change on managed retreat? – CommonWealth Journal

After years of resistance, some cities and towns plan to move back from eroding coasts.

As waters rise, coastal residents are increasingly facing a difficult choice: try to relocate in a difficult housing market and take losses on their homes, or get comfortable with a future where there may be multiple feet of water in their living rooms. 

“Eventually people are going to move, either of their own volition or because we facilitate it, and there has to be somewhere for them to go,” said Deanna Moran, vice president of healthy and resilient communities at the Conservation Law Foundation. 

Enter “managed retreat” – a process of moving infrastructure, people, and property out of vulnerable coastal areas through policies that could include options like voluntary buyouts, relocating roads, and changing zoning districts. Massachusetts, which expects almost two feet of sea level rise by 2050, may have a lot of seaside ground to cover.

The state boasts about 1,520 miles of coastline, spanning salt marshes, beaches, rocky shores, and dunes along the borders of 73 cities and towns. After years of resistance to the idea of moving back from their shorelines, recent studies find, those municipalities are starting to reconsider. 

“More and more people are embracing it and it is just becoming more of a standard option and actually being implemented, though somewhat sporadically,” said Richard Murray, deputy director and vice president for science and engineering at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “But when those of us who were first talking about it mentioned it, it was not well received at all.” 

Murray started writing about managed retreat about a decade ago, when climate change skepticism was far more common than it is today, even in liberal coastal Massachusetts. At the time, he said, it was easy to shrug off fears of sea level rise as “oh, that’s just Al Gore.” But tides have shifted.

“Back then, there was disagreement and a lack of understanding of the science or a lack of understanding of the scale of the problem,” Murray said. “Now everybody gets it. I mean, you’ve got Hawaii frickin’ burnin’ up, you’ve got tornados in Weymouth. I mean, people can see it. So that’s really really huge.”

Massachusetts residents overwhelmingly think climate change will be a very (48 percent) or somewhat (29 percent) serious problem to the state if left unchecked, according to a poll last year sponsored by the Barr Foundation and conducted by the MassINC Polling Group, which shares a parent company with CommonWealth. Majorities say that climate impacts, including heat waves, coastal flooding, and more powerful storms, are already or very likely to hit the state in the next five years. 

While some communities are considering managed retreat to mitigate flooding and sea level rise impacts, few are actually pursuing it, according to a report released this summer from the Urban Harbors Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. 

“We were just trying to test the waters and see whether or not there was an appetite for a conversation about managed retreat,” report author and director of the institute Kristin Uiterwyk said at a national conference about managed retreat in June, “so we were pleasantly surprised that there was…”


More on Coastal Management + Adaptation . . .

Screenshot from Reuter's video "Stay or Flee? Fijians forced to abandon disappearing homes" via Youtube.

Managed Retreat? Please, Not Yet – Hakai Magazine

Salt water is already seeping through gardens, under homes, and among the headstones on Serua Island, Fiji. As climate change rolls on, and as the sea level continues to rise, this low-lying island off the southern coast of Viti Levu, one of the country’s two largest islands, seems like an obvious candidate for relocation efforts—and its inhabitants the latest face of climate refugees. Fiji’s national government has offered its support to help the island’s 100 or so inhabitants move. Yet almost all are choosing to stay put…

Lighthouse, Point Judith, Rhode Island (by Ed Schipul CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr).

‘Get off my sand?’: Coastal homeowners sue over shoreline law, but state is prepared to fight – the Providence Journal

Coastal property owners have filed a federal lawsuit to overturn Rhode Island’s new shoreline-access law. The suit claims that the new legislation, which allows the public to use the shoreline up to 10 feet inland of the seaweed line, amounts to an unconstitutional taking under the Fifth Amendment. It comes as little surprise: Opponents of the new law, some whom are involved with the suit, had made clear that they intended to challenge it in court…

Animation illustrates the potential effects of anticipated sea level change to coastal communities by 2100 (Courtesy of US Army Corp of Engineers).

Opinion | Interactive: The Plan to Save New York From the Next Sandy Will Ruin the Waterfront. It Doesn’t Have To – the New York Times

Last September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unveiled its proposal to protect the greater New York and New Jersey metro area from the next catastrophic flood. It is an epic plan that includes dozens of miles of floodwalls, levees and berms along the shoreline and 12 storm surge barriers — arrays of movable gates — across entrances to waterways throughout the region.

The plan is estimated to cost a staggering $52.6 billion. It’s by far the most expensive project ever proposed by the Corps.

The trouble is that despite its great ambitions, the Corps’s plan demonstrates the shortcomings of relying on massive shoreline structures for flood protection…

South breach area on NC 12 above Rodanthe (courtesy of NCDOT)NCDOTcommunications CC BY 2.0 via

Study says buyout of threatened Outer Banks homes would be cheaper than beach nourishment – Star News Online

Along coastal North Carolina, engineering answers to threats from Mother Nature is a time-honored tradition to dealing with eroding beaches and threats from wandering inlets. But pumping sand isn’t cheap….Faced with a future of rising seas and stronger storms intensified by climate change, state and local officials are scrambling to keep up.(And) one option occupies a relatively rare seat at the table for discussion by local officials and residents: moving oceanfront structures out of harms way…

Bighouse and Ceremonial Canoe, Klemtu, BC (by Alan CC BY 2.0 via Flickr).

How First Nations Are Asserting Sovereignty Over Their Lands and Waters – the Tyee

Indigenous Marine Protected and Conserved Areas hold a key to food security and balancing ecological and economic priorities. Part one of two.
Kitasu Bay sits within the traditional territory of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation and is located on the Central Coast of British Columbia. Last summer the nation declared it a protected area under their own laws, closing it to commercial harvest by non-Indigenous fishers. Their declaration invited the provincial and federal governments to work with them to develop a co-governance model, but added, “we seek no permission…”

St. Johns County receives $59 million for coastal protection, ‘managed retreat’ – First Coast News

Other funded projects include a railroad overpass in Nocatee and erosion control in North Ponte Vedra Beach.
With Gov. Ron DeSantis putting pen to paper in signing the state’s budget for the fiscal year Thursday, St. Johns County received $59 million — the largest amount of state appropriations the county has ever received and far more than the $12.4 million it got last year…

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