Commentary: Environmental Leadership, Planning, and Taxpayer Protection

The spring season and the celebration of Earth Day remind us of the renewal that nature promises.  In the spirit of hope, I believe we must plan wisely to face the challenges confronting coastal New Hampshire, including climate change, Great Bay water quality, and sustainable fisheries.  Reports from state, national, and international agencies confirm what we all know—the climate is changing.  Rising sea levels, increasingly severe storms, warmer winters and hotter summers are here to stay.  The economic risks are great. The recently released New England Climate Adaptation Project Climate Change Risk Assessment for Dover shows that frequent extreme storms and 1 to 3 feet of sea level rise in downtown Dover and along Dover point will threaten infrastructure, homes, and commercial development.  New Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) will affect many properties.  It is time for leadership so we can plan carefully now to protect taxpayers from future costs by making wise adaptations now.  My work as your “saltwater” senator in Concord is dedicated to leadership on these environmental challenges and opportunities.

My major initiative to protect taxpayers and the environment has been the establishment of the Coastal Risks and Hazards Commission, composed of representatives from municipalities, insurance underwriters, businesses, area and state agencies, and the legislature.  It will provide guidance on anticipated sea level rise, coastal flooding, storm water, and related hazards. It will make recommendations for legislation, regulations, and other actions to protect New Hampshire from these hazards by planning now for adaptations that will mean enormous financial savings in the future.  The Commission has made great progress over the past nine months.  For example, at its April meeting in Dover, the Commission discussed the Dover Risk Assessment, the draft FEMA flood maps, and presentations on how insurance underwriters and the homebuilding industry are responding to climate change. In June and July, the Commission will release its scientific panel report on projected sea level rise and establish working groups to develop municipal and state agency responses.  We must take charge of our future so we can sustain our economic base and our quality of life through prudent climate adaptation.

Great Bay water quality is essential to our quality of life and our economic development, so communities in District 4 are committed to wastewater treatment to reduce nitrogen loads.  However, when the Department of Environmental Services and the Environmental Protection Agency used a 2009 nutrient criteria study as the basis for potential licensing that would cost Dover upwards of $40 million in additional funds for an unrealistic level of treatment, I knew it was time to fight for common sense and good science. I led the effort in Concord by filing Senate Bill 110 which prompted a peer review of the report.  The review released on February 13 fully vindicated the Dover position, and the Supreme Court has just ruled in the city’s favor.  I have worked with DES Commissioner Burack and local officials to ensure that we can now move forward with new monitoring of water quality to develop a realistic plan that will save local taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and help preserve the Great Bay.  Teamwork, good science, a commitment to the environment, and effective leadership in Concord demonstrate how environmentalism and taxpayer protection can work together.

 Fisheries have been an essential part of the Great Bay and coastal economies for centuries, but we are in difficult times due to climate change and reduced fish stocks.  As New Hampshire’s legislative commissioner on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, I have worked to bring together commercial and recreational fishers and resource managers to develop sustainable catch levels.  The water temperature in the Gulf of Maine has risen several degrees in the past few years which contributes to the collapse of northern shrimp and the decline of other species.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently predicted dramatic declines in fish populations in the Gulf of Maine over the next few decades.  I have taken the lead in introducing legislation to protect New Hampshire fishermen now and to sustain fisheries in the future.

Environmental leadership in the Great Bay estuary requires expertise in many areas and a strong commitment to economic development and taxpayer protection.  I have committed myself during three terms in the legislature to becoming your “saltwater” senator because future generations depend on forceful action today. 


Making Progress on Coastal Adaptation and Climate Change

Sen. David Watters, District 4

From the Mother’s Day storm to Hurricane Sandy and winter storm Nemo, extreme weather events have threatened communities’ safety, economy, and environment. While this paper recently argued with methods used recently by Environment New Hampshire Research & Policy Center to characterize these extreme weather events, most people will agree that we need to plan for a changing New Hampshire climate.

This newspaper recently questioned the validity of using presidentially declared weather-related disasters as a metric of weather severity. Disaster declarations are made at the request of New Hampshire’s governor. They are based on strict criteria, so they do give an indication over time of a pattern of damaging storms.  Foster’s extensive coverage of damage in the region due to the Mother’s Day storm and other events documented the kinds of risks we are facing, and it showed the particular situation in Dover where storm surges and rising sea level compound the damage of storm water runoff. 

Beyond disaster declarations, Environment New Hampshire’s report also stated the latest science around our changing climate: The contiguous United States experienced the hottest month and hottest year in recorded history in 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded along the Northeast U.S. coast, and the rainiest 1 percent of all storms in New Hampshire delivered 33 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning.  Sea level have rise nearly a foot in the past century, and the rate recorded at the Boston tidal gauge is increasing.

These findings are even more alarming given that scientists predict that global warming will bring even more extreme weather in the future. Scientists have found that global warming could increase the frequency and/or severity of heavy rain and snowstorms; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms. And the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase due to other impacts of global warming, like sea level rise.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers circular of October 2011 on civil works planning identifies a three-foot sea level rise by 2100 as the most likely scenario.

Common sense dictates that communities plan for adaptation to a changing climate.  Given the increased severity and frequency of storms, and new awareness of sea level rise, communities are taking action.  The Coastal Adaptation Workshop is a group of sixteen organizations holding workshops for area communities’ public works personnel, selectmen, planning board members, and other local officials.  At a recent meeting, several reports were made.  Dover was selected as the only community in New Hampshire to participate over the next two years  in the New England Adaptation Project with MIT, and City Planner Steve Bird leads Dover’s effort.  Portsmouth Planner Peter Britz is preparing a full survey of vulnerabilities, making planning recommendations, and updating the master plan to address sea level rise and storms. Sylvia von Aulock leads a similar effort in Exeter in conjunction with UNH.  Don Hawkins in Seabrook is utilizing the New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workshop model to determine the values of private property and public infrastructure at risk.  The insurance underwriting industry is recalculating risks along our shores, and these maps, as well as new, and much more accurate LIDAR mapping of coastal areas, will soon be available on NH GRANIT and other sites.

To address planning on a regional basis, I have worked closely with Sen. Stiles to introduce Senate Bill 163, an act establishing a commission to recommend legislation to prepare for projected sea level rise and other coastal and coastal watershed hazards. Its members will include representatives of all the communities on the coast and the Great Bay, state agencies, insurance underwriters, homebuilders, and municipal associations, as well as scientists to assess risks to public and private properties and to make recommendations.  I have also introduced SB 164, which authorizes coastal management provisions in master plans, which may address planning needs and property loss resulting from projected coastal risks due to increased frequency of storm surge, flooding, and inundation.

The bottom line is this: Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that there will be more extreme weather in the future.  It is the responsibility of elected and other officials to make reasonable assessments of risks and to plan for the future of our communities.