A new report sets a timeline for Falmouth to make a historic retreat from its iconic Surf Drive coastal roadway in the face of sea level rise, flooding, and other impacts of climate change. Within thirty years, the picturesque road could be abandoned.
On Thursday, nearly 50 people attended a public meeting where coastal engineers with the Woods Hole Group presented a draft of a final report that recommends the town spend the next 10 years bolstering the Surf Drive area through beach and dune nourishment.
“There are sections of the road that don’t even have any dune. It literally goes road, beach, water,” said Elise LeDuc, project lead and coastal scientist with the Woods Hole Group. The town should also work toward temporary protection of the Woods Hole sewer main, she said.
“It’s already extremely vulnerable today. … It’s a necessary piece of infrastructure to keep the village of Woods Hole functioning,” LeDuc said.
Around 2030, the Woods Hole Group recommends the town construct a “temporary sheet pile wall to protect the sewer main (and co-located bikeway),” according to an executive summary of the report, and replace the Mitchell bathhouse with portable facilities. A parking lot should also be moved in the short term, and the Surf Drive sewer pump should be elevated or flood-proofed. Around that time, LeDuc said, the town should begin prioritizing properties for acquisition.
“Not necessarily kicking people out,” she said, “but as they come up for sale, if the town can acquire them, it will make undevelopment that much easier in the future.”
By 2050, LeDuc recommended, the town should relocate the Woods Hole sewer main, elevate a portion of the Shining Sea bike path onto a boardwalk, and possibly re-locate electrical substations that service Martha’s Vineyard. In the most drastic measure yet, the engineers recommend stopping services like town water and electricity to homes on Surf Drive. At that point, Surf Drive would be effective abandoned.
During that time frame, the town would elevate a low-lying section of Mill Road and Surf Drive “not only [to] keep the roadway high and dry during high tides but also to provide protection for the neighborhoods,” LeDuc said. Ultimately, by removing a culvert and groins that prevent erosion, the town will begin the transition to a more open inlet, where the beach can migrate naturally. By 2070, pavement would be removed and what is now Surf Drive would be covered with water.
“I think this study really showed that managed retreat and restoration of natural resources in one part of a study area can be coupled effectively with targeted protection of key infrastructure in another part of a study area to meet goals of a town and a community,” LeDuc concluded.
Surf Drive is among the most flood-prone areas in Falmouth, which prompted the town to develop a resilience plan for the area with the help of a Massachusetts Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grant in 2019. The area is projected to experience four-and-a-half feet of sea level rise by 2070. By 2100, that is projected to reach seven feet of sea level rise. That, coupled with four-tenths of a foot per year of erosion, makes the area deeply vulnerable.
The plans to manage Surf Drive are designed to be flexible, LeDuc said, in case daily flooding begins sooner than expected.
“A phased implementation will allow the town … to develop an initial action plan today based on today’s goals and today’s best climate projections, but to do so knowing that they’re going to monitor water levels moving forward into the future and monitor environmental changes and be able to adjust that timeline if future conditions dictate it,” she said.
Still, the process worried Surf Drive homeowner Henry Herrmann.
“If you deny town services it makes the houses uninhabitable,” he said in a phone call after the meeting. Herrmann has owned his home for 36 years.
Falmouth’s coastal committee chair Charles McCaffery said the town faces difficult choices.
“At some point, some of these homes will become uninhabitable whether or not the town does anything,” McCaffrey said. “So the question is what happens then.”
This is the first time a Cape Cod town has embarked on a path toward managed retreat since the 1850s, according to McCaffery.
“Sea level rise is going to happen,” LeDuc agreed. “It doesn’t hurt to start thinking long term. Especially when you’re talking about major infrastructure projects that have significant lifetimes, and wanting to put them in the appropriate places.”
Jennifer Lincoln, administrator of the Falmouth Conservation Commission, said the town has not yet targeted homeowners on Surf Drive to inform them of this report. It was announced at town meeting, and on the town’s website. Hermann said he didn’t know about the public meeting and was shocked to learn of the recommendations from CAI.
The town is accepting public comments through Lincoln, who can be reached by email at email@example.com until Sept. 25. The recommendations will be presented to the Falmouth Select Board in October.
“I just hope they leave the houses alone for a while,” Herrmann said, “because it’s a very nice community.”