Thumping louder than the crashing surf and cawing gulls, the pile driver pounding into the earth beats a rumbling rhythm for the birdwatchers, beach walkers, bicyclists and sunbathers at Hammonasset Beach State Park’s West Beach in Madison, Connecticut, this summer.
“Boy, you can really feel the ground shaking,” Susan Whalen, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said last week, as she looked over the construction site for the new 3,430-square-foot bathhouse, first aid station, concession area and offices for the Environmental Conservation Police.
As the machine slammed another wooden support for the new building into the ground, Whalen explained how the project at Connecticut’s most popular park has been designed with an eye both on the current needs of the public and future realities of climate change.
“This is an opportunity to demonstrate that you can design a functional and attractive coastal beach complex that meets the needs of people and acknowledges the changing environment we’re dealing with,” she said. “There was a need to acknowledge sea level rise and the increasing severity of storms with the fact that people are naturally drawn to the water.”
The $7.5 million bath house, paid for with state bond funds, is a major example of how the projections of encroaching tides and stronger hurricanes are being incorporated into Connecticut shoreline projects.
The bathhouse is being built 280 feet inland from the one it replaces, with the public spaces 14.5 feet above ground, surrounded by a deck, to allow storm surges to flow underneath.
With a campground and two miles of sandy shoreline in East, Middle and West beaches, Hammonasset draws about 2 million people annually. Along with the new bathhouse, the project includes a children’s play area, beach volleyball courts and a paved trail for pedestrians and cyclists.
“We’re building it up high with an observation deck around it, with access ramps from the parking area so it will be easy for people in wheelchairs or with strollers,” she said. “We’re trying to think that what we’re building is going to last 75 years.”
The bathhouse project, along with repositioning of walkways to foster dune restoration and a new $2.4 million nature center on higher ground than the obsolete structure it’s replacing, are part of an overall “move up the beach” strategy DEEP is employing at the park.
The projects, which began last month and are expected to be completed next summer, have been proposed for several years, Whalen explained, but it wasn’t until Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 that they took on a new focus and urgency, she said.
Severe damage to the aging bathhouse, which sat at the high tide line, made replacement with a new, less vulnerable location a necessity.
“In a way, Irene did us a favor,” she said.
James O’Donnell, executive director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience & Climate Adaptation, said the Hammonasset project can serve as a model for coastal towns and private groups with shoreline beaches about how to incorporate climate change projections into future projects.
CIRCA is based at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.
“It’s clear that we can engineer things that can withstand storm surges and waves,” he said. “The more we can demonstrate what the options are, the better.”
While the Hammonasset project was designed before CIRCA was created last year, the institute is providing input on other shoreline projects including the park being created at the former Seaside property in Waterford, he said.
The way climate change projections are factored into the design of individual projects, he said, depends on the specific purpose and objective.
If historic buildings at Seaside are to be preserved, for example, the state may opt for a very different approach than “move up the beach.”
“The value of Hammonasset is its natural beauty,” he said. “You could engineer the project with seawalls to try to stop the beach moving upland, but that would lessen the whole value of the park.”
In addition to the new bathhouse and nature center, DEEP has also decided to stop replacing sand at West Beach by replenishing it from costly offshore dredging.
Instead, Whalen said, the agency decided that stabilizing and building up the dunes with beach grass was the more prudent approach, even if it means losing some space for beach blankets. Whatever beach is there will be the one formed by nature, she said.
“Maintaining the dunes will help with sand accretion,” she said. “The dune grass that was planted after Irene has taken hold really well. It’s really key to holding the sand in place.”
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