Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Threatened by rising sea level, Topsail Island makes progress in pinpointing coastal resiliency goals

To mitigate the predicted effects of sea level rising and flooding, Surf City, North Topsail Beach and Topsail were granted financial and technical assistance as part of the N.C. Resilient Coastal Communities Program. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

TOPSAIL ISLAND  — “Some people don’t believe it when you say climate change, but it’s here,” Surf City Mayor Doug Medlin said. He was speaking at a Dec. 15 open house for the Resilient Coastal Communities Program (RCCP), a statewide effort Topsail Island was accepted into.

To mitigate the predicted effects of sea level rising and flooding, the three beach towns of Surf City, North Topsail Beach and Topsail were granted financial and technical assistance to help the local governments implement coastal resiliency plans.

“We’re going to have to be prepared and do more work to prevent some things from happening,” Medlin said. “We can’t go back and change the climate to what it was.”

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Division of Coastal Management (DCM) awarded a total of $675,000 in grants in March. DCM awarded $75,000 to contractor Kleinfelder to provide professional services to Topsail RCCP.

“The state saw a need for coastal communities to have a formal planning process in place,” NCDEQ coastal resilience specialist Mackenzie Todd said at the meeting. “The goal is to get them to shovel-ready status, making them more competitive for federal grants and become more resilient.”

The RCCP provides a framework to assess coastal risks and vulnerabilities, engage community stakeholders and develop projects to improve the resiliency of communities.

The DCM matched consulting firm Kleinfelder with Topsail Island to assist with strategy development. The towns formed a Community Action Team (CAT) in October comprising 20 representatives, with at least five from each respective community. Members include town leadership, engineers, planners, business owners, and residents. CAT has since held three workshops to develop visions and goals of the program, review existing local plans and efforts, map critical assets and natural infrastructure, and conduct a risk and vulnerability assessment.

CAT acts as an inter-town working group, complementing Topsail Island Shoreline Protection Commission (TISPC), a collaborative effort for beach preservation between Pender and Onslow counties’ boards of commissioners and town leadership of North Topsail Beach, Topsail Beach and Surf City.

At the December meeting, the public was invited to learn about the program, its progress and how to get involved.

The vision of Topsail RCCP is to address long-term viability of Topsail Island by “preparing infrastructure assets and populations against sea level rise, increased tidal flooding and more frequent and impactful storm events,” according to its website.

To do this, the program works in four phases. Phases 1 and 2 work in tandem and are underway. Members are collecting feedback from the community and reviewing existing local plans and endeavors to avoid duplication. 

During this phase, CAT will develop a project portfolio and identify potential solutions, specifically those natural-based (such as sand dunes, living shorelines, etc.), and prioritize them based on feasibility and need.

Major goals of the Topsail RCCP include minimizing damages and losses from sea level rise; improving reliability of built infrastructure and roadway access; prioritizing resiliency projects and promoting them for state, federal and other funding; conserving and adapting natural infrastructure and collaborating with neighboring communities to develop policies that benefit the region.

“We want to coordinate and collaborate as a whole community,” Kleinfelder consultant Michael Hicks said. “It’s important because it provides a holistic representation, which leads to equitable outcomes.”

The Topsail RCCP developed an interactive story map, which is the first of its kind in the statewide program, to track its progress. The objective is to make all the data and maps available to the communities for input.

The story map outlines background information about the program, past and upcoming meetings, and highlights compiled data maps to show future projections of the Topsail Beach community, due to impending climate change.

Compiled from data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and DCM, the maps indicate specific areas in the Topsail Beach communities that will be most affected by a projected sea-level rise of 3 feet by 2050.

“Vulnerability on the island is pretty critical to plan for,” Hicks said. “We need to be able to adapt and be aware of it.”

According to the projections, by 2050 a mobile-home community off Inlet Drive would be mostly submerged. The communities’ police and fire departments are at risk of significant flooding, and accessibility off the island will be restricted between Broadway and 9th streets, all the way to New River Drive.

“A portion of the primary evacuation route is subject to increased flooding by mid-century from sea level rise and tidal flooding,” Hicks explained, “trapping the community from the south trying to head off the island.”

The available maps also show areas suitable for living shorelines and critical assets most likely to be impacted by flood exposure in the 26-mile area.

Phases 1 and 2 are set to wrap in March 2022. Once complete, Topsail RCCP can apply for Phases 3 and 4 and will be eligible for funding to cover the engineering and design costs to execute its plan.

“We’re working on that application now and hoping to get it posted next month,” MacKenzie Todd, NCDEQ coastal resilience specialist, said. “This money is going to fund one of these prioritized projects, whatever you see as a need in the community.”

Initial funding for the Topsail RCCP came from a NCDEQ Resilient Coastal Communities Program grant, which varies from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ long-term beach renourishment efforts. The Town of Surf City is currently awaiting a new plan from the Army Corps of Engineers for its beach renourishment after North Topsail Beach decided to not move forward with the federal program. The two towns were initially tied together on the federally authorized and appropriated project.

RELATED: Left hanging by North Topsail, Surf City regroups on beach renourishment efforts

The statewide RCCP initiative was open for all 20 coastal counties to apply. Surf City, N. Topsail Beach and Topsail submitted a joint proposal and were selected out of 32 applications. Fourteen other municipalities and seven counties were awarded finances to establish resiliency programs, including four towns that had already begun the first two phases. Applications were assessed across seven criteria, including the level of risk to vulnerable populations and critical assets, economic status and momentum with related efforts.

Todd said another round of funding for Phases 1 and 2 will be available spring 2022 from NFWF for additional coastal communities to apply. 

Topsail RCCP plans to tentatively host another public open house with additional updates on its progress Jan. 25.

This story has been updated to include the exact figure awarded to Topsail RCCP.


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