Julia Fitzgerald

Portsmouth, Rhode Island is home to seventeen public shoreline access points, which allow residents to experience the beauty of the coast. Through the generosity and support of the Haney family and the opportunities of Portsmouth Abbey School, I was awarded the Haney Fellowship, and focused my project on my love of the ocean and coastal environment. In collaboration with Clean Ocean Access (a local nonprofit dedicated to protecting and preserving the ocean) and under the mentorship of Dave McLaughlin, I served as a community scientist, documenting and evaluating the accessibility and effects of sea level rise on these access points.

To conduct my research, I spent two weeks traveling to each of the seventeen public access points. At every location, I photographed and documented the conditions and accessibility noting any obstructions, encroachment, vandalism, erosion, and other pertinent variables. I also evaluated how a one foot, five feet, and ten feet sea level rise would impact these locations. I used a camera, yard stick, and a laser measuring device.

I discovered that some of these access points areas are inaccessible due to no signage, lack of parking, private versus public property boundaries, rocky pathways, treacherous boat ramps, obstructions, encroachment, and inability to reach the water. Three access points are currently inaccessible due to private property and vegetation obstruction. To make change, proper signage and parking is necessary. Signage designates these areas as public property and parking allows for much more accessibility, especially for residents who live further away. However, many of the access points are in good condition with lots of shoreline access and sandy beach areas. These locations can be used for enjoying the shoreline and ocean activities such as swimming, fishing, boating, etc.

Unfortunately, all of these access points face the impending threat of sea level rise. With a one-foot sea level rise, the rocks and vegetation near the shoreline will be submerged, but majority of the access points will still be accessible. With a five feet sea level rise, the tide will encroach further upon the shoreline, leaving less sandy areas at all of the access points. In addition, at some locations, boat ramp and docks will be submerged underwater and both pathways and yards will flood. Furthermore, with a ten feet sea level rise, only five locations will have remaining shoreline, consisting of vegetation and rocks rather than sand. Over half of the shoreline access points will be completely inaccessible and flooding will submerge public pathways, docks, and private yards.

Throughout the Haney process, I had many meetings with Dave McLaughlin at the Clean Ocean Access Headquarters. He taught me how to gather field research, create maps, evaluate data, and understand both scientific and government reports. With his guidance, I collected my data and complied it into a seventy-seven-page data report, detailing my findings with pictures and a map.

Along with researching accessibility and sea level rise, I also explored other topics such as moorings and storm surges. Since moorings can only be located at specific depths, any increase in sea level rise will affect the chain length and the circumference the mooring balls can swing. Therefore, with sea level rise, less moorings will be available for use, creating issues within the boating community. In addition, storm surges are capable of destroying the houses that are adjacent to the water. If this occurs and the shoreline gets pushed back to the next row of houses, what happens to the shoreline access points? Would they also be extended back to the next row of houses? Many residents would not appreciate their yard being a public area, so this potential issue deals with the struggle between public and private property.

Overall, there is a variety of conditions and levels of accessibility with the seventeen public access points in Portsmouth. Three have no parking, two have no signage, three are currently inaccessible, and five have varying levels of encroachment. Meanwhile, there are five access points that are well maintained with lots of shoreline access. However, they will all face negative impacts from sea level rise and many could become completely inaccessible. Sea level rise will also affect the private property, houses, moorings, and docks surrounding these access points.

Therefore, it is crucial that we continue the work of protecting and preserving shoreline access. I believe that awareness and preparation for potential dangers, such as sea level rise, will save these areas and allow use for future generations. To combat sea level rise, our community should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, recycle, and use cleaner energy sources. We also need to educate ourselves and be aware of how to face this issue in the coming years. I am optimistic that our community can unite and work together to fight many of the shoreline access issues, especially with the aid of Clean Ocean Access and other local groups. However, I am concerned about residents and disputes over private versus public property. To address that issue, the local government needs to intervene and add proper signage designating the legal purpose and ownership of certain areas. Clean Ocean Access and I will be presenting our findings to the Portsmouth Town Council in December, hopefully leading to necessary change.

I had an incredible experience during this fellowship, from field research to my final report. I am so grateful to the Haney family, Ms. Brzys, and Portsmouth Abbey for this eye-opening opportunity. During three weeks, I was able to explore the beautiful coastline of our local community, recognize the issues it faces, and discover ways to protect and preserve ocean access for future generations to enjoy.


You can see Julia's full presentation here