UMass Study Outlines Municipal Impact of Climate Change

UMass Study Outlines Municipal Impact of Climate Change

A report conducted by UMASS Northeast Center for Coastal Resilience and Massachusetts Municipal Association offers insight into how municipalities perceive climate change’s challenges and impact. The study heard from 111 municipalities and ten planning agencies, including four Berkshire municipalities and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC). 64% of respondents represented inland communities. Larger cities were better represented in this survey than rural towns, as those communities are more likely to have staff who can respond to surveys. That said, the needs of inland and rural communities came through, particularly in the comments. It is helpful to see the overlap in concerns when considering how climate change will affect our region.

Williamstown – Birch Hill Brook

Concerns and Impacts
The report found that inland communities expect to experience less extreme climate change impacts than coastal communities. That isn’t to say our region won’t or hasn’t already started to feel these impacts. This past summer marked floods as an increasing concern. Compared to coastal communities, inland towns and cities have a greater issue with droughts and heatwaves. Whereas coastal communities reported they are already experiencing climate change impacts, inland communities predicted greater infrastructure impacts in the future in almost all categories. Most notably, damage to historical buildings and public structures/spaces, and disconnected roads. This is of particular concern given the recent State Auditor study that showed Western Massachusetts lags behind the rest of the state regarding infrastructure upgrades. Most at risk are elderly folks – 95% of communities identify elderly residents as most at risk, closely followed by people with disabilities (75%) and low-income residents (75%).

While it hasn’t happened yet, roughly half of the coastal communities reported a predicted outflow of residents as land is lost to rising sea levels. Conversely, 37% of inland municipalities reported that they expect an in-migration of residents as the quality of life becomes more difficult in other areas of the state. If this happens, it could tighten the Berkshire’s already stretched need for housing and impact the rural character of smaller towns unless solutions are found to accommodate this influx. While most inland towns predicted a decrease in tax revenue, the economic impacts throughout Western Massachusetts are expected to be less severe than coastal communities that are closely tied to the Blue Economy of commercial fishing and beach tourism.

How We Are Preparing
Most towns are starting to prepare for climate change through planning efforts bolstered largely by the MVP Program Planning grants. Many towns reported that while MVP Planning wasn’t enough on its own, it was a good first step. Preparedness funding has largely been funneled through grant programs that require resources to research and apply vs. other more flexible sources such as Chapter 90. Rural areas’ inability to adapt seems tied to the town’s capacity, especially as these small municipalities lack grant writing capacity to apply for programs such as MVP and FEMA.

Despite this barrier, inland communities are employing resiliency strategies. The most common is land conservation, followed by stormwater management green infrastructure such as bio-swales, rain gardens, and retention basins. Many towns plan to use recovery funds to upgrade their electric vehicle infrastructure and expand renewable energy capacity. And communication upgrades are at the top of many towns’ priority lists. The good news is that it is possible to apply regionally to many of these opportunities. As one respondent commented:

“There has to be a better way, regionally, we could address these issues. The work could be easier if teams of people worked on items like this more systematically and regionally. We never have time to put heads together and come up with better ways to accomplish these tasks. Instead, town by town, our small crews go out with insufficient equipment doing it over and over, rather than solve it once for many years. “

As a county-wide agency, BRPC can help smaller communities with similar issues apply for grant funding collectively. Indeed, we’ve already done so working with Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership and now an MVP Regional Stream Crossings Study. As always, if you’re interested in implementing climate-resilient strategies in your town, contact Courteny Morehouse at