Oct. 14, 2022
Inland and rural communities face increasing climate impacts: stormwater and riverine flooding, water supply issues, and changes to growing seasons, to name a few. These non-metropolitan areas account for 72 percent of the country's land area and one-fifth of its population. While larger cities like New York and Boston are investing in climate adaptation and mitigation projects, many smaller communities do not have access to the same resources.
A unique program in Massachusetts is changing that trend. The Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program has awarded more than $65 million since its inception, bringing climate resilience into reach for many rural, inland towns: more than 95 percent of the commonwealth's municipalities have participated thus far. This program helps communities prepare for potential impacts to infrastructure, services, and natural resources while considering the changing needs of their residents — and their potential movements around the region.
For these inland towns, climate adaptation may require preparing for an influx of new residents fleeing the impacts of sea level rise and storm-surge flooding in coastal communities. This anticipated trend of climate migration could stress infrastructure, housing, public services, and facilities in inland communities in Massachusetts and across the country.
The last few years provided a glimpse of what to expect. At the beginning of the pandemic, rural Massachusetts saw an influx of people as towns known for their scenic nature, tourism, and cultural amenities became safe havens for nearby urbanites. Town administrators in Egremont (pop. 1,372), for example, noted an increase in visitors and year-round residents. While local businesses benefited from the additional customers, the population increase caused new conflicts with visitors unfamiliar with farming activities, stressed an oversaturated housing market, put additional demand on limited resources, and threatened to overwhelm parks and trails.
Armed with these observations and funding from MVP and FEMA, Egremont completed a Hazard Mitigation Plan (HMP) update and Community Resilience Plan in 2022. Together, these plans identify the potential impacts of climate change and migration.
Rural resilience challenges
Egremont used MVP funding to obtain technical support for its HMP update, which includes a focus on climate vulnerability and adaptation solutions. This combination plan identifies extreme storms, flooding, and elevated temperatures as the major climate-driven weather vulnerabilities.
Climate change is already felt by local farmers and businesses: Flooding and wetter springs erode and destroy agricultural fields, while seasonal shifts have made it more energy-intensive to create favorable skiing conditions in the nearby Berkshire Mountains.
"Small rural communities, if they haven't done so already, should start thinking about the effects climate change migration will have." — Juliette Haas, director of the Egremont, Massachusetts, board of health.
Looking ahead, forest-based economic activity will also be affected. Hardwoods will migrate to higher elevations and likely outcompete spruce-fir forests, changing available timber supplies. Hiking and autumn "leaf-peeping," like skiing, are closely tied to the state of the forest and the seasonal climate, as are the conditions of roads and open spaces used for recreational access. As profits fall and work opportunities decline in response to forestry, agriculture, and recreation changes, laborers, business owners, and town finances will suffer.
Egremont's businesses are beginning to test resilience and adaptation strategies, like offering alternative outdoor recreation activities at local ski resorts during the off-season and expanding to less weather-dependent agricultural products like beer. The town is also considering how best to assist local farmers in adapting to flooding and drought, including through improved stormwater management practices.
Preparing for more people
Preparing for the direct impacts of changing and hazardous weather patterns is only half the charge. These impacts may be exacerbated by a quickly increasing population, which causes its own issues that the HMP update identifies and addresses.
Egremont is concerned that drought-stressed water supplies may be exhausted as economic growth increases water demand. Development pressure driven by increased housing demand may also lead to the loss of open space, threatening the town's resilience. Forests and natural areas in Egremont, noted for their recreational and economic benefits, also help manage stormwater runoff and riverine flooding and reduce heat impacts, each an important function in the face of a changing climate. As they are used more heavily or lost to development, these services may be threatened.
The town is currently reviewing land-use regulations and policies as part of updates to both their master plan and open space and recreation plan. Solutions may include directing higher density development to central areas and identifying important open space parcels to protect.
Local workforce, emergency response services, and infrastructure could also buckle under increased demand without additional support.
"Small rural communities, if they haven't done so already, should start thinking about the effects climate change migration will have on their operating costs and plan for increases to solid waste and park maintenance expenses, to name just a few," says Juliette Haas, director of Egremont's board of health.
Egremont leaders and community members have started to develop adaptation and preparedness strategies. The town hopes to increase medical training for volunteer emergency responders and improve local neighborhood networks. They also intend to expand partnerships with groups like Greenagers, a youth conservation and agricultural education organization, to assist with trash removal and trail maintenance. Meanwhile, local businesses are exploring possibilities for new workforce housing on existing developed properties.
Resilience planning is critical for small towns with limited resources. Programs like MVP that provide technical assistance and funding will be essential as towns like Egremont prepare for the impacts of climate change.