Baker Administration Pushes Legislature For Climate Resiliency Funds

The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

With temperatures climbing back toward 90 degrees in parts of the state, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides on Monday pressed the administration's case with senators to begin investing immediately in infrastructure and ecological restoration that will prepare Massachusetts for the impacts of climate change.

Theorharides said this summer's high temperatures and heavy rains are a "preview" of what's to come in Massachusetts where by the end of the century scientists have forecast sea level rise up to 10.5 feet and 64 more days a year with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees.

"Climate resiliency is not something where we have a choice between mitigation and adaptation. We have to do both," Theoharides said.

The Baker's administration top environmental official testified Monday before the Senate Committee on Global Warming, newly chaired by Majority Leader Cynthia Creem. The committee held an hours-long hearing to gather information and recommendations about the threat posed by climate change and how to mitigate its impacts.

The recommendations ranged from investing in research to better understand weather patterns and changing oceans conditions to property buyback programs that would move landowners away from vulnerable coastal areas.

Theoharides, who led the administration's climate change efforts before she became secretary, said the federal American Rescue Plan Act presents a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to invest in the planning and infrastructure that will ease the impacts from climate change.

"The opportunity to spend federal funding on these projects is really game changing, so we are pushing hard to put these funds to immediate use," Theoharides said.

Baker proposed to spend up to $1 billion on energy and environmental initiatives, including $300 million for climate resilient infrastructure such as improved culverts and dams. Theoharides said the proposal would build on the success on the state's Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program, which has been able to fund $64 million in projects since 2017 out of the $140 million in grant requests from cities and towns.

Creem, who tried to keep the hearing moving with dozens of people and groups slated to testify, summed up Theoharides's recommendations.

"It sounds like money, money. We all know that is the root of everything," Creem said.

Earlier this spring, the Baker administration also introduced new climate resilience design standards that Theoharides said will be piloted for projects funded through MassWorks and the MVP programs and eventually rolled out to other programs.

She told Creem there was no timeline to expand the pilot.

"We should be incorporating climate change into design and permitting decisions, not just on the environmental side of the house, but everywhere," Theoharides said.

Sen. Michael Barrett brought up the recent dispute between the administration and Legislature over who should have final say over how ARPA funding gets spent, a back-and-forth that was ultimately settled in the Legislature's favor.

Theoharides said she had no issue with the Legislature wanting to play a role in how the funding gets spent or objection to lawmakers exercising their authority to appropriate the stimulus funding.

"I'm not interested in any type of skirmish," she said. "I'm just interested in getting the money out in a timely manner that will improve public health and environmental outcomes," Theoharides said.

Baker has been pressuring the Legislature to authorize him to spend $2.9 billion of the state's remaining $4.8 billion in ARPA funding now. The Legislature has said it wants to be more deliberative, and is eyeing hearings that will stretch into the fall before it develops a plan of its own.

Theoharides said the ARPA funding must be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026, creating time pressures for projects that can years to be designed and permitted.

"What you're hearing from me is real urgency for making these decisions very soon," Theoharides said.

Sen. Marc Pacheco, the former chair of the Global Warming Committee, asked for a "high-risk list" detailing areas that haven't been dealt with yet and the costs associated with those areas. He specifically mentioned areas where flooding might cut off transportation links.

Theoharides said the administration was working on a "vulnerability wizard" that would help grade risk, but she told Sen. Barrett that it might be harder to comply with his request for a top 20 or top three list of priority projects for the state.

The secretary said it might be more realistic to develop priority project lists by region.

Richard Murray, deputy director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told lawmakers they must not forget about the ocean when they debate investments in infrastructure.

Murray said buoys, research ships and other coastal monitoring systems would be critical to predicting weather patterns and preparing for impacts on food supplies and local economies built around fishing.

"The oceans hold the key to climate change," Murray said, adding, "We can only manage what we can measure."

Murray also recommended pairing local zoning changes with funding for land buyback programs so that properties at risk of rising water levels and severe weather damage don't simply get passed down to the next generation of homeowners.

Creem also raised the issue of coastal property buyback programs, funding for which was provided by the Legislature through a 2018 environmental bond bill.

Using flood maps, the Trustees of Reservations estimates that there are 321,488 properties already at risk in Massachusetts from rising ocean and inland water levels.

Rep. Sarah Peake and Pacheco have filed legislation this session (H 983) that would create a Flood Risk Protection Program with the goal of helping property owners move from high-risk areas and requiring the state to develop a long-term strategy to reclaim and restore vulnerable land.

While the bill does not set aside funding for property buybacks, supporters said $50 million from bond bills approved in 2014 and 2018 could be used for coastal buyback projects.

Theoharides told Creem that the administration has selectively explored some buyback options, but would be interested in discussing opportunities further with the committee.

"We have not moved as quickly on that yet," the secretary said.

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