Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts Assesses Climate Vulnerability

Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts Assesses Climate Vulnerability

Equity & Justice

Displacement caused by sea-level rise in coastal communities has disparate impacts among demographic groups. Due to historical exclusionary zoning and housing policies, many people of color and low-income people were forced to live in low-lying, flood-prone areas. Today, these disparities are exacerbated as flooding worsens. 

A study in the EPA’s Science Inventory found that 20 percent of those communities affected by sea-level rise are among the most socially vulnerable. It also finds that areas with socially vulnerable populations are much more likely to be “abandoned” than protected in response to sea-level rise in the Gulf region of the United States. Additionally, the 2014 National Climate Assessment found that up to 50 percent of areas with high social vulnerability will face the possibility of forced displacement given their inability to afford housing protection measures and a lack social and political support for their communities. 

Project Summary

Manchester-by-the-Sea is a small community on Manchester Harbor north of Boston. As the community is only 10 feet above sea-level, the town recognizes its wastewater treatment facility is at risk from sea level rise. To move beyond risk identification, the facility’s operators needed to determine the magnitude of its vulnerability to the changing climate. A vulnerability assessment can be an in-depth and daunting task for any size community. However, USEPA’s Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT) enabled Manchester-by-the-Sea to assess its region’s projected climate risks and its facility’s vulnerability to inundation from sea level rise. Using CREAT, the facility was able to evaluate potential climate-related impacts such as projected impacts to source water, receiving waters and other environmental concerns of its stakeholders. CREAT also facilitated the utility’s consideration of potential adaptation strategies for reinforcing the facility in anticipation of projected sea level rise. Recognizing sea level rise and increased precipitation threatens more than just the facility itself, the town applied for and was awarded a Coastal Zone Management Grant. This grant, awarded in December 2014, is helping the town assess climate risk and vulnerability to stormwater management in the city. Together, these vulnerability assessments will help the city select and implement adaptation actions to where they are most needed.

Description of the video:


We're in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. We're about 20 miles northeast of Boston on the coast and we're a community of about just under 6,000 people. Manchester's location of its sewer plant is kind of unique. It's right on the ocean, that also means it's only about 10 feet above sea level. It's 18 years old. It's approaching its 20-year design life. We're just beginning to see the true effects of climate change. This parking lot that is adjacent to the sewer plant currently will flood during storms. Four to six inches of water is not uncommon. I think one of our biggest motivations to try to get ahead of impacts from climate change is really a financial concern. So, to anticipate that is going to be less costly than to try to repair in a crisis situation. Well, we had a wonderful opportunity to participate in the EPA effort with the CREAT model. And then as we started working with the model, making decisions, plugging in the factors, and we saw the impacts on the community, that for me was a real wakeup call. So we've got to start making those decisions with an eye toward the future. And so it really drew us to conclude that we need to better fortify the area around the plant in order to keep it functioning. That means a higher revetment for seawalls, and looking at ways to divert water and disperse the water before it becomes concentrated and a problem in our critical areas. So I think that's you know sort of the beauty of CREAT It makes you assess what you're doing now, but then stretches you to think about the future. We approached this project thinking 'oh, well we've got a lot of years to plan for changes.' It turns out we don't. It's good that Manchester's thinking that way, thinking proactively. I think we're more than one step ahead with the data and the information that came out of CREAT. We have an opportunity to glimpse what the future may hold, but we are also given an opportunity to change that.


How did they do it?
Action Applicable Resources

Manchester-by-the-Sea Identified a Need to Better Understand Climate Vulnerability

  • Officials recognized the climate threat to coastal infrastructure and the need to assess vulnerability to sea-level rise, as well as various other climate impacts.
  • The EPA Coastal Inundation Toolkit provides resources for practitioners and environmental professionals to prepare for anticipated climate risks to coastal areas and watersheds.

Manchester-by-the-Sea Conducted a Vulnerability Assessment to Better Understand Risk from Sea-Level Rise

  • Manchester-by-the-Sea worked with the USEPA to conduct a vulnerability assessment by using the Climate Resilience Evaluation & Awareness Tool (see below) to determine sea level rise vulnerability and identify potential adaptation strategies.
  • Utility officials selected the headworks building as a priority for identifying vulnerability and potential adaptation options. The headworks building was selected due to the critical nature of the facility and its location within the 100 and 500 year floodplain.

Identified Further Vulnerability Assessment Needs, Particularly for Stormwater Management

  • NOAA awarded the city a Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Resilience Grant in December 2014 to evaluate stormwater management capacity under future conditions.
  • This study will utilize climate projection scenarios to determine whether the town’s culvert and bridge crossings within the Sawmill Brook Watershed will be able to accommodate future precipitation and sea level rise conditions.
  • EPA's Creating Resilient Water Utilities (CRWU) initiative provides drinking water, wastewater and stormwater utilities with practical tools, training and technical assistance needed to increase resilience to climate change.

Similar Case Studies

Manchester-By-the-Sea is still developing an adaptation plan based on upon their vulnerability assessment.

  1. For an example of a Northeastern community that completed a vulnerability assessment and then actively implemented adaptation strategies view the Camden, New Jersey case study.
  2. For examples of large scale utility adaptation strategies including facility redesign, retreat or reinforcement, view the Deer Island Water Treatment Facility in Boston, Iowa City Wastewater Treatment Facility, and Blue Plains Waste Water Facility in Washington D.C. examples respectively.
  3. Boston's Deer Island case study is also a good example of how a larger water utility has adapted, and continues to re-assess vulnerability under the best available science.