Since 1931, Tweed New Haven Airport has sat on a spit of what was once salt marsh and wetlands straddling the East Haven border. It is wedged between New Haven Harbor where the Quinnipiac River empties, the Farm River mouth separating East Haven and Branford, and Long Island Sound. It is transected by other waterways – Tuttle Brook and Morris Creek.
And it floods.
Recent morning thunderstorms left water rimming the runways and pooling in adjacent residential roads.
It will only get worse.
No matter what predictive model you use, this piece of Connecticut is destined for inundation from sea level rise. Throw in a tropical storm like Irene in 2011 or Sandy in 2012, nevermind a replay of the Hurricane of 1938, and it’s all under water.
Yet as the legislature wrestles with a bill designed to allow expansion at Tweed including, most critically, an extension of its main runway, the dispute has largely landed on the well-worn arguments about the airport.
Opponents argue against expansion for all the predictable reasons: the airport is in a residential area, traffic will be a nightmare, noise and pollution will increase. Fans of expansion say these factors are outweighed by the need for the airport to serve as an economic driver for the region.
But there’s been almost no mention that the land itself may well be underwater by 2050.
Jim O’Donnell, executive director of Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA), whose new interactive modeling system – use it here – shows risk to the site even now, points out that many U.S. airports are built along vulnerable coasts – JFK in New York, LAX in Los Angeles. In Connecticut, in addition to Tweed, Groton and Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford both experience flooding.
“They’re all built on marshes and if we want to continue using them there’s got to be some kind of protection strategy,” said O’Donnell. “But the idea of expanding an airport in an area which is intrinsically vulnerable doesn’t seem to me to make a lot of sense.”
Alex Felson, a landscape architect and ecologist, recently joined CIRCA as deputy executive director and director of resilience design after years at Yale University. He has worked on resilience planning with many Connecticut shoreline communities, including East Haven, and points out that the airport is in the lowest lying area with pockets of housing around it that are also at risk.
“But also it functions as a flood management zone. The airport itself actually collects water during flood events and holds water,” he said. “I think the main thing is, you can’t see the airport in isolation. It’s tied in with the surrounding context.”
Giovanni Zinn, the city engineer in New Haven, absolutely agrees with that assessment. And aside from being an engineer, he ought to know – he lives just feet from the north end of Tweed’s main runway.
“From a purely hydrologic point of view, the fact that we have an airport there as the lowest piece of property that can detain water is really what keeps the neighborhood from flooding,” he said.
Even before the airport existed, two tide gates were installed on Morris Creek to help control flooding – and mosquitoes. They’ve been rebuilt over the years but are still in place. But with much of the naturally water-soaking salt marsh replaced by homes, roads and an airport, the gates can’t do the job alone.
“As soon as there’s any storm surge at high tide, no water is getting out of the neighborhood back into the water (of Long Island Sound),” Zinn said. “So water has to go somewhere. In this case it goes into the airport.”
He says the airport can handle about four inches – a decent amount by normal standards, but a Hurricane Harvey scenario like Houston experienced in 2017? No way.
And if the airport footprint – especially the impervious surface of a runway – is altered and/or increased, what will that mean for the flood control capability of the airport?
Putting good money after bad?
The legislation being considered now would remove the cap set by lawmakers in 2009 on how long the main runway can be – 5,600 feet.
At the time it was set, New Haven — which owns the airport — and East Haven also signed an agreement with the state that set out stipulations from each side. But at the beginning of this year, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp threw out the agreement, arguing that the state had not met its obligations and therefore the cap should be eliminated.
In her termination letter, Harp stated that while the agreement anticipated 30 commercial departures a day and 180,000 enplanements a year, departures had never topped five daily and enplanements barely cracked 36,000 annually. Harp laid the blame for this, as she has since 2015, on the length of the runway, which she said should be extended at each end to either 6,600 or 6,100 feet, depending on aircraft direction, thereby making it suitable for more carriers.
The airport receives about $1.5 million annually from the state and about $325,000 from the city of New Haven, down from $500,000.
There is also an active federal lawsuit in which New Haven is arguing that only the FAA has jurisdiction over the airport, which means the state has no right to set runway length. New Haven lost in an initial court ruling, but has appealed that decision.
Airport expansion has been talked about for decades, but it’s taken on a new robustness, with Harp leading the charge and enlisting Gov. Ned Lamont’s support.
The governor himself filed comments in support of the bill. The more than 125 comments reads like a who’s who of officials from Yale University, the city, and business, all arguing a better functioning airport is needed to keep the university and other New Haven-area businesses competitive by having more convenient long distance transportation options.
Among them was Michael Piscitelli, interim economic development administrator for New Haven. He calls the plans for expansion modest – to two or three hub cities, plus Florida, and additional terminal and parking space.
“Our business community is very concerned that our competitive edge has been lost to other areas,” he said in an interview. Tweed Airport Authority Interim Executive Director Matthew Hoey did not respond to emails. The authority runs the airport for New Haven.
Supporters of expansion are pitted against arguably the two most powerful people in the Connecticut senate: Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney – whose district covers the New Haven portion of the airport and who lives in the area — and Len Fasano, the Senate Minority leader whose district covers the East Haven portion and who owns a home and beach club there.
Their arguments have also been more economic, with Fasano angered that Harp is reneging on a deal. Looney is more focused on community impact and said he’s informed Lamont the bill, as it emerged from committee, will not clear the legislature.
But both are mindful of the environmental component as well. Fasano represents East Haven’s Cosey Beach – decimated by Tropical Storm Irene only to be re-damaged 14 months later by Sandy – including his own club.
He said the flooding around Tweed and the neighborhood has to be considered. “It’s surrounded by wetlands,” he said. “There are some concerns there.”
And Fasano wondered whether it would be “putting good money after bad.”
Looney pointed to a detailed list compiled by the neighborhood opponents of expanding Tweed. The list contains numerous environmental issues, including increased greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft and increased motor vehicle traffic, asthma and lead hazards due to additional pollution, more noise, endangered and protected species that live in the area (see recent map here) as well as the flooding problems from sea level rise, stormwater runoff and extreme weather.
“I think it’s a very significant concern that has to get factored in wholly apart from the economic issue of getting more flights coming in and out of Tweed,” Looney said of the flooding concern. “It has to be seen equally, if not more of an urgent concern.”
In the neighborhood
Expansion opponent Rachel Heerema wrote most of the list. She got an instant dose of environmental reality when she moved to the neighborhood just days before Sandy in 2012 and almost immediately wound up in a mandatory evacuation.
“In an age of climate disorder – more storms, more violent storms – what the heck are we doing? To pave even one more foot is ludicrous,” she said. “Everywhere we can in Connecticut we need to preserve the wetlands. Wetlands are our answer to climate disorder.”
Sean O’Brien, whose family has been in the area for nearly 100 years, cites additional paving from a runway expansion as one of many factors. “If that happens, what’s left of the salt marsh barrier is going to be completely gone,” he said. “If plans in the current master plan are carried out – then they’ll have to go right through the creek and re-route it again.”
Re-routing the creek or not, any expansion will likely face more daunting environmental scrutiny than it might have in years past. Aside from the usual reviews by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection – especially the tidal and inland wetlands — last year the legislature enacted climate change legislation that will require any project in a shoreline flood zone that uses state funding or federal funding funneled through the state to face a flood management review.
Flood management would have to consider the sea level rise calculation by CIRCA, as required by law. The most recent calculation is that seas could rise as much as 20 inches by 2050. Structures could face a requirement of an additional two feet of elevation.
If Tweed falls under that, it could mean the runways overall would need to be elevated. And even if that’s not needed now, there’s a high likelihood it would in the future. Either way, the cascade effect on the ability of the airport to continue as a water detention basin would likely change and there would almost certainly be more water to deal with.
That’s a concern, said Brian Thompson, director of DEEP’s Land and Water Resources Division, which would have to issue permits and environmental approval for such projects.
“Certainly the change in the hydrologic regime of those wetlands and the hydrology around the drainage of those areas is something that would need to be considered,” he said.
Zinn, New Haven’s city engineer, doesn’t see flooding getting prohibitively bad for another 30 to 50 years. “If it’s bad enough to change the elevation of the runway, it’s bad enough to change the elevation of houses,” he said. “Certainly we want to be able to preserve the airport to use as a detention basin. Any plan that would alter that would be concerning to us. I don’t see that for quite sometime. It’s not like this legislation happens and then poof, there’s a runway.”
But at CIRCA, O’Donnell and Felson caution that the cascade of effects from elevating the runway would also add to maintenance, costs and factors yet unknown.
“I think the tradeoffs are fairly large,” Felson said.
“I think it’s a totally political decision about how much you need this development – not if it’s right or wrong,” O’Donnell said. “What’s the cost of doing nothing here?”