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Tool aims to predict how storms may affect area culverts

  • UMass Researcher Scott Jackson speaks about a digital environmental prediction tool at South Deerfield's town offices Thursday, Sep. 28, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • The Route 2 crossing over Trout Brook in Charlemont, as seen before Tropical Storm Irene. Contributed photo—

  • The Route 2 crossing over Trout Brook in Charlemont, as seen after Tropical Storm Irene. The culvert eventually failed. Contributed photo—



Recorder Staff
Thursday, September 28, 2017

SOUTH DEERFIELD — An online data tool documenting culverts in the Deerfield River watershed could make it easier for towns from here to Vermont to get ahead of the next hurricane that blows through the region.

“This is three years and a million dollars of work,” Scott Jackson, an environmental conservation professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explained to area leaders at a Creating Resilient Communities meeting Thursday.

The computer forecasting tool allows towns in the watershed to predict how storms and other conditions might affect the thousands of culverts that carry water under the region’s local roads and state highways. It was created by UMass researchers and paid for by the state Department of Transportation and other organizations following the ravages of Tropical Storm Irene.

That information might in turn allow the towns to better anticipate those problems and provide justification when applying for grants for infrastructure improvements to roads, bridges and culverts, officials said.

The tool ranks from zero to 100 the vulnerability of specific culverts to potential natural disasters under a multitude of conditions.

If blocked, damaged or undersized, culverts can wind up misdirecting waters that then wash away roadways, cause local flooding and even pose a hazard to native fish, according to Jackson. Many roads were washed out when Irene-swollen rivers and brooks, especially in western Franklin County, overran their banks in August of 2011.

The program digests ecological data, combines that with other information including emergency response data, and visually predicts how disasters could affect local communities. Notably, the tool projects effects on infrastructure like roads and culverts, local ecology and how the region’s emergency response could be affected by damage from storms like Irene.

Filters are customizable, so “it can be simple if you don’t want the details,” Jackson explained to the dozen officials at the meeting. On the other end of the spectrum, researchers are able to manipulate complex environmental data, such as water temperatures, to create detailed scenarios — and prepare for future changes.

Deerfield has “about 1,500 crossings, and six came up as highest priority,” said Deefield Selectboard Chairwoman Carolyn Shores Ness. Local officials already know about them, “but this gives us documentation,” she said. Ness has been concerned about these vulnerabilities since 2011 when the Deerfield River damaged much property in Deerfield and parts of Routes 5 and 10 were flooded by overwhelmed culverts.

“We, as a local community, can’t afford to have these culverts blow out,” Ness said. “This is how we get funding. It’s good for the environment, aquatic species and town finances.”

Data contained in the program gives small towns important information for infrastructure grant applications. Towns like Deerfield might not be able to afford to get such information otherwise.

Jackson also highlighted the tool’s ability to help local responders preplan for natural disaster situations.

The tool was built “to allow people to focus their energy,” he explained. Police, fire and emergency managment leaders can easily find areas of vulnerability along rivers and streams that might cut them off from those seeking help in emergencies. Public safety officials can design worst-case scenarios to identify areas that might get washed out in order to plan for the worst.

Using the tool effectively could prevent a bad situation from getting worse, according to Ness.

“We’ve got to move ahead. We can’t put our head in the sand. We’re having frequent, extreme events,” she added. The program, open to public use, can be found at www.sce.ecosheds.org.

Other agencies that helped with the project include Trout Unlimited, the North Atlantic Conservation Cooperative, and Milone and MacBroom, an engineering consulting form. Some from the Northeast Climate Science Center were also involved.

You can reach Andy Castillo

at: acastillo@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo