Feds eye flood mitigation measures in Pioneer Valley

The Connecticut River flows around Smead Island as seen from the General Pierce Bridge between Greenfield and Montague.

The Connecticut River flows around Smead Island as seen from the General Pierce Bridge between Greenfield and Montague. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

The Deerfield River, right, joins the Connecticut River as seen from the General Pierce Bridge between Greenfield and Montague.

The Deerfield River, right, joins the Connecticut River as seen from the General Pierce Bridge between Greenfield and Montague. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ


Staff Writers

Published: 06-30-2024 8:22 AM

With Massachusetts experiencing its seventh-wettest year on record in 2023 as torrential rainstorms ravaged roads, farms and homes, the federal government, the state and those here in the Pioneer Valley are turning their eyes toward future flood mitigation efforts, particularly around the Connecticut River.

Touching nearly every major city and town, the Connecticut River is the Pioneer Valley’s lifeblood, but that source of water and food also serves as one of the major flood risks throughout western Massachusetts.

“Anywhere humans have decided to build in the floodplain becomes a problem during the flooding season,” said Nina Gordon-Kirsch, the Massachusetts river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy, who emphasized that flooding is a “very natural process” that becomes a “big concern when thinking about the safety of citizens along the river.”

As those who have their boots on the ground here in the valley continue their work, Massachusetts’ congressional delegation is setting its sights on federal money to help alleviate flooding issues.

Mitigating the risks

Nearly all of western Massachusetts’ delegation saw first-hand the devastating effects of last year’s rains on roads, businesses and farms in the valley, including U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-MA, who stopped by Natural Roots farm in Conway to survey the damage after the farm was flooded by the South River, not the Connecticut River, last year.

“What we saw on the ground in Conway last year was a stark reality of the experiences of local farmers, residents and business owners in the face of increased extreme weather events, and the chain reaction that is set off by these events,” Markey wrote in an email. “It is a situation that will only become more common as the effects of climate change continue to worsen, and communities should know that we will have their backs. We must put federal resources behind evaluating and mitigating those increased risks now.

“Flood risk in Franklin County is a regional problem that needs a regional solution,” Markey added.

In May, the Water Resources Development Act of 2024 (WRDA), a biannual legislative package dedicated to the conservation and development of water and related resources, was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee with several provisions focused on projects in the valley. The “deeply bipartisan bill” was passed unanimously by the committee and Markey said they are now working on getting it approved by the Senate.

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“While making Massachusetts communities more resilient to flood risks in the face of climate change has long been a priority of mine, many of the provisions I fought for and won in the EPW-passed WRDA bill were in direct response to the historic flooding last year along the Connecticut River,” Markey said.

Topping the list is the authorization of an Army Corps feasibility study on flood risk management along the Connecticut River throughout all of western Massachusetts, which will identify some possible projects that can be undertaken.

While the bill makes its way through the legislative process, the Connecticut River Conservancy will continue its restoration work, focusing on natural methods such as planting trees to absorb groundwater.

“Restoration helps mitigate flooding because the more trees we have and more exposed soil, as opposed to paved earth, we have, the more water can seep down into the ground rather than run off,” Gordon-Kirsch said. “Anything that’s concrete or paved over is going to not let water seep into the ground.”

Local measures to combat flooding

Other measures in the bill include $10 million in Environmental Infrastructure assistance for Easthampton’s wastewater outflow system and an additional Army Corps study on Northampton’s flood pump control system.

Under the act, Easthampton is slated to receive $10 million to improve its wastewater collection and treatment systems. The city’s wastewater system consists of sanitary sewer laterals, collection mains, pump stations, transmission lines, a wastewater treatment plant, and outflow pipes at the Connecticut and Manhan rivers.

According to Easthampton’s Department of Public Works, this funding will help to offset the design and construction costs associated with rehabilitating the Connecticut River outflow pipe, which transports treated wastewater from the city’s treatment plant on Gosselin Drive to the Connecticut River near the intersection of Route 5 and East Street. But the city will require more funds in the future for needed upgrades to the rest of the system, said Greg Nuttelman, Easthampton’s director of public works.

Nuttelman said Easthampton’s wastewater faces challenges with infiltration and inflow (referred to as I and I) that occur when rainwater or groundwater enter the sanitary sewer collection system.

“Anytime there is a significant increase in rainfall we see higher flow rates entering our wastewater treatment system,” Nuttelman wrote in an email. “This causes our pumps to have to run more often and higher treatment costs than normal, as water that does not require treatment is entering the treatment process.”

If the earmark is finalized and signed into action by President Joe Biden, Nuttelman said it could still take two to three years before the city has access to the funds.

“It may come in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers actually taking on portions of the project or possibly the entire project for us,” he said.

For Easthampton, this will mark another step in a long process of water infrastructure rehabilitation. The city has already seen some improvements in this area, such as the replacement of a sanitary sewer main and laterals on Cherry Street that mitigated sewer backup challenges in the neighborhood.

In Northampton, the act could lead to improvements to the city’s flood control infrastructure, which was built by the Army Corps of Engineers after catastrophic flooding in the late 1930s. According to city officials, the system protects more than 2,600 buildings and properties valued at roughly $1.8 billion.

In 2023, the system saw challenges after unprecedented rainfall forced the Hockanum Pumping Station to face its limitations, ultimately leading to a fuel supply system failure and partial flooding at the wastewater treatment facility. As heavy rainfall becomes more common, city officials say they hope to secure the needed resources to push the needed infrastructure into action.

Once the act passes, Northampton will undergo a study through the Army Corps of Engineers that will assist with needed upgrades to the flood pump system.

Currently, the Hockanum Pumping Station is operated by three engines. Two of these engines are repurposed from use on tugboats in the 1930s, and maintenance efforts are unable to keep up with the demands of the aging system.

“While the current infrastructure has served Northampton well, modernization is necessary to meet the demands of today and the future,” Alan Wolf, chief of staff at the Northampton Mayor’s Office, wrote in an email.

Some upgrades to the system are already underway. Northampton underwent an assessment by Tighe & Bond in 2019, which informed future upgrades. Beginning in 2023, the city began a series of phased upgrades to the pump station.

Using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and stormwater utility capital funds totaling approximately $1.45 million, the city’s Department of Public Works replaced its 80-year-old electrical systems and underground fuel storage tanks.

Now the city is focusing on replacing the gas and diesel engines, upgrading axial lift pumps and refurbishing the building. These projects are estimated by city officials to cost about $10 million, which they hope to generate through grants and earmarks, including the Massachusetts Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program and Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grants.

“Upgrading the Hockanum Flood Control Pumping Station is vital for Northampton’s commitment to public safety and infrastructure resilience,” Wolf said. “These improvements are essential to ensuring the ongoing protection of residents and economic assets, especially as the city faces increasing climate challenges.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com. Alexa Lewis can be reached at alewis@gazettenet.com.