Eternal dam-nation: Greater Boston is drowning and groups are pushing back

Graphic Courtesy of the Metropolitan Area Planning Committee and the Conservative Law Committee from the “Flooding 101” meeting.

By Maya Shavit

Boston University News Service

Countryside Elementary School in Newton chronically floods. Millions of dollars have been poured into rebuilding facilities that will never completely improve because of its poor location in a wetland. Despite this, the school is being rebuilt with Massachusetts School Building Authority funds in the same place and same flood-prone location. 

Joining Countryside are several other schools, libraries and institutions that are up to code but not built to withstand heavy rain. A coalition of environmental activists fear that Massachusetts is not doing enough to save its city, and the local officials in charge do not know how to respond, said experts in a “Flooding 101” panel on Wednesday.

“I just left the Newton City Council after 10 years, so I can tell you the fact that land use decisions are largely made at the local level should scare anyone to death. At the local level, everywhere except for Cambridge and Boston, everyone is part-time, most don’t get paid, and most are not geo-hydrologists,” said Emily Norton, Executive Director of the Charles River Watershed Association.

The CRWA joins the Metropolitan Area Planning Committee and the Conservative Law Committee in its view that the government is unprepared for climate change. There is a shortage of research on inland flooding that is becoming increasingly dangerous as Massachusetts storms worsen.

The two most dangerous types of floods for the Greater Boston area involve surface water and groundwater. Unlike coastal flooding, these phenomena are driven by high rain levels and storms, according to Martin Pillsbury, MAPC’s environmental planning director.

There is a drought of information when it comes to inland flooding. FEMA’s flood maps are the main way for people to track vulnerable natural disaster zones across the country, but there are major gaps in reporting. The maps do not tell tenants or property owners about historic wetland areas, high groundwater, drainage areas or inadequate stormwater infrastructure.

“We’ve never had great data as to where people are experiencing the worst impacts of urban stormwater flooding, and we don’t have the information for where people and businesses should put the resources to withstand it,” said Rachel Bowers, an environmental analyst at MAPC.

Forecasts of climate change and a look back at land cover changes across Massachusetts lead environmentalists to the conclusion that people have built, and continue to build, in areas that are not designed for large quantities of water. For instance, Mattapan has been filled in and built over to the point where the streams visible in 1893 are now completely covered up, said Pillsbury. 

“During these high precipitation events, Mother Nature reclaims these areas and basically says this is where the water is supposed to go,” said Pillsbury, noting that more rain is coming than the built systems in places like Mattapan can withstand.

Too much rain for existing infrastructure to handle is not an issue for any one town or area of Massachusetts. Any concentrated urban segment is vulnerable to dangerous flooding.

“Precipitation related flooding is widespread, but the locations are unpredictable,” said Bowers. 

New buildings going up around Massachusetts are being built only with FEMA’s maps in mind. This translates to construction projects not being safe from inland flooding or coastal flooding, as the maps are historical and not current, according to Ali Hiple, senior policy analyst with the Conservation Law Foundation.

 “Our state regulatory tools for managing flooding and the floodplain are fundamentally flawed because they are tied to those FEMA maps which rely on outdated and inaccurate data,” said Hiple.

While the issue is not concentrated in one town or area, low-income families, renters and basement tenants are the most vulnerable to damages, according to Hiple.  

“Different groups when exposed to the same type of hazard have different resources. And that’s financial resources, social resources, and awareness resources,” said Bowers.

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