Building resilience into built environment no easy task – CommonWealth Magazine

AS AN ENVIRONMENTAL ENGINEER, climate resilience enthusiast, and local agriculture advocate, the recent flooding in Western Massachusetts touched on the things I care about most in the world. Within my local region, the ancestral Nonotuck Homelands now known as Pioneer Valley, the impacts to roads, rivers, and farms have been nerve-racking, but the community responses have been equally inspiring.

In Easthampton, State Route 5 was closed for two days. This route is the daily work commute for many people, myself included. The road’s elevation and proximity to Oxbow Lake makes it extremely vulnerable to flooding. Along the route, several bridges and roads were overtopped by streams experiencing unusually high levels, and in many nearby towns there have even been landslides. Many culverts, which are the pipes that transport water beneath roads, were damaged by the force of these large flows and in extreme cases were washed out completely, left in need of immediate repair.

Fortunately, the state of Massachusetts is funding projects that incorporate resiliency into water infrastructure, including by funneling federal funds to municipalities and nonprofits in the form of grant programs. Agencies like the Department of Environmental Protection, the Division of Ecological Restoration, and MassWildlife ensure public projects are built in a way that minimizes impacts to our ecosystems.

By replacing outdated culverts, removing dams, and restoring floodplains, Massachusetts is slowly but surely reconnecting watersheds, which is crucial in preparing for future flood resilience. Aquatic and hydraulic connectivity is important because it allows the free flow of water. In contrast, dams and undersized culverts create barriers. During heavy storm events these barriers act like a plug, usually flooding the upstream area of the barrier. In extreme cases, the backing up of the water will cause a structure failure resulting in road washouts, sudden surcharges of flow downstream, and catastrophic flooding.

Roads weren’t the only system overwhelmed by the recent storm — the nearby city of Holyoke reported that close to 6 million gallons of combined sewer overflow (a mix of excess stormwater and untreated sewage) was discharged into the Connecticut River. Waters downstream, which are often a cooling refuge to those without air conditioning during this hot and humid season, have become dangerously unsanitary due to this sewage spill.

The city knew its sewer system was unprepared for today’s storms: in March, Holyoke came to a settlement with the Department of Justice to invest $27 million worth of water infrastructure projects to partially separate the storm and sewer systems in an effort to minimize spills.

The infrastructure updates Massachusetts needs will get a big boost from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act that include billions for safe water, sanitation, and flood resilience.

But while we await those improvements, Pioneer Valley residents are coming together to support each other through disasters, and that’s what gives me the most hope. For example, Ben and Liz’s Mountain View Farm lost 45 acres of crops, including tomatoes, peppers, corn, carrots, leeks, potatoes, onions, squash, and cucumbers. Many of these crops were ripe for harvest just hours before the flood. What would have been a summer’s worth of fresh produce and stockings for winter farm sales was lost to the flood.

A few days after the flooding occurred, the farmers at Mountain View hopped on the tractor and planted new rows of green beans. Fast forward a couple of weeks and the farm has rallied an impressive amount of support through their GoFundMe relief fundraiser. If you stop by their farm store, you might smell the fresh scent of sweet onions wafting through the air. And in Easthampton, you might overhear locals sharing kind words about their trusted local farmers, and may leave with a sense that regardless of what storms may come, this community stays together.

Meet the Author

Environmental engineer, Massachusetts Department of Transportation

The work to incorporate resilience into our built environment is no simple task. But by coupling local solidarity, public investments and nature-based solutions — at the watershed scale — we can ensure both our communities and ecosystems are ready for the next bout of wild weather.

Billie Li is an environmental engineer by training, a climate resilience enthusiast, and a novice fly-fisher. She is currently working as an environmental engineer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and has worked for private consulting firms, the federal government, and several environmental non-profits.

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