Flooded with problems: Boston City Council to mull storm-water solutions

Meghan Ottolini Monday, March 26, 2018
City councilors — alarmed by back-to-back storms — will hold a special hearing today on the threat of coastal flooding, after seeing waterborne debris flow through Boston’s harborside streets.

“We’ve had two ‘once in a hundred year’ storms in the past month,” said Councilor Michelle Wu, the hearing’s sponsor. “Throughout Boston this is going to an issue. There will be tremendous costs. How do we plan to pay for it? How do we plan to maintain that level of resiliency? What are the governing structures, are there laws that should be passed?”

Wu first called the meeting after city waters rose 15 feet during the Jan. 5 nor’easter, sending garbage dumpsters floating down streets and stranding residents in their cars. Two more major storms hit Boston in the weeks that followed.

The extreme weather generated debate over an idea for a four-mile, $20 billion harbor barrier wall with mechanical gates that would open and close, essentially building a dam against storm surges. A team of engineers, scientists, and economists at University of Massachusetts Boston, including civil engineer Paul Kirshen, expect to release their research on the proposal in May.

But aside from the astro­nomical price tag and potential regulatory nightmare that would come with the barrier, Kirshen said it’s far from an ideal solution.

“If you build these offshore barriers, you put all your eggs in one basket,” Kirshen said. “Say the gates don’t open or close. Then you’re in trouble.”

A representative of the mayor’s office is expected to attend today’s meeting. Just this month Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration turned its attention to South Boston, which calls for more complicated solutions than other at-risk neighborhoods.

Flooding is more manageable in East Boston and Charlestown, according to city environmental chief Austin Blackmon, because flood entryways are relatively narrow. South Boston, with its many beaches and channels, presents a bigger challenge.

“In South Boston, you’ve got more area that is vulnerable, that would really require more of a coastal solution,” Blackmon told the Herald.

Climate analyst Erika Spanger-Siegfried said in just 40 years, streets in Fort Point could flood at nor’easter levels every other week.

“It isn’t a long-term risk anymore. It really has arrived,” she said.

In East Boston, developers are changing the way they build and renovate homes to prepare for the worst. Developer Marc Savatsky’s latest construction project in Jeffries Point fell within a flood zone, forcing him to incorporate redesigns such as flood vents that would allow sea water to flow in and out of the area where a traditional home’s basement would be.

Savatsky said it’s time for the city to put its money where its mouth is on flood preparation.

“A plan is great but a budget is better, because a budget leads to action,” he said.

The city’s 2018 budget allocated $573,000 to Climate Ready Boston projects, in addition to $400,000 in grants and other outside contributions.

Blackmon said that financing future projects, especially large-scale solutions, will be a challenge. Walsh’s administration has proposed protective measures for Charlestown and East Boston that would cost $62 million and $200 million, respectively.

Blackmon said the scope of the flood issue may ­demand the creation of an entirely new government structure to address the ­issues at both a city and state level, but called the “cost of inaction” “far more expensive.”

“We have billions of dollars of assets already within the FEMA flood plain,” Blackmon said. “The option of not doing anything has already passed by.”

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