Council hears calls for more money, planning for flooding

Morrissey Boulevard was inundated during a recent high tide event.
Boston Harbor Now image

Climate change is heading toward Boston on the high tides, city officials agree, and they say strategic infrastructure improvements can help shore up vulnerable coastal areas while longterm adjustments are made in the most flood-susceptible spots.

The topic was plumbed in depth on Monday at a nearly three-hour Committee on Planning, Development and Transportation hearing sponsored by At-Large Councillor Michelle Wu.

“Our goal is to go beyond planning to implementation,” Wu said in a statement after the meeting. “Boston needs to make sure all our buildings and infrastructure can withstand more frequent and intense flooding, not just new commercial developments. That will take money and policy.”

Experts from the Boston Society of Architects, Boston Society of Civil Engineers, UMass Boston Sustainable Solutions Lab, and the Boston Green Ribbon Commission joined leaders from the Conservation Law Foundation, Harborkeepers, and Boston Harbor Now in testifying at the hearing.
Regulators from the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and the Environment Department were also on hand to discuss the legislation, funding, and governance structures needed to protect Boston’s residents and infrastructure for a future that experts say will include frequent flooding events.

Boston has a number of efforts under way to address the challenges of climate change, said Alison Brizius, the city’s director of climate and environmental planning.

“As we have seen in recent months, Boston residents are already affected by extreme rain, snow, flooding, and increased heat,” Brizus said. “With climate change, these trends will likely continue.”

The city was walloped by a series of March northeasters, after a mild February that offered some respite from a vicious January storm. City waters rose about 15 feet during a Jan. 5 storm that flooded the Seaport and turned downtown roads into waterways. Traffic in and around Dorchester ground to a halt for hours at a time as Morrissey Boulevard flooded during the extreme high tides.

A recent WBUR/MassINC poll found that 65 percent of voters believe that climate change is “bringing more frequent severe storms to Massachusetts,” although it was heavily split along partisan lines. Of Democrats, 78 percent agreed with the position, compared to 34 percent of Republicans.

Following the January storm, Brizus said the city began a project focused on analyzing the flooding response to isolate opportunities of improvement.

Climate Ready Boston, which was launched in 2016, identified areas particularly vulnerable to flooding and other climate risks. It predicts that sea levels will rise 10 feet by 2030 and 37 feet by 2050. In the city’s 2018 budget, about $573,000 is allocated to the climate project, along with $400,000 in grants and outside contributions.

Richard McGuinness, the deputy director for Waterfront Planning at the BPDA, said the city’s planning arm is including climate protections in new projects. In areas like Glover’s Corner, which is alongside a part of Savin Hill that poses a risk as a potential flood channel, “our actions are guided by the most accurate flood modeling available,” he said.

“Projects are currently under way in East Boston, Charlestown, South Boston, and Dorchester to address how to modify our shoreline to protect the city from current or future flood risks,” Brizus said. In some neighborhoods, relatively minor alterations could have major preventative impacts, she added, such as installing a deployable flood wall in East Boston and elevating a section of Charlestown’s Main Street to protect more than 4,500 residents and 130 businesses.

South Boston and the northernmost edge of Dorchester are particularly vulnerable to flooding pathways. The Moakley Park Vision and Planning Process, which the city recently launched, will “integrate coastal and storm water flood protection into the park’s updates plan.” Another open house for the visioning is planned for April 11.

On the city policy level, participants called for increasing priority and urgency for building with resiliency. Flooding overlay districts could be added to existing zoning, for more precise planning by vulnerable neighborhoods and districts.

Bud Ris, a senior advisor to the Green Ribbon Commission, estimated that it could cost between $1 billion and $2.5 billion over the next decade to build infrastructure for flooding resiliency, though the cost would be far outweighed by that of inaction, panelists and residents testified.