Springfield Republican: “Northeast seeing more, fiercer rainstorms in line with global warming predictions, study says”

In 2007, the Northampton City Council approved a new Wetlands Ordinance that, in the name of infill, encourages developers to encroach closer to wetlands in many in-town locations. Climate-wise, this move is badly timed, as the frequency and severity of “precipitation events” in Massachusetts is on the rise. The April 5 Republican reports:

The Northeast is seeing more frequent “extreme precipitation events” in line with global warming predictions, a study shows, including storms like the recent fierce rains whose floodwaters swallowed neighborhoods and businesses across New England…

What is more certain, researchers said, is the potential economic impact should the 60-year trend continue and require billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements to things in the region including roads, bridges, sewers and culverts…

When it came to the really big storms – ones that produce 2 inches or even 4 inches in a 24-hour period – the study found those also occurring with more regularity than in the past.

As the world warms, Wake said, there is more energy to evaporate water, creating more water vapor in the air. That in turn can increase the number of storms and the amount of precipitation those storms produce, he said.

Healthy wetlands and wetlands buffers mitigate flooding. Compared to manmade stormwater infrastructure, wetlands are cheap, effective, and low-maintenance forms of flood control. Scientific studies suggest wetlands need 50-foot buffers or more to retard degradation from human activity. In consultation with HYLA Ecological Services, NSNA recommends these changes to the Wetlands Ordinance in zoning districts URB and URC:

  • No disturbance closer than 25 feet
  • No more than 10%-15% of that portion of the buffer zone that’s 25-50 feet from a wetland should be covered with impervious surface of any kind
  • No structures closer than 50 feet EXCEPT
  • At the discretion of the Conservation Commission, the landowner may build a structure in the portion of the buffer zone that’s 25-50 feet from a wetland, provided the structure covers no more than 10% of that portion of the buffer zone

Other exceptions:

  • Building on existing impervious surfaces or modifying (without enlarging footprint of) existing structures in the buffer zone
  • Emergency projects
  • Exception for some class of limited projects – most notably driveways

See also:

Gazette: “Region’s storms going to extremes, report finds” (12/5/07)
Extreme downpours and snowstorms are rising in frequency nationally, with the highest increases in New England…

Massachusetts saw a 67 percent rise in severe storms during [1948-2006], trailing only Rhode Island and New Hampshire…

…the top 10 severe storms in the state all occurred in the past decade…

Alex Ghiselin, Letter to Gazette: “Don’t let development encroach on our wetlands”

The failure of the storm water system built as a part of the Northampton High School renovation six years ago illustrates why protecting wetlands is so important. Silt has filled the retention pond so there is no capacity to slow a storm surge which now flows unimpeded into the Mill River and contributes to flooding downstream. This accumulated silt also raised the water table and spills ground water into nearby basements…

Without maintenance, these [storm water mitigation] systems are part of the problem, not the solution…

Wetlands do not need to be maintained; they just need to be protected. 

Video: A Close Look at the Presentation of the Wetlands Ordinance to City Council on 9/20/07
The North Street Neighborhood Association has these concerns about the new Wetlands Ordinance:

  • Scientific studies suggest that buffer zones of less than 50 feet are generally ineffective at protecting wetlands
  • Urban wetlands and their buffers are key for flood control and pollution control, even though they may be mediocre natural habitats
  • While it’s true that the most permissive 10- and 35-foot buffer zones affect only about 15% of the land area of Northampton, this area contains a much greater proportion of Northampton’s population and property at risk. For example, over 38% of the population lives within one mile of the center of downtown (see table)
  • Unwise encroachment in the past does not justify more unwise encroachment today. Impacts accumulate
  • Some homes near wetlands (Meadowbrook Apartments, Winslow, Nutting and Elm Streets) are suffering from water intrusion, yet the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board have not yet analyzed these problems to prevent a repetition of mistakes
  • Several failing stormwater mitigation schemes (such as those at Northampton High School, Carlon Drive and Bridge Street School) need analysis
  • Bruce Young recently noted that compliance with wetlands protection agreements has been a big problem in Northampton. Conservation Commissioner Downey Meyer spoke to the crux of the matter at the hearing of January 22 (commenting on a prior version of Kohl’s proposal with 25 units):

    …it’s not a question of our intentions but…imagine the worst, the Holmesian ‘bad man’…you have to draft rules for the worst actor, for the least responsive landowner, especially if they’re supposed to protect a resource that is supposed to last in perpetuity… I think that…space prevents incursion.

Video: A Close Look at the Second Reading of the Wetlands Ordinance at City Council on 10/4/07

City Council Enacts New Wetlands Ordinance, Including 10-Foot Buffers
During the discussion of the ordinance, Conservation and Land Use Planner Bruce Young asserted that wetlands buffer zones were less important in Northampton’s more built-up areas, as opposed to those on the outskirts. This seems plausible with respect to wildlife and natural habitats. The wetlands in-town tend to be hemmed in, surrounded by disruptive human activities, and more fragmented. Some are degraded with invasive species and man-made materials such as masonry.

We believe, however, that our in-town buffers are more important than average when it comes to flood mitigation and water pollution. A disproportionate percentage of the people and property of the city are found in the areas now subject to 10-foot wetlands buffers. Our drainage systems there are already under stress. Flood damage reports from Tropical Storm Floyd show clusters of red flags in our urban areas, even under the previous, more restrictive buffer zone regime.

It also stands to reason that stormwater runoff, with its chemicals, oils, sand, silt, and other contaminants, is a more serious issue in our more urban areas, with their large concentrations of human activity, cars and impervious surfaces. Narrow wetlands buffers will enable that pollution to enter our streams and rivers more quickly, with less processing, and in higher volumes. This runs contrary to the spirit of the Connecticut River Strategic Plan (2003), which “proposes the removal of impervious surfaces within 50 feet of streams…” As former Councilor Alex Ghiselin observed during the public comment period, cleaning up the Connecticut River has been one of the region’s signal achievements during the past generation. It’s a shame to imperil this work.

Hyla Ecological Services Analyzes the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance

The proposed ordinance is not consistent with past practice, and favors substantial new encroachments on Northampton’s wetlands

Is the Proposed Wetlands Ordinance Similar to Current Buffer Zone Policy? Judge for Yourself