Municipalities Seek Help with Increased Flooding

Changing weather patterns and increased urban development are to blame

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The governor’s new Executive Climate Change Council is holding a flurry of meetings as it prepares a status report for May. Some of the findings, so far, reveal a complex bureaucracy that stifles efforts to address rapid increases in flooding, sea-level rise and other climate impacts affecting Rhode Island.

In West Warwick, town planner Fred Presley has endured six serious floods since March 2010. Presley is bracing for more now that the rainy season is here, the ground is saturated and the Pawtuxet River is flowing at peak level.

"This time of year scares the heck out of me,“ Presley said during an April 15 meeting of the new climate council.

The only dry spots in town are the local coffers. A recent study found West Warwick needs up to $40 million to renovate storm drains and other infrastructure, most of it built in the late 1800s.

Presley and residents are frustrated with a lack of support to address the long-term problem. A federal program designed to buy repeatedly flooded property approved just one of two dozen homes and businesses that applied for buyouts.

Property owners are fed up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the buyout program, Presley said. “FEMA is a dirty, four-letter word to them.”

Other residents are threatening to sue the town for not addressing the water woes, he said.

Stormwater is hitting the town on many fronts. Increased rainfall and unchecked development strain the city’s antiquated drainage system. Water also heads downstream from Coventry through new 48-inch drainpipes. When it rains, the new pipes overwhelm West Warwick’s 24-inch pipes.

But the elephant in the room, Presley said, is the artificially high water level at the Scituate Reservoir. The public water source is now filled to capacity earlier — March instead of June. Presley wants the water level lowered ahead of heavy rains, storms that will replenish the drained water.

“A water body that can’t take any more water is the same as a parking lot,” Presley said.

Rainwater added to the 17-square-mile surface of the reservoir simply runs over the dam and into the Pawtuxet River. The flow, he said, has increased 50 percent during heavy rains.

“It’s been proven. The data is there. It’s just that no one is doing anything about it,” Presley said.

A call to the Providence Water Supply Board, manager of the Scituate Reservoir, wasn't returned.

Development problems
David Vallee, hydrologist-in-charge at the federal Northeast River Forecast Center in Taunton, Mass., said the Scituate Reservoir isn’t equipped to manage flood problems. Climate change and urban development downstream are the culprits, he said.

Climate change has brought an earlier and wetter spring, he wrote in an e-mail. “We are increasing our annual rainfall in Rhode Island by approximately 1 inch every eight or nine years. The original designers certainly never saw that kind of increase coming when they built the reservoir back in the late 1910s and early 1920s.”

Cranston, Warwick and West Warwick are all figuring out how to adapt to this influx of water.

In West Warwick, Presley is slowly advancing the concept of a stormwater utility district to pay for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance. A utility district works much like a sewer system, but instead of sewage discharges, property owners pay for the volume of runoff from a building or parking lot that flows into the stormwater drains. Presley estimates an average cost of $50 a year per homeowner. It’s been a challenge to convince residents and the Town Council that these fees are needed.

“It’s a new reality because we are in new conditions right now,” he said.

Several Providence-area municipalities are considering a regional stormwater utility district, as are Middletown and Newport.

“We need some help in pulling this together,” said Jane Howington, Newport’s city manager. She described neighborhood streets flooding, as storm drains flow backward at high tide, a process known as dry flooding.

Programs and funds from the state Coastal Resources Center and the Office of Statewide Planning have paid for studies and public outreach in several communities such as Newport, but flexibility is needed from other state agencies so communities can experiment with innovative drainage techniques and advance a shared stormwater utility district, Howington said.

“Within 30 years, three to five feet of rising sea level will be in major areas within Newport that aren’t even going to be there anymore," she said. "They’ll be underwater.”

Town planners from North Kingstown and Cranston also reported persistent flooding from stormwater runoff and higher tides.

“Flooding is our issue,” said Jason Pezzullo, Cranston’s principal planner. Upgrades are needed for the sewage treatment plant and pump stations, he said. Thousands of homes lie in increasingly wet flood zones — areas that were dry until about 10 years ago.

Cranston received federal money to buy six flood-prone homes. It hopes to raise additional revenue by joining a Providence-area stormwater utility district.

Planners are counting on funds from the $75 million Clean Water, Open Space and Healthy Communities bond referendum in November. Efforts also are underway to create a climate adaptation institute at the University of Rhode Island, to provide long-term solutions and expertise to municipalities.

For now, these communities want local and statewide support to advance new ideas and regional solutions.

“We need some ability to try different things without having other agencies put so severe constraints on us that we're not able to do those things that might help in the long run. That means we all have to work together on it,” Howington said.

Referring to the heavy rains falling on Providence as he spoke, Presley said he expected phone calls from flooded residents asking for help. The best he can do for now is send firefighters to pump out basements.

“This is a monumental shift that’s going on here,” he said. 

Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection and chair of the Executive Climate Change Council, said she expects to include these needs and suggested solutions in the draft of recommendations that will be submitted to Gov. Lincoln Chafee next month.