Flooding, Stormwater, Climate Change, and a Billion Dollar Infrastructure Problem

Flooding is on everyone’s mind right now: we had a Flash Flood event on Thursday and are braced for Hurricane Henri’s rains this week.

But flooding – and stormwater management, and our sewers – have been on my mind for years. Today I’d like to let you know what we’ve been doing in the City for the past 4 years to prepare for these storms, and what we can do better in the next 4 years.

Well over half of Somerville’s sewage and stormwater drains through Union Square. Almost all of it does so through our 100+ year old combined sewer system. Updating that system isn’t just about preventing the sinkholes and collapses that we’ve been seeing increasingly over the past 10 years as regular maintenance has fallen by the wayside; we need to engage in massive improvements to our underground infrastructure to handle the storms of today and tomorrow.

You already know how bad the flooding is; like me, you probably spent Thursday and Friday mucking sewage out of your basements, businesses, and sidewalks. Unfortunately, climate change means our problem will only get worse. If you haven’t read Somerville’s 2017 Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, I recommend it. It’s a stark picture of Somerville’s future if we don’t act with urgency. Fortunately, since it was published we are already underway on projects intended to address some of these issues.


Fortunately, we’re already underway to the tune of $140 Million in projects on what I describe as “Phase 1, Phase 1a, Phase 2, and Phase 2a” of “How to Stop Ward 2 from Flooding”.

Phase 1: Somerville Ave Union Sq Project

Cost: $63M
Timeline: 2018-“Finishing Soon”
Storage Capacity: roughly 250k gal
What it is: Giant 14’x8′ box culverts for stormwater drainage, the main outlet for the future separated system in Somerville. In the meantime, those act as an overflow tank for flood events. This is why we haven’t been able to get through Union Square for the past 4 years.
What else?: new separated bike lanes, wider sidewalks, raised ped crossings, more trees

Phase 1a: Poplar St Pumpstation Project

Cost: $50M
Timeline: 2022-2025
Storage Capacity: roughly 4.5 Million gallons
What it is: Basically a 4-story building, below ground, topped with a pump station connecting it to the MBTA’s drainage line in the event of an overflow. This is the big “buck stops here” project which is the catch-all for flood overflow at the end of the line of the Phase 1 project (and about half the city). Provides about 1/3 reduction in floodwaters in Lincoln Park and Duck Village areas, also.
What else?: the long promised “ArtFarm”, about 2 acres of green space including arts and agriculture area in Ward 2

Phase 2: Spring Hill Separation Project

Timeline: 2022-2025
Cost: $30M
Area: 65 acres of sewer separation, about 20k linear feet of sewer and stormwater drain lines
What it is: Separating stormwater from our sewer lines uphill of Union Square, including the Spring Hill piece of Ward 2. This will help reduce the “surcharge” flooding – when the pipes fill up and start ejecting mixed sewer floods onto our streets and sidewalks – and will add drainage capacity to the whole system. It connects into the Phase 1 pipes and pump station.
What else?: new sidewalks, raised ped crossings, new bike lanes, over 180 new trees

Phase 2b: Lake Street Storage Tank

Cost: Free (paid for and built by the developer of 346 Somerville Ave)
Timeline: Now-2023
Storage Capacity: 100k gallons, roughly equivalent to 10 tractor-trailer tankers underground
What it is: Underneath the new public park being built on Lake St as part of the 346 Somerville Ave project, a sizable overflow tank to help reduce flash flood events on Lake Street. Will create several new stormwater connections at the low point of Lake Street and immediately improve drainage on Lake Street.
What else?: new pedestrian connection from Bow Market to Olive Square, new public park of roughly 10k square feet, 100 new residential units, 20 new affordable units.


So that’s what’s already funded and in the construction pipeline. Those projects alone will reduce flooding in the Lincoln Park and Duck Village area by about a third, but to completely eliminate flooding we have a few more projects that have already been through preliminary design and are working towards “shovel ready” status. That’s phases 3, 4, and 4b, and I’m working with my colleagues on the City Council, the Mayor, the Engineering team, and state and federal delegations to secure funding and accelerate the timelines on these projects for the ward. If we’re going to fix the flooding in Somerville and Ward 2, we need to ensure these projects move forward as fast as possible.

Phase 3: Duck Village/Perry/Washington Project

Cost: ~$30M+
Timeline: Future, potentially 2024-2026
Storage Capacity: roughly 1M gal
What it is: Full sewer and stormwater separation for Duck Village and the surrounding area, added 18″ stormwater main for Washington St, new 1M gal flood overflow tank in Perry Park serviced by a 30″ line. Will practically eliminate flooding in the area.
What else?: new sidewalks, raised and shortened ped crossings, new trees, finalized version of the Washington St Bus/Bike pilot project.

Phase 4: Lincoln Park South Neighborhood Project

Cost: ~$30M+
Timeline: Future, potentially 2025-2027
Storage Capacity: roughly 2.75M gal
What it is: Full sewer and stormwater separation for Duck Village and the surrounding area, new 2+M gal flood overflow tank in Parca Portuguesa/Concord Triangle. Can connect to the new Boynton Yards infrastructure and overflow tank. Will eliminate flooding in the area.
What else?: new sidewalks, raised ped crossings, new trees

Phase 4b: Boynton Yards Project

Cost: $50M for the tank, more for the pipes; paid for substantially by developers but built by the City
Timeline: Phased, 2022-2027
Storage Capacity: roughly 2.75M gal
What it is: Full sewer and stormwater separation for Boynton Yards, new 1.5M gal flood overflow tank. Can connect to the new Boynton Yards infrastructure and overflow tank. Will eliminate flooding in the area.
What else?: all new sidewalks and streets, new South Street extension all the way to Webster, raised and shortened ped crossings, new trees, 2+acres of green space, public parks, and outdoor performance venues as well as a new expanded home for Groundwork Somerville

A Green New Deal for Somerville

Since getting elected in 2017 we’ve already started over $100M into approved and funded projects, with well over $100M more planned for Ward 2 in the next 6 years. These projects will dramatically reduce flooding in our neighborhoods, but they do move at the speed of “subsurface infrastructure projects”, which does take time and can be hard to live with while it’s underway.

How the City implements those projects can have a profound impact on more than just the flooding mitigation and our environmental responsibility to not discharge sewage into our streets and the Mystic River though.

Last week, Senator Markey was in Ward 2 to announce the provisions of his Green New Deal packages in Washington DC, including the new Civilian Climate Corps. Working with Sen Markey and Rep Pressley in Washington, it’s my goal to secure funding for these projects and for a massive job training and full employment program for Somerville. Rather than spend these hundreds of millions on outside contractors alone, this is a transformative opportunity for us to rebuild a robust working class in Somerville, training residents in trades for these climate and infrastructure jobs and putting them to work for decades.

Because the work of infrastructure in Somerville isn’t limited to this quarter of a billion dollars in subsurface projects. To completely repair and update our sewer system is fully a Billion Dollar Problem that will take well over a decade. To completely update our water infrastructure and prevent future breaks is another half-billion. To pave our streets, currently in horrible disrepair, is another half-billion dollars – and we’re only paving 1 mile a year currently. To refit our city buildings to bring them up to ADA standards and make them energy efficient is close to a half-billion dollars as well.

In order to tackle all these issues we’ll need political will and collaboration with our federal colleagues – but more importantly to the future of Somerville’s residents we’ll need to be committed to using local labor and going the extra mile to build a strong and diverse working class that earns enough to live in this community.

In the meantime, hang in there Ward 2. Please keep calling 311 to report flooding, keep clearing your storm sewer drains when you see them blocked, keep helping your neighbors get through these storms. The city has published some tips on how to handle flooding, and we have strong requirements in zoning and other ordinances for new construction to not make our stormwater problems worse, but long-term this isn’t a “personal responsibility” type of problem. Our flooding issues are a system-wide infrastructure challenge, and I’m already working with a great team to fix it. With your support, we’ll get it done in this decade.