Bringing nature back into our environment

Trees, wetlands, green infrastructure could have enormous impact

EVEN IF WE STOPPED Using fossil fuels tomorrow, here in the Northeast we will continue to face more intense storms, more frequent drought, and more extreme heat. And virtually no one is doing enough to protect people, property, and the natural world from these weather extremes.

Just as climate activists are rising up to demand that governments move more quickly to transition off the fossil fuels that are warming our planet, so too should concerned citizens pressure local governments to act more quickly to invest in smart “climate resilience.”

Did you ever notice how many cities and towns in Massachusetts are named for water?  Watertown, Swampscott, Marshfield, Brookline, Lakeville… before the arrival of Europeans, our lands were naturally very watery.  But over the decades, “progress” meant filling, damming, diverting, or polluting rivers, flood plains, brooks, and swamps (now called wetlands) in order to clear the way for our built environment.

Seemingly overlooked was the fact that these water-prone areas were actually nature’s solutions to dealing with both an over-abundance and dearth of rainfall. In contrast, our human system of storm drains or culverts is built for a static amount of rainfall falling at predictable intervals: too much rain leads to flash flooding, too little means dry stream beds.

Our built environment also means fewer trees are in place to help absorb the rainfall, again leading to more flooding.

Sea level rise gets a lot of attention, and it should, but all communities, not just coastal ones, face significant risks from stormwater and riverine flooding. Since 1958 the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events (defined as the heaviest 1 percent of all daily events) grew 71 percent in the Northeast– the highest increase anywhere in the country. This means flash flooding can happen anytime, and the frequency will grow.

Heat brings additional threats. July was the Earth’s hottest month on record. Many homes in Massachusetts still lack air conditioning because until recently our summers were not that hot. But according to a report from Union of Concerned Scientists, days that feel like 100 degrees or more will occur 26 times a year by 2100 if action isn’t taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Even people who have air conditioning are at risk during power outages, which are also increasing with extreme storms. In fact, more people are killed by heat than any other weather-related cause, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Those who are at most risk from climate change are low-income communities, people of color, the elderly, and young children.

Many of the most effective and inexpensive solutions to building climate resilience involve bringing nature back into our built environment. Such nature-based solutions include restoring urban tree canopy, restoring wetlands, daylighting buried streams, and installing “green infrastructure,” such as bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavers that absorb water, thereby reducing stormwater runoff and flooding and recharging aquifers. Not only do these solutions offer protection, they offer co-benefits of cleaner air, cleaner water, and the psychological benefit we all get from living in and around green space.

Local governments know to invest in police to protect communities from crime. They know to invest in firefighters to protect communities from fire. But mayors, city councilors, and select board members are not yet giving these nature-based solutions the attention they deserve as protection from flooding, heat, and air pollution.  More impermeable surface means more flooding, more stormwater pollution, and more heat island effect — yet too often the discussion around development revolves around zoning and property tax revenues, not the cost to public health and safety.

Another obstacle is that water does not stop at a municipal boundary. Yet cities and towns in Massachusetts do not have a tradition or culture of working together. If an upstream community were considering paving over green space in such a way that it would cause more flooding downstream in the Charles River, there is no mechanism by which downstream communities would be notified, much less be included in decision making.

The Charles River watershed is benefiting from a nature-based solution implemented decades ago, yet it is virtually unknown to many. After Hurricane Diane devastated many watershed communities in the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers established the “Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area” in order to hold floodwaters and protect downstream communities. The Natural Valley Storage Area is comprised of 8,100 acres of non-contiguous wetlands in 16 towns in Norfolk, Middlesex, and Suffolk Counties; peak flows in the lower watershed occur approximately four days after the end of a heavy rainfall. A wonderful co-benefit of the storage area is the opportunity for recreation, restoration of bird and animal habitat, and simple enjoyment of nature.

More recently, and to its credit, the Baker administration has created the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program to help cities and towns identify their vulnerabilities from climate change, and invest in projects to protect them; to date over $17 million has been distributed to municipalities. But it is a fraction of the need.

Meet the Author

Emily Norton

Ward 2 city councilor, Newton
Meet the Author

Vernon K. Walker

Public policy director/Reverend, Young Democrats of Massachusetts/Berachah Church, Dorchester
Are your local government officials doing enough to protect you from the impacts of climate change that are unavoidable? Ask them. And then support the necessary funding for nature-based solutions that will protect you, your family, your property, and your community.

Emily Norton is the executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association. Rev. Vernon K. Walker is program manager for Communities Responding to Extreme Weather, CREW.