Storms that sweep the Charles River will flood many critical facilities, including hospitals, fire stations, schools, and fire stations. The flooding is also threatening the Wellesley’s only grocery store. As the climate crisis worsens over the next decade, the impacts will only get more severe.
At least, that’s what a recent flooding modelFrom the Charles River Watershed Association projects.
The climate crisis is often viewed through a global perspective. The changing climate is less global than it appears for those who are most affected. more common and more damaging natural disasters — which is where projects like the flooding model come in.
Massachusetts municipalities are using a regional approach for climate change mitigation. More than a dozen municipalities worked together to create the flooding model through the Charles River Watershed Association, conducted by environmental consulting firm Weston & Sampson, to assess their collective needs. In the face of a daunting challenge and limited resources, local governments are applying for grants together.
“When you’re talking about some of the impacts that are expected from climate change, while they are local, they are not necessarily jurisdictional. They’re not necessarily defined by political boundaries,” said Julie Wood, a deputy director at the Charles River Watershed Association who oversees the project. “And flooding, of course, is a prime example of that. Flooding doesn’t stop at one town boundary.”
Protecting Massachusetts’ municipalities
Many Massachusetts cities and towns have appointed sustainability managers to lead their efforts against the effects of climate change.
Within their local governments, sustainability-focused workers often act as internal consultants, working with just about every department to implement energy-saving measures — which means that participation from fellow employees is essential to getting things done. They propose and coordinate projects — and secure funding for them — such as replacing diesel school buses with electric ones, or proposing changes to building codes to make future developments more energy-efficient, or trying to preserve open land near a river as a buffer for when flooding comes.
Though each sustainability manager’s job varies in structure and level of authority, with some housed within a transportation or public works department, they’re generally tasked with two problems: mitigation and resilience.
“Climate change is happening,” said Martha Grover, the sustainability manager in Melrose. “The mitigation is the energy-efficiency work, the renewable energy, that we’re trying to fend off. The Earth is also warming at the same moment that the atmosphere is warming. The impacts we’re experiencing every day, we need to learn how to adapt and make our communities more resilient to the flooding, the heat, the rising sea level.”
“Both things have to happen,” she went on, “and we need to speed it up.”
With Massachusetts’ many miles of coastline and its aging infrastructure, there’s no shortage of government greening projects. More workers are getting hired in towns and cities where such positions simply didn’t exist in the past, christened with new titles like sustainability directors or coordinators. And there’s also buy-in from political leaders and citizens in the liberal commonwealth, which means sustainability managers don’t have to spend as much of their time convincing others that resilience and mitigation efforts need their attention.
It’s a substantial and liberating change from even a decade ago, as several sustainability coordinators told GBH News.
“When I started seven years ago, I don’t think people in Natick were as aware or concerned about climate change,” said Jillian Wilson-Martin, Natick’s sustainability coordinator. “There wasn’t as much receptivity to the fact that the climate was changing and that we needed to prepare for it. And now in conversation, supervisors who are responsible for plowing streets or for purchasing vehicles, they get it and they know that we need to be working on solutions together.”
As the effects of climate change like extreme fires, flooding and other natural disasters became more urgent, resilience has become a key focus. Many towns are now setting targets for net-zero emission, giving themselves until 2030 or 2040, or, like Boston 2050, to offset the amount of greenhouse gasses they absorb and emit.
Wilson-Martin explained that government design has partly influenced the emphasis on regional work. Sustainability coordinators go where the grants are, so state opportunities dictate the cities’ and towns’ greening agendas.
“More state funding is definitely needed for municipalities, but the state does give us some great direction and does that by providing grant opportunities,” Wilson-Martin said. “We’re really working more regionally.”
There are limits to the possibility of working together. Regional bodies and commitments don’t have governmental power, making them “toothless,” says Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University. It’s ultimately up to the towns and cities how they devote their resources and their time.
“It’s very difficult to coordinate,” Fitzgerald said. “If you didn’t do what you said you did, there was no ramifications to that at all.”
“Flooding doesn’t stop at one town boundary.”
But for resilience work in particular, Wood says, it’s crucial to work together. One town’s attempt to stem flooding could make things worse for communities further downstream.
“If everybody’s just trying to act in a vacuum and serve their own best interests, you’re likely going to create other problems down the line,” she said.
Tackling climate change with ‘copy and paste’
Massachusetts cities and towns realized the importance of creating positions that are specifically focused on sustainability at different times. Melrose hired a sustainability manger a decade ago. Brookline just created an executive-level position in January.
With seven years on the job, Natick’s Jillian Wilson-Martin is, relatively speaking, an old pro. She gives her time to help other towns get their sustainability programs up and running.
“We all need to work on basically the same things, so feel free to copy and paste Natick’s plan and just customize it to your community based on your politics, the different unique aspects of your community,” she tells neighboring towns. “Since we’re all working on the same thing, it makes sense to partner because there are so many opportunities to save time and money to get the job done.”
Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration formed the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program in 2017By offering grants to government projects that will combat the effects of climate change, we can open up funding for resilience. For cash-strapped departments, new funds are what they need in order to kickstart their efforts.
Working together means cutting costs for departments that rely on grants — departments that are often, as Melrose’s Grover put it, “a department of one.” While some cities might have the funds and political will to enact bigger projects, others need to team up. Melrose, Natick, and Arlington, for example, collaborated with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of Boston to develop net zero plans and track down greenhouse gas sources in their communities. supported byState funding
“We were able to create a net-zero action plan and greenhouse gas inventory for a tiny fraction of the cost of hiring a consultant to do those things for us,” said Ken Pruitt, Arlington’s energy manager.
“The sustainability municipal staff are just incredibly scrappy,” added Wilson-Martin. “We usually don’t have budgets, we’re almost fully grant funded in terms of our work and most of us are bringing in 10 times or more the amount of money that we make in terms of grants.”
Where are the sustainability workers?
Regional cooperation is a way to accelerate the fight against climate change. A town declaring that it wants net-zero emission in a few decades or decades is similar to when the United States declared that it would land at the moon in early 1960s.
“You can say you want to go to the moon, but you’ve got to be able to build a vehicle, and get people in it, and get it there, and then get it back,” said Tom Barrasso, Brookline’s sustainability director. “We now need to formulate that into an actual plan with the funds and technology that’s available right now.”
Due to the municipal staff tapping their state counterparts on the shoulder, more funds are on the horizon. The Charles River Watershed Association, for instance, asked for the state to put $300 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the MVP program, the state’s resilience fund. (Last week, a bill was passed by the state Legislature. directing $100 millionto climate resilience, and tens to millions more to broadly address changing climate. The bill is now in the hands of Gov. Baker’s desk.)
“You can say you want to go to the moon, but you’ve got to be able to build a vehicle, and get people in it, and get it there, and then get it back.”
Not all goals are as lofty and as ambitious as a literal moon landing. For the flooding model along the Charles River, just one of the problems that sustainability employees are working on with partnering departments, the next step is figuring out how to prevent the worst of the flooding they’ve foreseen.
With a new grant from the state’s MVP program, the group has the funds to roll out a few interventions, like possibly creating more wetlands as a buffer, more stormwater infrastructure and flooding storage. Wood, the project’s leader, says that thinking aggressively is the only way to make a big impact.
“None of the strategies that we tested even got us down to present-day conditions, let alone getting better than that,” Wood said. “We really can’t think about this with our 2021 brains. …We can’t be thinking in terms of, ‘What’s affordable right now, what’s politically feasible right now?’ We really need to start thinking more about, ‘what is coming and how are we going to protect ourselves?’”