MAP:Flooding in State and Church street Northampton neighborhoods about to get short-term fix from the city

Last modified: Friday, June 20, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Every time they see a weather forecast calling for severe thunderstorms, residents along State and Church streets near the city’s bike path brace for water to come gushing down their streets, across their yards and ultimately into their basements.

That’s just what happened nearly a month ago when a Memorial Day weekend storm dropped nearly 3 inches of water in a hour. Hugo Viera, who rents a house at the end of State Street near an on-ramp to the bike path, said the water flowed down State Street in front of his house so hard that it began to form small rapids.

“We were scared,” said Viera, of 281 State St. “It felt like we were walking in a river. I think that was one of the hardest rains I’ve ever seen.”

Viera said he watched as water pushed its way into his basement “like faucets,” but he acknowledges being one of the lucky ones, having only 6 inches of water in his basement instead of the 5 feet some of his neighbors experienced.

“Some others had it worse,” Viera said, standing in his now-dry basement as two fans and a humidifier worked overtime to dry the space.

The neighborhood has seen plenty of floods over the years as a result of more frequent and intense storms. The storm on May 23 dropped a deluge of water that overwhelmed a nearby brook already filled with wood debris and remnants of several beaver dams. Instead of flowing into a culvert under the bike path and into the Barrett Street Marsh behind Stop & Shop off King Street, the water went over the brook’s bank, headed alongside the bike path and onto State and Church streets.

This isn’t the first time that residents along those streets — a triangular-shaped area whose homes abut the city’s bike path — have had to replace furnaces, boilers, hot water heaters and mechanical systems as a result of an intense storm. But they want it to be last.

“These guys have had multiple storms and multiple flooding events,” City Council President William H. Dwight said. “They’ve had to replace a lot of stuff. They are anxious and stressed out, with cause.”

Top brass at the city’s Department of Public Works, many of whom toured the area with Mayor David J. Narkewicz in the wake of the Memorial Day weekend storm, have devised a short-term plan that they believe can help alleviate some of the more immediate drainage issues. Engineers are also studying longer-term — and more expensive — answers to the chronic problem, said City Engineer James Laurila.

“There is a long list of stuff we’re doing to reduce the risk of flooding that folks experience,” he said.

The entire drainage area, known as the King Street Brook Watershed, encompasses 161 acres stretching from Childs Park to the Round Hill Road area. Stormwater flows from these areas into the King Street brook that eventually feeds into a 4-by-4-foot culvert under the bike path and into a sediment basin at the Barrett Street Marsh not far from Stop & Shop.

The brook, however, is not functioning as well as it could thanks to the prevalence of beaver dams and woody debris that have accumulated upstream from the bike path. Some of that debris has flowed downstream and clogged the culvert. Additionally, sediment had built up inside the culvert, impeding the flow of water through the system and into the sediment basin.

Since last month’s storm, Laurila said, crews have cleaned out the culvert twice, moved the remnants of beaver dams and woody debris to the banks of the brook upstream from the bike path, and breached some muddy debris downstream and next to the sediment basin to allow the water elevation to drop by about a foot.

The DPW also received emergency approval from the Conservation Commission late last month to remove four “beaver deceiver” structures, pick up the debris piles and clear out the sedimentation basin at Barrett Street Marsh. That work is taking place this week, forcing closure of a section of the bike path between Adare Place and Stoddard Street for public use between the hours of 6:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

In a recent memo to Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen T. Carney, who represents the area and also lives on Church Street and has experienced flooding of her own, Laurila outlines the department’s work to clear the brook and touches on longer-term ideas to deal with the problem.

“We want to get the brook clean and as clear as possible to facilitate drainage from the top of the hill (Round Hill) to the culvert,” he said.

That would be welcome news to the likes of Frank Cushing, of 277 State St., who recently had a tankless water heater installed in the main part of his house after the Memorial Day weekend storm left 5 feet of water in his basement and destroyed the last water heater. The house’s furnace was also too damaged to salvage and the sump pump in the basement gave out trying to handle too much water, he said.

“The street floods and water just comes down the driveway like a river,” said Cushing, pointing from his house up a shared sand driveway. “There was a foot of water outside the front door, we lost our utilities. Most of the garden made it through ... I hope the city manages the watershed so that it doesn’t keep flooding like this.”

Other residents feel the same way, which is why many of them shared their plight at a recent Board of Public Works meeting and pleaded with the city to take action.

Sun Ae Yun, of 237 State St., said intense storms like last month’s are frightening and end up being a lot of work to recover from. It took her eight hours to get water off her property after a storm a year ago, she said.

“I get scared every time,” Yun said.

Carney understands her neighbors’ anxiety. She is glad the DPW is working on a short-term maintenance plan, while still pursuing a more permanent engineering solution.

“It needs a real engineering solution rather than continued maintenance,” said Carney, adding she’s confident the DPW leadership is committed to studying such solutions. “It’s not fair to the people whose yards and basements get flooded.”

Laurila said longer-term plans include possibly raising driveway aprons or using berms on State and Church streets, evaluating whether to straighten and dredge the King Street Brook to make it deeper, as well as other stream channel improvements such as constructing a second overflow outlet or piping water directly into the Barrett Street Marsh.

Other analysis will review costs to increase the size of drainpipes in State and Church streets, and whether pipes on King Street can handle the extra drainage that would result from such a move.

Laurila said the city intends to review and analyze the entire drainage system, which channels water from the King Street Brook all the way to the Connecticut River.

“Given the size of the drainage area, eventually the whole area needs to be examined,” he said.