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Northampton set to start upgrades to its flood control systems on Conneticut, Mill rivers

At its meeting tonight, the City Council is being asked to redirect $250,000 from a previous $350,000 municipal bond earmarked for stormwater projects throughout the city. If approved, the DPW would use the money to perform critical maintenance work in and around a system of dikes and levees built by the Army Corps in 1940 to protect the city from flooding. The city is responsible for operating and maintaining the systems.

The Army Corps is requiring the city to complete $1.2 million worth of upgrades, including repairs to levee embankments, flood walls and interior drainage systems and more. The improvements along the Mill River must be complete by January, with the Connecticut River upgrades due in January 2014.

Department of Public Works Director Ned Huntley said federal officials understand that the city can’t afford to make all of the upgrades right now. He said they are also aware that the city is in the process of figuring out a way to pay for a more extensive overhaul of its entire stormwater and flood control systems, possibly through an assessment of a new stormwater fee.

“They know that we’re not going to make those deadlines,” Huntley said. “They are allowing us to prioritize and focus on the maintenance.”

In its periodic inspection of the flood control systems on both rivers nearly two years ago, the Army Corps gave them a “minimally acceptable” rating. That means inspectors found deficiencies that require attention, though none of the problem areas would prevent the system from performing as intended during the next flood event.

Inspectors encouraged the city not to wait, saying the system could fail if not addressed within the timeframe outlined.

“I am pleased to report that the system should perform as intended; however, the longer the identified items go unresolved the greater the risk to public safety,” wrote Army Corps engineer H. Farrell McMillan in a letter to the city.

The immediate maintenance work on tap for next spring includes removing vegetation such as trees and shrubs to a distance of 15 feet from levee embankments and floodwalls; restoring areas damaged by borrowing animals and adopting a control program to minimize future activity; repairing areas affected by erosion; re-establishing grass atop the Smith College dike; and removing telephone poles and a fire hydrant.

The corps is recommending more expensive measures in the long term.

In the meantime, the city has a much larger problem on the horizon as officials work to figure out how to pay for up to $100 million in unfunded mandates and other upgrades to its decades-old stormwater and flood-control systems.

At a meeting last week, the Conference Committee of the Board of Public Works and City Council agreed they’d like to recommend the City Council create a new task force to address the issue.

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