Climate changes: Towns grapple with rising groundwater, dying trees

Published: 9/21/2019 2:42:39 PM

BELCHERTOWN — Town Conservation Administrator Erica Cross has commonly heard people note that “it’s a wet year.”

But “when you’ve been saying that for many years in a row, that’s the new normal,” Cross said. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Massachusetts has seen an increasing amount of  “extreme precipitation events,” and Belchertown has experienced an uptick in stormwater and minor flooding as a result — which is “not minor when it’s your backyard,” Cross noted.

Climate change also influences conditions that allow insects such as gypsy moths to thrive. Their caterpillars have killed hundreds of trees in town, Cross said.

Gypsy moth caterpillars are an invasive species that feed mainly on a variety of deciduous trees, but prefer oaks. The insects are capable of defoliating entire trees, and have also been known to move on to coniferous tree needles when other options have been exhausted.

A hazard tree survey revealed that 880 town-owned trees in rights of way are set to be removed due to death or disease, and 20-30 road miles still remain to be surveyed. According to Cross, “a significant portion of those trees were oaks lost to gypsy moth defoliation.”


Climate change comes at a high cost — both in terms of impact on the planet, and the price tag on resources that communities need to combat these effects. In small towns like Granby, the expenses related to mitigating the consequences of climate change pose a particularly challenging obstacle.

A rising groundwater table and dying trees stand out as two prominent issues the town faces due to climate change, said Select Board Chairman Jay Joyce. An increase in groundwater leads to stormwater contamination of some wells in town, in addition to causing septic issues and flooding.

As in Belchertown, insects such as the gypsy moth are killing trees in Granby, Joyce said, which limits the town’s carbon dioxide regulation. Additionally, the dead trees need to be removed to prevent branches from falling on and damaging power lines.

“We’re trying to figure out what to do, and if there’s any state aid to help us get these trees down so the residents don’t have to fund all this 100 percent,” Joyce said. 

Town officials have applied for state grants to fund issues related to stormwater and dying trees, Joyce said, and grant money already awarded has allowed the town to identify these issues. But Granby is still waiting to hear if it will receive additional grants to fix the problems. Without this state assistance, Joyce said, the town’s hands are tied in combating climate change, as the projects necessary to address these issues would cost “millions of dollars.”

“We don’t have that kind of money,” Joyce said, “so unless we get assistance from the state or federal government, we’re just going to do the best we can in the time we have to address it.”

The town has attempted to find creative solutions in the past — at a February 2019 town meeting, voters elected for a $1.2 million extension to a water pipeline from South Hadley into Granby to provide an alternate water source to residents. The project would normally come at a higher cost, but MassDOT will cover repaving expenses over the extension because it will be completing roadwork along the same stretch of land.

Many other small communities, such as the hilltowns, face similar problems with a lack of funding and existing infrastructure, Joyce added, and often require volunteers to move projects forward. 

“We have committees, we have volunteers,” Joyce said. “It’s people who work a job Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, that give up their time to help and do this stuff because the town doesn’t  have the resources to do it during the day.”

Regarding the climate change issues identified in Granby, the water extension is the only project set in stone, Joyce said.


Like Belchertown and Granby, South Hadley has also seen an increase in the severity of gypsy moth infestations and a rising groundwater table, in addition to other hydrology issues.

“We have flooding on private and public property where we’ve seen either no or very little flooding in previous years,” said Town Administrator Mike Sullivan. 

“The hydrology is affecting the stability and consistency of roadways,” he said, “and causing us to deal with a shorter life of roadways, and in a lot of instances, more potholes, more roadways being eroded.”

The town is also “plagued by tree issues,” Sullivan said, including gypsy moths and spruce spider mites.

Oversaturated ground in some areas has seen “root systems failing in trees and conservation areas,” Sullivan said, “and other places just falling over.”

In response to climate issues, the town has reduced its energy use in town buildings by 30 percent over the past five years, Sullivan said, which was achieved through $1.7 million put toward improving town buildings and implementing new systems.

But progress remains to be made, and Sullivan said further innovation depends not only on town officials, but also on involvement by residents, who he said can help reduce their carbon footprint through means such as ValleyBikes or taking the bus. 

“It’s not so much about the municipality addressing climate change,” he said. “It’s about the town addressing climate change. The town is the whole — citizens, the businesses, everyone — and the municipality is just a part of that.”


The town has been planning for climate change in a number of ways, Town Administrator David Nixon said, including receiving a $15,000 grant through the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program that will help the town identify issues associated with climate change that might affect the town. This will be a precursor for applying for remediation grants for issues that are identified.

Already, Hadley has had an ongoing, multiyear evaluation of the levee along the Connecticut River that protects the historic town center from potential flooding. Fire Chief Michael Spanknebel identifies municipal natural hazards and gets updates on a regular basis, Nixon said.

Although Hadley is not a Green Community, Nixon said many actions taken in town reflect the idea of promoting open space and renewable energy. Hadley has more farmland protected in the Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program than any other town in the state, and Nixon pointed to both a streamlined process of permitting solar projects and participating in the creation of an anaerobic digester


Hatfield is among the communities that have become a Green Community through the state program, said Town Administrator Marlene Michonski. As a result, the town has been able to use Department of Energy Resources grants to reduce energy use at several municipal buildings. These have included changing lights and weatherizing buildings, installing a new walk-in cooler and a new freezer motor at Smith Academy and replacing an exhaust fan at the wastewater treatment plant.

The town is also about the embark on the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program by getting assistance from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to apply for a grant, and will work with the Army Corps of Engineers on an analysis of the Connecticut River levee and a mapping procedure study.

To comply with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations, the town is undertaking a Flood Management Program coordinated by the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to amend zoning bylaws and amend its flood plain overlay district.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at Scott Merzbach can be reached at 
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