City: Flooding will get much worse in Alewife if Cambridge doesn’t plan for climate change

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The issue of climate change and its effects on the Alewife neighborhood are not new concerns, but city officials stressed at Monday’s City Council meeting that if funds and planning aren’t put into place, flooding could get much more serious in the area.

John Bolduc, the city’s environmental planner, presented a draft of Cambridge’s Alewife Preparedness Plan, outlining the city’s short, medium and long-term plans to address the impacts of climate change in Alewife in the coming years. The plan is the result of a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment the city previously conducted, which sought to identify Cambridge’s key physical and social vulnerabilities, according to the city’s website.

According to the plan, the number of days in which the temperature is 90 degrees or higher could triple by 2030, and the intensity of storms will increase dramatically in the coming decades causing parts of Alewife to be more susceptible to flooding.

“Cambridge already experiences precipitation-driven flooding in places along Alewife Brook, and in the Port neighborhood,” Bolduc said. “So if no action is taken, this kind of flooding will become more extensive, deep and more frequent.”

He also noted that if nothing is done, the Amelia Earhart Dam, located behind Cambridge in the Mystic River, could be compromised around 2045 and Charles River Dam would also be at risk.

“The dams act as barriers to storm surges,” Bolduc said. “They stop water from coming up the rivers from the harbor, but as the oceans rise, the dams will eventually be compromised.”

The plan outlines strategies to mitigate the impact including creating a neighborhood resilience hub at the Russell Apartments on Massachusetts Avenue, a cooling center at the DCR McCrehan Memorial Swimming Pool on Rindge Avenue, an enhanced resiliency social network at the Peabody School also on Rindge Avenue and improved stormwater management.

‘Trying to plan for a moving target’

The plan suggests people protect their homes by using flood-resistant materials, building exterior flood walls, installing backwater valves, and elevating and relocating utilities.

“The basic challenge that we have for planning is that the Cambridge we have today is built for conditions of the past,” Bolduc said.

Another challenge, Bolduc said, is that it can be tough to plan for future weather conditions.

“The science is very firm that climate change is occurring and will continue for a long time,” Bolduc said. “However, there is a lot of uncertainty about how much change we will experience and the timing of those changes.”

“So that makes planning complicated,” Bolduc said. “We’re basically trying to plan for a moving target.”

Of course, building infrastructure to mitigate the impact of climate change will cost money, which Councilor Craig Kelley said the city will have to plan for.

“At some point, I hate to say it, Louie, but I think it’s going to be a really big budget item just to do the procedural planning, much less any of the actual stuff on the ground,” Kelley said to City Manager Louis DePasquale.

Cambridge ‘ahead of most cities’

Despite the uncertain future, DePasquale said he is proud of how seriously the city has already taken climate change, and that he believes Cambridge is better prepared than most local communities.

“We are ahead of most cities and towns,” DePasquale said. “I think it’s safe to say we take this climate change [threat] very seriously.”

He added that Cambridge has an advantage over other communities because the city has “the funds to move ahead of this.”

He also stressed that the preparedness plan was laying out the worst-case scenarios the city may face.

“This is what happens if you take no actions,” DePasquale said. “A city like us, fortunately, with the team we have around John [Bolduc], we can take actions and we are taking actions.”

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