A small, coastal Massachusetts town plagued by floods and imperiled drinking water supplies teamed with the EPA to bolster its defenses, resulting in a framework for other at-risk communities to follow.
It may seem counterintuitive, but too much influent is one of the greatest threats that any water system faces.
The dangers of flooding should be top of mind for any water utility, because of its potential to disrupt operations, damage equipment, and even endanger lives. And it’s a threat that is likely to become only more acute as climate change raises sea levels and brings storm surges more regularly.
To reduce vulnerability, the EPA has undertaken efforts to educate the country’s water utilities about how best to prepare for and respond to flooding events.
“Flooding is one of the most common hazards in the United States, causing more damage than any other severe, weather-related event,” an EPA spokesperson said. “It can occur from tropical storms, hurricanes, swollen rivers, heavy rains, tidal surges, spring snowmelt, levee or dam failure, local drainage issues, and water distribution main breaks. Impacts to drinking water and wastewater utilities can include loss of power, damage to assets, and dangerous conditions for personnel. As storms become more frequent and intense and as sea levels rise, flooding will be an ongoing challenge for drinking water and wastewater utilities.”
A Small, Coastal Town
The agency’s education efforts have ranged from online tools to funding opportunities, but perhaps nothing is quite as powerful as hearing from a peer. So the EPA developed a list of best practices based on how it helped the small town of Mattapoisett, MA deal with floods.
“Mattapoisett’s drinking water system is extremely vulnerable due to its location,” said the spokesperson. “Its drinking water wells run along the Mattapoisett River Valley located in the 100-year flood plain and hurricane inundation zone.”
Located across the water from Cape Cod on the Nantucket Sound, the town’s roughly 6,000 residents have decades of experience with severe weather. They are fully aware of the dangers that storms and flooding present to water operations.
“Mattapoisett has suffered from a number of extreme weather events, flooding from storm surge, hurricanes, and severe winter storms,” said the spokesperson. “Two of the most significant storms we focused on were the unnamed storm in 1938 and Hurricane Bob in 1991. Other severe weather that impacted Mattapoisett include Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Carol in 1954.”
Hurricane Bob, for instance, overtopped drinking water supply wells, allowing saltwater to enter the local aquifer. These wells still haven’t recovered and have been out of commission ever since.
Given its history, Mattapoisett’s leadership, town manager, and water superintendent expressed interest in learning more about the impacts of extreme weather, sea level rise, and how to protect their town’s drinking water supplies. The EPA’s Region 1 and Office of Research and Development worked with the town and made some of the lessons learned available to other communities that might share the same concerns.
With firsthand experience of how flooding can be detrimental to water supplies and confidence that the threat only stands to get stronger, Mattapoisett has taken some direct action to better prepare itself in the future.
“The town has been actively working to make sure its drinking water and community are resilient,” the EPA spokesperson said. “It has procedures prior to storms to stop drinking water production wells from pumping to reduce the likelihood of salt water intrusion into the aquifer. In addition, certain parts of the community’s drinking water distribution system are shut off two to four hours before a storm.”
Town managers are also aware that hazardous materials can be leaked into groundwater due to extreme weather events. There are concerns about how fuel and gas tanks that aren’t properly secured might pollute drinking water supplies.
Mattapoisett’s best practices for mitigating these threats have been documented in an informational video (available online) to better serve other communities that can benefit.
“One of the outcomes from this project is a video about preparedness,” the spokesperson said. “This informational video, created by the town’s cable station, features town officials explaining how to prepare for extreme weather.”
4 Best Practices
The decades of climate stress and extensive collaborative work with the EPA have been boiled down to a list of best practices that, if applied appropriately, can make a world of difference for water systems that might not be as prepared as Mattapoisett’s.
By developing these best practices, collaboration between the EPA and Mattapoisett has created benefit beyond what was reaped by either entity. While Mattapoisett bolstered its resiliency and the EPA helped mitigate fallout from the coastal community’s next great storm, communities all over the country and world now have a project to point to for confidence that flooding can be protected against, as well as actionable steps to take for themselves.
Altogether, it makes a small town seem much bigger.
About The Author
Peter Chawaga is the associate editor for Water Online. He creates and manages engaging and relevant content on a variety of water and wastewater industry topics. Chawaga has worked as a reporter and editor in newsrooms throughout the country and holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.