The devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 prompted many
municipalities, states, businesses and agencies to escalate their vulnerability
analysis and preparedness for the potential effects of climate change.
The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority wasn’t one of
them. It didn’t have to scramble like New York City, which last year launched a
$19.5 billion climate resiliency plan, because the MWRA has been studying
climate change and adapting its operations accordingly for more than two
decades. And it integrates this approach into all planning.
“We don’t have a climate change plan,” Stephen
Estes-Smargiassi, MWRA Director of Planning, explained in a January presentation
at the Mystic River Watershed Association’s Joint Committee Meeting. “We have a
master plan that incorporates climate change throughout.”
The MWRA takes what it describes as a pragmatic, two-pronged
approach to the long-term concerns posed by climate change:
Understanding potential impacts, and mitigating and creating resiliency
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the MWRA’s environmental footprint;
cutting costs; and contributing to the common good/improving public perception.
As a supplier of wholesale water and wastewater services to
more than 2.5 million customers in 61 communities over a 75-mile area, the MWRA
has a critical need to maintain its vast infrastructure network. The potential
effects of climate change, including sea level rise and severe storms, are of
particular concern since 21 of the MWRA’s coastal sewer facilities are within
15 feet of mean sea level. Several coastal pump stations also are in vulnerable
So, the MRWA uses benchmarks such as FEMA’s 100-year flood
level (plus 2.5 feet) and hurricane flooding level estimates as it assesses
what kind of infrastructure reinvestment to make to ensure safe and continuous
An early example of the MWRA’s foresight is the authority’s
signature facility, the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. When designing
the complex in the late 1980s, the MWRA already had noted a 60-year trend in
sea level rise and projections of an additional increase of 1.9 feet over the
next 40 years. So, in order to ensure that the plant would perform as designed,
the MWRA raised the height of the entire island by 1.9 feet, and increased the diameter
of the main outfall tunnel, which operates on gravity, to maintain hydraulic
All MRWA facilities, including those used for administration
and maintenance, are similarly measured for vulnerability and risk of
inundation and modified accordingly. Important equipment, including main
generators and backups, may be moved to higher elevations, and permanent and
temporary flood barriers installed. When large storms loom, staff and equipment
are redeployed to predetermined locations, including a backup operations
MWRA’s drinking water sources are less vulnerable to climate
change effects, as they are primarily at higher elevations 35 to 65 miles inland,
and have excess capacity. But the authority continues to invest in improvements
in these areas as well. The capacity of the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoir
spillways have been improved, and since 2006, MWRA has spent more than $21
million on dam safety projects.
While providing water and sewer service is an essential
operation, it also is an energy-intensive one. To reduce energy use and costs,
the MWRA relies heavily on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and
hydro power at its facilities. And at Deer Island, 98% of the methane generated
from treating sewage is used to power turbines for plant heat and hot water.
Today, about 45% of the MWRA’s total energy costs derive
from renewable sources, and the authority estimates its energy savings and
revenue at approximately $177 million from fiscal years 2002 through 2011.
Estes-Smargiassi summed up the MRWA’s mission with the
slogan Drink With Confidence, Flush With Pride. “We strive to provide an
adequate, reliable supply of high quality drinking water and environmentally
responsible collection, treatment and disposal of wastewater, all accomplished affordably and
under all circumstances,” he said.
The next Mystic River Watershed Association Joint Committee
Meeting will take place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 4, in the Rabb Room of the
Lincoln Filene Center at Tufts University.
State Representative Denise Provost of Somerville will give a
presentation about the state budget process, and how MyRWA can advocate for
watershed investments directly in the budget or as amendments.
The public is welcome at all Joint Committee Meetings.
For more information on the Mystic River Watershed
Association, visit www.mysticriver.org.