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Western Mass. Workshops Showcase Ecologically-Friendly Stream Crossings

A series of workshops are being held across Western Massachusetts to educate the public, as well as municipal leaders and planners, on the importance of improving stream crossings for fish and wildlife, and for promoting public safety.

After large storm events including Hurricane Irene in 2011 took a major toll on New England’s infrastructure, with widespread flooding throughout the Northeast, environmental advocates,  engineers, and officials with state government are now educating the public on how communities can safely upgrade their stream crossings and culverts to both protect the environment and the public from harm. And environmentalists are arguing that the effects of climate change will continue to bring serious storms to the area, increasing the need for cities to modernize flood control infrastructure.

Alison Bowden, Freshwater Director of the Nature Conservancy in Massachusett. She says, “if we had culverts that were constructed that could be more resilient to flooding, we would save a lot of money by building more cost-effective structures, and we would also improve the environment by allowing for more passage of fish and wildlife under roads.”

And that would mean constructing stream crossings that have as little as an impact on wildlife as possible. So instead of a crossing funneling  a stream into a culvert or pipe, it would actually mimic the natural processes of the river.

“We’re allowing for the natural movement of sediment,” says Bowden. “Rivers actually move a lot of material, including in a big flood you’ll see whole trees move down the river.”

The experts at each of the day-long workshops will teach consultants, planners, highway personnel, and others how permit, design, and install improved stream crossings in compliance with state-issued standards.

Dave Nyman, a senior engineer at Marlborough-based  Comprehensive Environmental Inc. said, “those standards are being incorporated into regulations so part of our goal in the workshops is to help people understand how the regulations apply these standards."

However, upgrading existing flood control infrastructure can be costly for cities and towns. Amy Singler, of American Rivers, and the Nature Conservancy’s Connecticut River program explains…

“There are some studies that show that they could cost 20 to 40 percent more. There are other studies that show that depending on the crossing you could be looking at 250 percent more,” says Singler. “What we can say is that with these crossings is that we can expect them to last longer.”

Julia Blatt, Executive Director at the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, said that often a municipality may replace a failed culvert or pipe with a system identical to what may have been destroyed in a flood event due to funding only designated to reach FEMA standards. She said the state is currently in discussions with the federal government to provide for more upgrades in compliance with state standards.

“The state is working very hard with FEMA to get them to change that policy and we’re hoping that will change,” said Blatt.

The organizers for the workshops say that reception of the events have been positive. A workshop scheduled to take place in Pittsfield Tuesday was postponed due to the threat of winter weather. The next workshop will be held in Greenfield next week at the John Olver Transit Center.

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Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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