Communities Can Rein in Devastating N.E. River Flooding Says UMass Amherst RiverSmart Study

AMHERST, Mass. – Flooding of the kind that devastated towns throughout central New England in September 2011 can be profoundly mitigated with relatively little in the way of additional cost and regulatory change, according to a new study by University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers.

The study, a product of the three-year RiverSmart Communities Project will be released at 4 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2 at McCusker’s Market, 3 State St., Shelburne Falls—village that witnessed dramatic and powerful river flooding during 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene. Members of the research team, including UMass Amherst associate professor of geology and lead researcher Eve Vogel, will be present.

Titled “Supporting New England Communities to Become River-Smart—Policies and Programs that Can Help New England Towns Thrive Despite River Floods,”the studyoffers the most complete analysis to date of the dynamics of the stream flooding that has repeatedly devastated New England towns, and offers five new and very specific strategies for communities to help prevent that flooding in the future.

While rivers and streams have long been critical to economy, recreation and environmental integrity of New England communities, they have become more and more constricted by construction and attempts to control them, and they have shown that “when they flood, they swell even more than before, exert more force, and often carry more sediment and debris,” according to the study.

“These more powerful flooded rivers have the ability to blow out even our new modern infrastructure—often with catastrophic results for roads, bridges, buildings and people. Replacement costs are enormous, and often repeat.”

Instead of prescribing major new construction, the study focuses on understanding fluvial geomorphology of rivers—the way they move and change over time, and how the flow of water interacts with the movement dirt, sand, gravel, boulders and debris such as downed trees and branches.

The five recommendations, to be outlined by the report’s authors as part of the Dec. 2 program, focus on making towns more resilient in the face of flooding, and helping federal and state programs to become significantly more effective and helpful to those towns. They include:

  • develop fluvial hazard assessments
  • upgrade vulnerable stream crossing infrastructure
  • support river-smart planning and mitigation
  • provide outreach and training on river dynamics and river-smart practice
  • designate, recognize and support river-smart regional intermediaries

The RiverSmart Communities Project is funded by UMass Amherst’s College of Natural Sciences and UMass Extension, with additional support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Institute for Water Resources.

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