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Bracing for climate change: State awards new funds to deal with crumbling sea walls and failing dams

Essex Town Administrator Brendhan Zubrickie and Selectmen chair Ruth Pereen stand by a section of the seawall that will be repaired at Conomo Point.
Essex Town Administrator Brendhan Zubrickie and Selectmen chair Ruth Pereen stand by a section of the seawall that will be repaired at Conomo Point.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For the past century, Essex has relied on a seawall to protect a roadway and a section of the nearby Conomo Point summer colony from being inundated with water from the Essex River during heavy storms.

But when Massachusetts was battered by a nor’easter in March 2018, the combined effects of the overflowing river, heavy winds, and ice ravaged the already age-weakened stone wall, leaving portions in crumbling condition.

“It had been deteriorating over time and that was the final blow,” said Essex Town Administrator Brendhan Zubricki.

Now with the help of state funding, Essex is replacing the wall to ease the immediate flooding risk but also to better prepare the area for future climate change impacts, including rising water levels in the river, and more frequent and fierce storms.

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“It’s important for the town to do this,” Zubricki said. “Otherwise we are eventually going to lose the riverbank, lose the road, and potentially have erosion on residential properties.”

Essex is among 28 communities sharing in more than $17 million recently allotted by the state through a program that supports local initiatives to address failing dams, seawalls, and levees in a time of climate change. Ten grants were for construction, and 22 for design and permitting,

“The Commonwealth’s cities and towns are seeing the impacts of climate change every day, and our administration is committed to providing needed funding to support critical resilience projects to address these issues,” Governor Charlie Baker said in announcing the grants.

Local officials said state funding is vital to their ability to carry out the infrastructure work, which can be costly even to design and permit.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Quincy Public Works Commissioner Al Grazioso, whose city received funding in the recent grant round for a seawall replacement project. “Sometimes it makes the difference in deciding whether to move forward with a project or not.”

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Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts and founder of New England for Offshore Wind, said many communities have assessed their vulnerability to future climate impacts in recent years, taking advantage of a separate state grant program.

“So it’s terrific that the state is helping those communities in the projects they know need to get done,” said Henry, adding, however, “There is a need to address financing climate resilience on an even larger scale.”

A view of where the seawall has collapsed into the marsh area at Conomo Point.
A view of where the seawall has collapsed into the marsh area at Conomo Point.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The initial sections of the Essex seawall were built about 100 years ago, with the overall 1,000-foot-long structure completed a half-century later. The wall stretches along the town-owned northern tip of Conomo Point.

After the 2018 storm, the town made temporary repairs to the seawall. With its new $1.7 million state grant and $579,971 in matching town funds, Essex plans to replace the old structure with a slightly higher, reinforced concrete wall in a design that gives it a stone appearance.

The project also includes adding natural plantings along the landward side of the wall. Zubricki said the vegetation will help prevent the soil from eroding if water tops the wall and flows back against it, which will help maintain the long-term integrity of the structure.

The town could have opted for a “giant wall,” Zubricki said, but that would have been cost-prohibitive and contrary to the state’s preference that green techniques be used where possible in flood prevention. He said the greenery also will help beautify an area that with its riverfront and tidal beaches is considered Essex’ premier coastal access point.

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“This is just one of several projects the town has embarked upon in the last 10 years to help protect vulnerable infrastructure as well as natural resources using nature-based solutions,” said Essex Selectman Peter Phippen.

He said other initiatives include planting eel grass along a different section of the Essex River, restoring native vegetation on the high marsh area of Essex Bay, and teaming with Boston University and the Trustees of Reservations to study the movement of sand that is eroding off Crane Beach due to increased storms.

“Our feeling is that natural solutions are so much cheaper and in many cases more effective than simply building infrastructure,” he said.

The seawall project is targeted to begin in early November, and conclude next spring.

This shows a section of the old seawall along Shelton Road in Quincy that was replaced during Phase 1 of a seawall replacement program the city of Quincy is undertaking.
This shows a section of the old seawall along Shelton Road in Quincy that was replaced during Phase 1 of a seawall replacement program the city of Quincy is undertaking.Quincy Department of Public Works

Quincy’s $2.98 million state grant — the largest award in the recent funding round — supports the planned construction of a new 4,000-foot-long section of seawall in the city’s Houghs Neck peninsula.

The project marks the second phase of a program to replace sections of the aging seawall along the Quincy shoreline.

The nearly completed $14.5 million first phase included the sections of the seawall in Merrymount, Adams Shore, Post Island, and the Willows part of Houghs Neck. Phase 2 will include the Manet Avenue area of Houghs Neck.

Grazioso said all those neighborhoods have sustained flooding damage in recent years, most notably during the March 2018 storm. He said the increasing effects of climate change have only heightened the need for the project.

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“In our design, we planned for sea-level rise and more severe storms in the future,” he said, noting that the new 18½-foot tall seawall sections are about 2 feet higher than the previous structures, and that improved drainage is also part of the project.

The 8,000-foot-long seawall section built in the first phase stretches from Chickatawbut Beach in Merrymount to the beginning of Manet Avenue.

Design and permitting of the second phase — which would extend the new seawall 4,000 feet along Manet Avenue — is in its initial stages, Grazioso said. The state grant will help cover the cost, as yet unestimated, of the future construction.

A section of new seawall installed along the Quincy shoreline (along Shelton Road) in the nearly-complete first phase of a seawall replacement program the city is undertaking.
A section of new seawall installed along the Quincy shoreline (along Shelton Road) in the nearly-complete first phase of a seawall replacement program the city is undertaking. Quincy Department of Public Works

Acton will use its $75,000 grant — and $25,000 of its own funds — to complete design and permitting for its planned demolition of the River Street Dam and restore the Fort Pond Brook below it to its natural state.

“Having a dam in this condition is a concern as we look at the frequency of flooding and weather events related to how our climate is changing,” Town Manager John Mangiaratti said.

The dam was erected in the late 19th century to serve a woolen mill. In 1951, the mill burned down, but the site remained in industrial use, and in 1960, it was purchased by a paving company. Acton acquired the 7.3-acre property in 2017. While inactive, the dam continues to impound water during high water periods, which can cause downstream flooding.

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“This is part of our effort to ensure the safety of our residents,” said Mangiaratti, noting that during Tropical Storm Henri, the town had to closely monitor the dam “to make sure we were able to implement measures to protect residents if needed.”

But he said by restoring the brook’s natural flow, the project also will benefit the natural ecosystem, enhancing habitat for fish and wildlife. The town also plans to create a municipal park highlighting the history of the site.

Mangiaratti said the funding from the state — which comes on top of a $112,500 state grant Acton received last year — has been critical for the dam removal effort.

“We have a lot of community needs,” he said, “so having resources like this available from the state will help us advance our project much quicker than if we had to rely only on our local funding.”

This photo shows the downstream side of the River Street Dam on Fort Pond Brook in South Acton.
This photo shows the downstream side of the River Street Dam on Fort Pond Brook in South Acton.James Murac, SLR International

Projects in Greater Boston cities and towns that have received state funding:

Dam Design and Permit

Acton – 53 River Street Dam Removal: $75,000

Brockton – Ellis Brett Pond Dam Repairs: $82,725

Dracut – Three Beaver Brook Dams (Navy Yard Dam, Victory Lane, Collinsville: $250,000

Gloucester – Haskell Pond Dam/Haskell Pond Dam Design Storm and Seismic Improvements: $63,300

Ipswich – Ipswich Mills Dam Removal Pre-Permitting Assessment & Design Project: $75,000

Northborough – Northborough Reservoir Dam/Dam Removal Design & Permitting: $168,750

Peabody – Sidney Pond Dam Improvement Project: $84,187

Stow – Lake Boon Dam Rehabilitation Final Design and Permitting: $44,775

Wareham – Parker Mills Dam: $175,000

Coastal Design and Permit

Hull – Nantasket Avenue Seawall Repair: $180,750; harborview Road Seawall Repair: $111,750

Marshfield – Ocean Bluff Revetment Repair: $412,500

Weymouth – Fort Point Road Coastal Infrastructure Resilience Project: $102,980

Dam Construction

Braintree – Armstrong Dam/Monatiquot River Restoration: $1,000,000

Gloucester – Haskell Pond Dam Design Storm and Seismic Improvements: $1,000,000

Saugus – Spring Pond Dam Rehabilitation $261,959

Wildlands Trust (Kingston) – Sylvia Place Pond Dam Breach: $729,600

Coastal Construction

Essex – Conomo Point Seawall: $1,739,915

Gloucester – Gloucester High School Flood Mitigation Barrier Construction: $2,379,000

Marshfield – Brant Rock Seawall, Phase II: $2,349,375

Quincy – Manet Avenue and Babcock Street Seawall Improvements: $2,982,285

Salem – Columbus Avenue Seawall Reconstruction Project: $952,605

SOURCE: Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

A section of new seawall installed along the Quincy shoreline in the nearly-complete first phase of a seawall replacement program the city is undertaking.
A section of new seawall installed along the Quincy shoreline in the nearly-complete first phase of a seawall replacement program the city is undertaking.Quincy Department of Public Works