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Communities at climate risk need help, but state dollars are hard to come by

Cities and towns need funding to prepare for flooding from climate change, but dollars from Beacon Hill are in short supply

A culvert near Swanton Street in Winchester.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

North of Boston, nestled between rivers, ponds, and lakes, sits the town of Winchester. No matter where you are in town, you can hear the water from the Aberjona River, rushing under bridges and railways, flowing alongside schools, playgrounds, and homes. That river — a community asset for centuries — now is the town’s biggest threat in the age of climate change.

The town was spared with minimal flooding during last Monday’s big storm. Still, the challenge for Winchester, and communities across the state, is finding ways to prepare for floods made worse by climate change and, perhaps more challenging, finding enough money to do so.

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Although there are many resilience funding programs in the state, the main source is the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness grant program, commonly known to insiders by the acronym MVP, which helps communities begin planning their resilience projects.

But getting that money is proving to be tough. This year, the grant program had $31.5 million to distribute. If that money were to be divided evenly among all 351 towns and cities across the state, each would get around $90,000, not nearly enough to go around.

In August, the state spread MVP grant money across 28 municipalities, one regional group, and one Indigenous tribe, helping many while also leaving some communities behind.

“[There are] people either applying and being frustrated by the MVP program or deciding to not apply,” said Adam Chapdelaine, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “The Healey administration is certainly putting a more pronounced and focused effort on this than past administrations, [but] they’re still challenged by needing to find ways to raise and allocate funds that are actually adequate to meet the challenge.”

Converting to clean energy to mitigate the impacts of climate change has been a top priority among state and local policy makers, but leaders have generally been slower to implement climate adaptation strategies. And the financial support has been more scarce.

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“We need to both walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Ken Pruitt, Winchester’s sustainability director. “We should continue to place a heavy focus on climate mitigation, but at this point, we’re going to have to steadily ramp up our climate adaptation efforts. There’s simply no choice.”

In Winchester, the town had already spent more than $10 million in local taxpayer dollars on a series of flood mitigation projects and was running out of cash to complete them. So, the town applied for an MVP grant two years in a row but got denied each time. Then, factoring in the increasing competition for climate projects across the state, and the complicated and time-consuming application process, Winchester threw in the towel.

“I’m grateful for the program, but it’s woefully underfunded. And that’s part of what drives the complexity of the application process,” Pruitt said. “These things are not cheap . . . so that’s where state-level funding can be absolutely critical.”

A view of Wedge Pond in Winchester. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

But for at least one community, each denial adds more determination.

Westfield, a city of 40,000 people about 10 miles west of Springfield, also faces high flooding risks. Last Monday, the Loomis Street Bridge in Westfield was closed due to heavy rain and flooding. This time, an inconvenience for a few days. But to better prepare for severe weather events, the city applied for two MVP grants to implement an action plan that would help the community deal with flooding. The city was turned down twice.

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“Frankly, it’s disappointing. It makes you want to say, ‘How many times are we going to go back to this when you keep getting left out?’” said Jay Vinskey, Westfield’s city planner. “All we can do is try. . . . My sense is, the more often we’re denied, the better our chances are next time.”

But it’s a race against the climate clock — and if places like Westfield lose that race, it could be far more costly paying for repairs.

“It is aggressive climate action that’s our most cost-effective option,” Ashley Muspratt, president of the Center for EcoTechnology, wrote in an essay she shared with the Globe.

Consider Leominster. After flash floods there this September, the city was stuck with $32 million in damages to municipal property, according to Dean Mazzarella, Leominster’s mayor. It could have been far worse had the city not been better prepared.

“Leominster was one of the first communities in Massachusetts to complete the separation of storm water and sewer water throughout the city,” Mazzarella wrote in an email. “If we hadn’t done that over the past 20 years, there is no doubt that the amount of raw sewerage that would have overflowed into surface water during this storm would have been catastrophic.”

The city is hoping for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the federal government must first declare the area a major disaster before Leominster could receive funding.

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Pleasant Street at Colburn Street in Leominster was blocked off after a huge sinkhole developed there from flooding in September.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The floods in Leominster could be a preview of what’s to come. According to the Massachusetts Climate Report Card released this month, by 2050, total climate-related impacts and losses in the state could hit $64 million annually.

The state’s climate leaders are keenly aware of this and are ramping up climate adaptation initiatives well beyond the MVP grant program. Beacon Hill has allocated more than $90 million in the next fiscal year for resilience-specific programs to protect areas like the coast, inland dams, and cranberry bogs.

On Beacon Hill, state lawmakers are further considering a bill to leverage a small surcharge on property insurance that could produce up to $100 million each year for resilience programs, according to Steve Long, director of policy and partnerships for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts.

“Our communities and daily lives are affected by the climate crisis more and more each day,” Senator Sal DiDomenico, sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “While our state has set ambitious climate goals to address this urgent issue, we still need more dedicated funding.”

Then there’s federal dollars — the Biden administration has increased funding for climate resilience projects nationwide, including $300 million dollars in fiscal 2023 for reducing flood risk and recovery.

In Winchester, officials are hopeful more adaptation funding will come to their town, arguing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Pruitt added that rather than turning to higher insurance rates on homeowners, fossil fuel consumption, which drives climate change, could be taxed.

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“There are proven solutions to climate impacts,” Pruitt said. “We just need the funding and technical assistance to implement those solutions.”


Macie Parker can be reached at macie.parker@globe.com. Follow her @Macieparker22.