This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal.
Flooding in Somerville has been a problem for years, especially in the Union Square area.
With a combined sewer system, most of the city’s waste and stormwater end up in the same, out-of-date pipes. The city relies heavily on pipes from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), pipes which can easily become overflowed after a severe storm.
Now the city is hoping to approve an infrastructure project at Nunziato Field and Dog Park on Vinal Avenue.
The Nunziato project at the forefront
At a community meeting on Feb. 22, Director of Engineering Rich Raiche explained the significant drainage problems throughout the city.
“(The city) is reliant on 19th-century infrastructure,” he said. “The problems in Union Square, where flooding is most known, is exacerbated. The only way wastewater and stormwater can get out of the area, a low-lying area, is from that MWRA pipe, which results in overflow.”
In 2013, Raiche said the city conducted a flood analysis study in 2013 to seek potential solutions, which is when the Nunziato project started to develop.
In a phone interview, Director of Capital Planning Rob King said there have been a number of small infrastructure improvements throughout the city, but no large-scale projects from the 2013 study have been implemented.
“The stuff we need to do to solve the flooding issues in the area and around Union Square are much bigger solutions, and they’re expensive.”
Raiche said the Nunziato project came to the forefront after a cost and benefits analysis.
The plan is to build a 1.6 million gallon underground stormwater storage tank with extra catch basins, diversion structures, and pumps for water. According to Raiche and King, the project will cost $13 million with an extra $1 million for park surface improvements.
The money, explained King, will come from city funds. However, he added, they aren’t yet sure where those funds will come from.
“We’re still not sure what the best plan is, but it will be city funded,” said King. “Ultimately (the project) requires the (Board of Aldermen’s) approval, regardless of what approach is taken.”
About the project
Brian Manter, assistant director of engineering, said the tank is an estimated 155 feet in diameter and almost 15 feet tall. To divert water into the tank, he said, the city will build raised crosswalks and intersections at Summer and Putnam streets.
“Water comes down Summer Street and flows into the tank and then the pump station, after the storm, pumps it down stream of our divergent structure towards Union Square,” Manter said. “The improved catch basins (will have a) greater area to accept flow more readily, and these catch basins are also untangled from the combined sewer.”
Nunziato Park is the best location available, said Raiche. The location is ideal, considering its proximity to the worst flooding areas, its elevation and the open space. The further away you get from the flooding, said Raiche, the less impact the project would have.
“We have the opportunity to build an underground tank and preserve the use of the space without knocking anything down,” he said. “This site is the key first step to alleviating the stormwater problems and flooding that we have.”
Emerson Olander, from the Stantec architectural, engineering and design company, said construction will take up to three years.
Within the first three months, “the mobilization period,” he said, residents will see a low level of activity. After that, the contractor will start drilling.
“It’s a very low-invasive technique for creating building foundation,” Olander explained. “You can use it near residences. It constructs (secant) piles at very low risk.”
Residents will most likely hear diesel trucks rather than a “loud piercing noise” many people think of when thinking of construction sites, he said.
The contractor will dig almost 25 feet below the surface before it starts building the tank, and from there the contractor will start pipe work, sidewalk improvements and tree protection.
Though the city has held three community meetings, from November 2016 until this month, many residents said they knew little to nothing about the meetings or the project.
For many, the meeting on Feb. 22 was their first time learning about the proposed plan, and they had many concerns.
For starters, one constituent asked about field use. Where will recreation leagues play?
Director of Recreation and Youth Jill Lathan said though this will be inconvenient, the city is making arrangements for displaced activities.
Youth teams and recreation groups will be using other fields throughout the city, such as Somerville High School and Lincoln Park. The hours of use will be cut down, but the department will do what it needs to do to ensure everyone has field time.
“Is it going to be inconvenient? Absolutely. Do we have a place for these displaced uses? Absolutely,” Lathan assured residents.
Another constituent asked if Nunziato Park was the best option, or if the project could be moved to Dunkin’ Donuts in Union Square or Target.
King said other locations, such as the Target parking lot, was “appealing,” but didn’t provide the same level of alleviation.
“The benefits apply to Union Square as a whole,” he said. “(Somerville will) no longer be reliant on the combined sewer system.”
Constituents agreed that the meetings were poorly publicized and were upset that they were unaware of the project.
“This is the first time I’ve gotten the email regarding anything about this project, and I live directly across the street from this project,” said one resident. “I never had flooding issues near or around my house … nothing that wasn’t handled.”
In an interview, King said he and the engineering team know there are more questions to be answered, and they are working on that now. There will definitely be more meetings in the near future, he added.
Ward 3 Alderman Robert McWatters said constituents could speak with him regarding their concerns and other members of the board. Don’t forget, he said, the board must vote on this project before it starts.
“I’m listening,” he said. “If the community is diametrically opposed to this, it’s something we can talk about.”