Climate Crisis

Flood-Mitigation Work Planned for Woonasquatucket Watershed

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The project will consider flood-mitigation options for Smithfield and Providence, which make up most of the Woonasquatucket River watershed. (Caitlin Faulds/ecoRI News)

A makeover is on the way for the Woonasquatucket River watershed.

At a public meeting June 8, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) sought public comment on a new flood-protection project for the lower Woonasquatucket River watershed. The project, scheduled to be completed with five years, aims to prevent flood damage and reduce water flow during extreme weather events.

“More and more intense storms have been coming to the area,” NRCS conservation engineer Ayanna Brown said during the online presentation. “This is very disruptive. It’s a little bit unhealthy for the community and it can make some dangerous situations for a period of time, so we’re going to try to install things that will correct that.”

Through its Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations (WFPO) program, NRCS will provide technical assistance and up to $5 million of federal funding to the town of Smithfield and the city of Providence, who co-sponsored the project.

The project will consider flood-mitigation options for Smithfield and Providence, which make up more than half of the 52-square-mile Woonasquatucket River watershed.

The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council will lend support to the project and DDK Engineering, a joint venture between Vermont-based DuBois & King Inc. and Pennsylvania-based D’Appolonia Engineering, will lead design and construction, which is anticipated at least two years down the line.

“There’s been a lot of good work over time and our mission is to build upon that,” DDK project manager Jeffrey Tucker said.

The Woonasquatucket project is one of thousands of watershed projects taken on nationwide by the WFPO program since the Flood Control Act of 1944 and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act of 1954. Use of the program has increased in recent years, according to Brown, as municipalities prepare for extreme weather events anticipated with climate change.

In 2010, floods across Rhode Island triggered a Federal Emergency Management Agency Major Disaster Declaration and $79 million in disaster assistance was approved for individuals and business owners.

“This repeated flooding is causing damages to residential, to commercial development and infrastructure,” Tucker said. “And it does present a safety risk to the public.”

In concert with Smithfield and Providence, Brown said NRCS and DDK will explore flood-mitigation options that “blend in” with the region’s environmental, cultural and economic landscape.

Potential strategies could include adding green infrastructure to better retain water, enlarging culverts and waterways, expanding floodplains and/or creating additional water-detention capacity.

“All ultimately result in fewer flood events,” Tucker said of the various options.

Dry and wet floodproofing — strategies to bar water from entry or make lower stories water-friendly, respectively — could help protect existing structures, according to DDK senior water resources engineer Andrew Hoak.

Property buyouts, in which commercial or residential properties are purchased and converted into green space, may be considered for buildings in more imminent danger, Hoak said. Elevating structures may also be an option for buildings on the edge of the floodplain.

Though NRCS funding will support the projects, all expenses related to project permitting and land acquisition will be handled by Smithfield and Providence. Any acquisition of land via eminent domain will likewise be a local government responsibility, though Brown said, “it’s not something that we look to use first.”

Operations and maintenance of all implemented projects will also be the sponsors’ responsibility during the next 50 to 100 years, Brown added.

“So, it is a long-term commitment,” she said, “and to that end, we do a lot to try to engage with you throughout this process to make sure that what we’re going to end up with is something that you want to see.”

NRCS is looking to hear from community members as they put together the watershed project plan. The project will be open for public comment at another virtual meeting June 10 and will accept comments until July 10. Comments should be sent to woonyNRCSproject@dubois-king.com.

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