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Is Connecticut ready for climate change? Recent flooding suggests not

Carpenter Road in New Hartford was underwater during flooding on Sept. 29, 2023.
Stephen Busemeyer
CT Mirror
Carpenter Road in New Hartford was underwater during flooding on Sept. 29, 2023.

Recent rain storms have revealed a worsening problem in Connecticut: many of the state's sewer systems are unequipped for the effects of climate change. Regulations are changing to keep up with the problem, but in many places the damage has already been done.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jan Ellen Spiegel to discuss her article, “As flooding worsens in CT, its drainage systems can’t keep up,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Jan, you write that Connecticut has some really old infrastructure. How is that affecting flooding in the state, considering the effects of climate change that we're experiencing right now?

JES: Well, first of all, good to be here. Second of all, in terms of the old infrastructure, it's really pretty simple. The pipes are, for the most part, too narrow to handle the flows of water that we're seeing now from two sources, one would be from just plain old rainfall and flooding that we would see around the state. And also the other would be from sea level rise, getting into outflow pipes and whatnot down on the shoreline. So there's more water. And the pipes were designed for a time period, we're talking 50 years plus ago, when folks did not have this on their radar.

WSHU: So the pipes are too small, can't we just make bigger pipes?

JES: Well, this is interconnected, you can't just go change one thing in one town and then have it flow into another. It's a fairly complicated process. Most of these pipes are underground, they're under bridges, they're under roads, they flow under people's homes, it's a lot of digging, and a lot of changes.

And the state's been aware of this for quite some time. I can say at least 10 years ago, this came up publicly, and there was a lot of hand wringing over it. So it's not like it's unknown. It also reflects in things like if you have sea level rise, say under a bridge, you're gonna get more erosion, more wear and tear. So it's not even just the pipes, it's the base of bridges, which are not holding up as well as they used to, or the groundwork around them is eroding faster. So these are big and hard to get items.

WSHU: Now to try to understand what's going on, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has an updated guide to flooding. Could you tell us a little bit about that, and what they've been able to come up with?

JES: Well, what you're talking about is a stormwater manual. And that is provided for the use of the various cities and towns. It has just been updated at the end of September for the first time in a long time. What it does is make recommendations that towns can use if they're going to update their stormwater systems. And it reflects the best knowledge that is provided through various government sources, in particular NOAA, those are the guys who predict the weather, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But here's the problem, the data that they have been using has also been extremely old. They updated it about 10 years ago. But we're still using fairly old data, at least 10-year-old data. They're in the process of updating it again, that data makes some set standards and guidelines based on what they see as historical flooding. And there's the problem. It's historical flooding, it's what's happened in the past, it does not look ahead to what might happen in the future. And we're dealing with systems that when you put them in place, they're designed to be there for decades. So the issue of looking ahead is still not really addressed.

But the stormwater manual, the one change that DEEP has made this time around, is to make the whole manual a little more flexible. So presumably, if there is updated data and updated projections, folks in various cities and towns would be able to access that information more easily than they have in the past.

WSHU: You've talked about changes that DEEP is making. Are there any other changes that are in the works right now?

JES: Yes, there are and this sort of speaks to a recognition that there has been a problem for a number of years and the need to address it. It's taken a long time but they are doing it. One of the big ones has to do with what's known as the MS4 permit, which is a general stormwater discharge permit that certain cities and towns have to comply with; only about 120 of the state's 169 cities and towns have to follow it. Because it's done in a way that really looks to the larger communities with a lot more population density. The general thought behind which cities and towns have to follow it has to do with the more people you have, the more paved areas you will have.

So generally, it's the very rural areas that don't have to comply with it, that can be a problem. I'll get to that in a second. But what the cities and towns that do have to comply with this have to do, they are required to get rid of 1% of what's called impervious surface every year. An impervious surface is exactly what it sounds like: a surface into which water cannot soak — parking lots, roads, driveways, all that.

One percent sounds like a very small amount. But it turns out, it's very difficult to do for a big city, say like Bridgeport or Hartford or something like that, 1% is actually quite a bit that has to be eliminated. On top of which look around your neighborhoods, I bet one of our neighbors has recently paved their driveway. So at the same time, we're trying to get rid of stuff, we actually end up adding stuff, whether it's a store, adding parking, or your neighbor paving their driveway. But that changes out there, it has only really just gone into effect in the last year or so we will see how it works out. Since the cities and towns have to report this on their own, we're not quite sure how that would work.

The other problem with rural areas is that yes, they may not have a lot of population and a lot of impervious surface, but some of them have a lot of rivers and streams. And those floods and we saw that, especially this summer in a place like Norfolk, which is in the northwest corner of the state. Now it is not required to have the 1% removal or get an MS4 permit for their work, but they have a lot of water there and their stormwater system is quite old. And they saw a ton of flooding. The MS4 permit is not always required by some communities like Norfolk that may actually need it. So that's one change.

But there are more changes on the way, one has to do with a general construction permit. Where under current state statute, this is really more for commercial operations that are very, very, very large, you know, personal homes and whatnot. But you'd have to have a lot of property to have this required. The first 1% of rainfall that comes down, you are required to deal with some way other than putting it into the stormwater system, whether you bring it into a retention pond or use it in some way.

Commercial, public, governmental properties have to deal with the first one inch of it. That is now about to go up to 1.3 inches. So these towns are going to have to deal with even more of that water. So that's also coming doesn't sound like a lot. But think about it. If you're having a storm and it looks like you're gonna get like two inches of rain or even three inches of rain, you consider that a lot. So if you are a municipality, which has to deal with the first inch of that rain, you know, that's a half to a third of that water that has to be dealt with. And that's going to turn into even more soon.

WSHU: Now, looking forward, can we expect that we'll be handling the expected flooding better in the future, that we have enough in place right now? Is there any optimism that we're gonna handle it better in the future?

JES: If awareness of the problem is part of it, yes, we are aware of the amount of structural work that would need to be done either with old fashioned infrastructure or knew what we call green infrastructure. Those things like retention ponds and rain gardens. That's a massive amount of work. I'm not sure I would bet the flooded farm on that one.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.