Creating Resilient Communities

This text was excerpted from Improving Small Community Flood Resilience: The Multiple Strategies of Watershed Partnerships, a Masters Thesis by Nicole Gillet, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2016

Deerfield Creating Resilient Communities is an ad hoc group formed in the Deerfield River watershed, which lies in both Vermont and Massachusetts. It met for the first time in December of 2011, only a few months after Tropical Storm Irene left behind $25 million dollars in damage around Franklin County, Massachusetts. The first steering committee was made up of representatives from town Select Boards, the University of Massachusetts, nonprofits such as American Rivers, watershed organizations such as the Connecticut River Watershed Council, state and federal agencies and a state Representative’s office.

This diversity of representatives demonstrates the importance of flooding issues across the region but also the lack of leadership from other fields as a single institution has yet to take the lead on addressing flood resilience.

The story of Creating Resilient Communities is both nonlinear and incomplete. Though this group is new, there have been repeated efforts to promote watershed organizations and awareness in the Deerfield River, especially in the Massachusetts portion, since at least the 1990s. Watershed health and monitoring has been occurring in the Deerfield Watershed, largely by volunteer citizen interest groups, for decades. However, one newer concern and development that has influenced Creating Resilient Communities is an interest in security and hazards, which has increased across the region with national concerns and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. Tropical Storm Irene made people understand viscerally that river management and community security are intimately connected. Creating Resilient Communities, which grew up after Irene, can be seen as the merging of water issues and security concerns across Western Massachusetts.

While Creating Resilient Communities remains an unofficial watershed group, their story is one of impressive dedication. Their successes in promoting dialogue, networking, and leveraging of new grants in particular areas and projects are potential models for future river and flood management throughout New England.

Early history

It is important to understand that though Creating Resilient Communities is new, watershed organization in the Deerfield River is not. Watershed management has gone in and out vogue in Western Massachusetts. In 1991 the EPA was one of several federal agencies to launch programs aimed at supporting watershed-scale management. The EPA described its watershed approach as a “focus on watersheds, or drainage areas, [to] provide people living there a meaningful context in which to identify problems and solutions” (EPA 1997). This program offered funding for watershed scale projects which could be applied for by the state. In Massachusetts the state-sponsored group which applied to this program was called the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition.

In 1991, Massachusetts, aiming to take advantage of the EPA’s programs, began prioritizing watershed-scale management when a group of citizen watershed organizations formed the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition. In 1993, the Massachusetts Watershed Initiative began as a partnership between the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA) and private conservation organizations, spearheaded by the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition. Trial projects were completed across the state with technical and planning assistance from the EPA. The original goals of the Watershed Initiative were mainly focused on ecological health, habitat protection and water quality.

Projects and the overall status of the watershed would be evaluated on a five-year cycle with a complete report. Work would be completed by a network of organizations and volunteers including groups of citizens called ‘Stream Teams’ and state level ‘Basin Teams’ (EPA 1997).

In the Deerfield River Basin, these ideas of involved citizens and wide-scale watershed management spurred the creation of independent watershed organizations. The Deerfield River Watershed Association (DRWA), still in existence today, formed in 1988, and some of its original members and supporters were also involved in the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition and Initiative. The DRWA spent its first year receiving public input, incorporating as a non-profit and uncovering the priority ecological projects for the watershed from dam relicensing to water monitoring (Linde 1989). The Deerfield River

Watershed Association would continue to play a central role in monitoring river health for the watershed while other institutions around them changed.

There were other institutions besides these watershed focused groups experiencing changes which would have future impacts on activities around the Deerfield Watershed. Between 1997 and 2000, eight of the fourteen counties in Massachusetts were abolished (G. L. c. 34B, § 1-22). Franklin County, where the Massachusetts’s portion of the Deerfield River is, was abolished in 1997 and in the same year the Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) formed to fill some of the administrative gaps. FRCOG is a voluntary, membership-based organization with no authority beyond planning capabilities. Towns join the Council to take advantage of joint planning capabilities including transportation, public health, and emergency planning. While FRCOG did not retain old county authorities, it would continue to provide important communication and planning links between towns.

The Massachusetts Watershed Initiative continued to fund and technically support projects through 2003. Four of these projects were in the Deerfield basin; at least one of the monitoring projects took place in partnership with the Deerfield River Watershed Association (Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, 2002). In 2002 the Deerfield River Watershed Team was formed in coordination with The Massachusetts Watershed Initiative to gather the data needed for the Deerfield River Watershed Assessment Report, a five-year action plan (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, 2004). The plan was the last effort funded under the Massachusetts Watershed Initiative.

The changing role the watershed and the rise of ‘security’

The Massachusetts Watershed Initiative was ended in 2003 by Governor Mitt Romney’s administration (Deerfield River Watershed Assn. Inc., 2003). The reasons for ending of the program were highly political and often unconfirmed, but the loss of state support ended many successful programs and projects. For a few years, old members of the Massachusetts Watershed Initiative continued to meet. DRWA volunteers also continued to perform water quality monitoring. Political opinion was shifting away from watershed management in Massachusetts and the rest of the country. At the same time, another concern was coming to the forefront: homeland security. In 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, Disaster Mitigation Act was passed which required states to develop Hazard Mitigation Plans (Public Act 106-390). This started a conversation amongst political actors and community leaders around vulnerable infrastructure and how infrastructure which is likely to fail could be considered a security hazard.

The September 11 attacks in 2001 forever changed the security landscape. FEMA was incorporated into a new Department of Homeland Security, created by Congress in 2003 (P.L. 107–296, 116 Stat. 2135). The role and expectations of FEMA changed to focus on security rather than natural disasters. Concerns over counter terrorism caused the resources available to FEMA for natural disaster response to shrink significantly (Waugh, 2006). Security and what it means to be secure became associated with external threats.

The impacts of this were felt all the way down in the Deerfield region. For example, even in small towns across New England, all public service workers were required to become trained in the National Incident Command System (Carolyn Ness). According to Ness, it was highly unusual for the trainings to extend beyond the police and firemen. In 2004, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Safety and Security, or EOPSS, created five homeland security planning regions in Massachusetts and appointed a sixteen-member multidisciplinary Advisory Council for each region. Many public servants were introduced to this changed idea of security. One of these new regional homeland security advisers was Ness, who was already heavily involved in public health, and a select board member in her town of Deerfield.

Building security-watershed networks

In 2005 a large flood hit the Deerfield. On Columbus Day weekend, New England experienced heavy rains and there was flooding across the watershed. However, according to Carolyn Ness, the heavy damage across rural Western Massachusetts was not on the radar of public officials. “There was no response, we ended up calling the governor’s office and honestly I had somebody tell me there wouldn't be any damage because there isn't anything out here. I had over 4.5 million dollars’ worth of collapsed roads in my town. Greenfield had their whole trailer park completely washed out. This is a vulnerable population, this is elders on medication, and handicapped. I couldn't get anybody on the phone.”

Thus, Carolyn Ness had her first opportunity to declare a state of emergency and tried to catch the attention of the State. Ness declared a local state of emergency on the Sunday of Columbus Day weekend, then six days later, the Governor retroactively declared a state of emergency which triggered FEMA funds to be allocated to the region for response and recovery. Ness called going through this process her “learning curve.” After the 2005 floods she gradually put together a network of connections including people in the Homeland Security Advisory Council, The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Districts, and other community leaders in partnership with the local NRCS office. A strong partner in this hazard planning effort were the Homeland Security Regions.

A rising concern in the security realm was that river floods posed tremendous threats to infrastructure including roads, bridges, and other crossings –and thereby threats to community security, for failed bridges, roads and power or telephone lines could mean no access to phones or emergency supplies and facilities. This concern would continue to grow in importance throughout the years.

2007 saw another strong storm and series of flooding events around the region. Carolyn Ness continued to grow her network of small Western Massachusetts towns by attending the national meeting of Homeland Security Planning Advisers and representing all of Massachusetts.

Irene, before and after

2011 brought another level of disaster that no one was prepared for in rural regions of New England.

Tropical Storm Irene arrived in Western Massachusetts and Vermont on Sunday night, the 28th of August, 2011. Within hours, rivers rose to historic levels not seen since the 1927 floods and townspeople were watching roads wash away, isolating many people across the region. The hour-by-hour accounts of events were alarming and illuminated the many gaps between local and federal responders, and between best-river practices and traditional management strategies. It also revealed the vulnerable position of Western Massachusetts towns compared to what everyone believed possible.

Within hours residents found themselves cut off from the rest of the town as roads and bridges washed out. Many portions of Western Massachusetts are not covered by cell phone service, so once land lands were damaged people found themselves with no means of communication. Once the storm passed, residents found themselves with little to no guidance on what to do. FEMA’s response to the event was slow and according to reports from residents, when they did arrive they lacked any information on the needs of the towns and were underprepared to deal with the level of damage. The NRCS, according to Carolyn Ness, was much more swift and helpful in their response as they have local offices and therefore, some existing knowledge about the towns.

Carolyn Ness knew that this would be a turning point in river and flood management in Western Massachusetts and she was determined to bring resilience to the forefront of the discussion over both security and conservation. Thus, with her friend and consultant Debbie Shriver, a couple of months after Irene, she called a meeting of an impressive range of decision makers in her region from fellow selectboard members to academics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Thus began Deerfield Creating Resilient Communities.

Creating Resilient Communities to present day

Early work completed by Creating Resilient Communities was done in partnership with the Franklin Conservation District. The Conservation District acted as the official organization that could apply for grants using the recommendations from Creating Resilient Communities. The original steering committee of the CRC was formed at a December 13, 2011 meeting, to discuss flood resilience in the region after Tropical Storm Irene.

Some of their specific early concerns included: the increased frequency of large storm events causes notable changes to river stability, the deposition of so much sediment that river beds were now much higher and future floods might threaten bridges and the lack of financial resources to deal with these problems.

Meeting attendees and steering committee members represented town select boards, emergency management and conservation commissions, state and federal agencies, non-profits, regional planning councils, private consultants, property owners, academics, and state representatives and senators. Organizations represented included: MA Division of Ecological Restoration, National Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA NRCS, MA Geologic Survey, Deerfield River Watershed Association, Connecticut River Watershed Council, The Nature Conservancy, Rushing Rivers Institute, Fuss & O'Neill, Inc., Shriver Consulting, Northampton Emergency Management, Franklin Conservation District, FRCOG, Buckland Selectboard, Hawley Selectboard, Conway Selectboard, Deerfield Selectboard, and the University of Massachusetts.

The group put together a proposal for $500,000 from the State in order to formalize the group and address flood resilience through several strategies. They aimed to:  “provide specific recommendations on river and stream corridors, develop or oversee the development of watershed scale plans for natural resource, conservation, and provide a high level of technical assistance and guidance to individuals and town boards regarding natural resources” (0riginal CRC grant request, 2011).

This funding would have come from State Supplemental Budget. Franklin Conservation District sent the request to Representative Kulik (D-MA) with the intention to “aid community restoration and help towns prepare for future extreme events.” The proposed work would include outreach to town select boards and networking with other agencies like the EPA that might provide additional sources of funding for restoration work in the Deerfield River Watershed and other projects. The request was not approved, however, because of the limited money in the State Supplemental Budget.

From then on the group continued to meet approximately once every three months to discuss and coordinate projects, fund-raising efforts, and other efforts happening across the Deerfield Watershed. Attendance continued to grow and spread to more towns and agencies though the core group changed little. The main focus of meetings was following the progression of certain grants and pots of money which members of the group applied for to use in the watershed. Towns were well represented at these meetings, and townspeople emphasized their communities are small and rural with little to no budget. Thus finding funds to support their flood resilience goals is often the first step.

At one meeting, Carolyn Ness comically referred to Creating Resilient Communities as a ‘support group’ for those concerned about flood resilience in Western Massachusetts. Her comments reflect how both crucial but under-recognized flood issues are across rural Western Massachusetts.

Coastal regions of Massachusetts are often in the spotlight in regards to flooding and climate change, and most of the available funds go to coastal protection. Groups across Western Massachusetts have increasingly been able to gain access to such programs as the Long Island Sound Initiative but as residents saw in Tropical Storm Irene, disasters which occur inland often do not receive the same attention.

Along with the development of networks to leverage funding, Creating Resilient Communities members have been finding new ways to increase the availability of other resources. One way they found was to continue to merge security and flooding. In 2013 they pushed the state and federal government to consider stream crossings such as culverts and bridges as places of high security risk, or ‘critical infrastructure.’ They hoped to increase both community security and the availability of resources to towns. This was a coordinated effort between the Department of Homeland Security, local Emergency Planning Offices, and a University of Massachusetts research team promoting ecological stream crossings. The central goal was to get culverts to be included on a FEMA list of critical infrastructure called Automated Critical Asset Management System or ACAMS.

Creating Resilient Communities assisted in networking between those interested in pushing culvert replacement for both ecological and security reasons, and those doing the actual road work, such as state Department of Transportation employees. A member of Creating Resilient Communities steering committee member, who was also a National Security Advisor, presented the ideas to train transportation personal in documenting culverts and identifying ones which may need maintenance or replacement. This effort resulted in funding and support from FEMA to train all local transportation personnel in Global Positioning System usage to get culverts into the ACAMS database. However, after a year of operation the program was cut.

Creating Resilient Communities was also working on other infrastructure concerns. Many of the areas damaged in Tropical Storm Irene were simply unknown to state and regional agencies due to their remoteness. This insight led to the development of a map where local residents were able to mark areas of frequent damage.

2014 brought even more interested parties to the Creating Resilient Communities meetings and the group decided that it was time to reach across the border to the other half the Deerfield River Watershed in Vermont. On April 30th, 2014, the first crossborder Deerfield Watershed meeting was held with representatives from Vermont and Massachusetts. Conversation centered on differences between how Vermont and Massachusetts approach river and flood management as well as opportunities for collaboration. Many Vermont attendees voiced support for building grassroots efforts across the watershed, and many representatives continue to attend meetings.

With increases in budget cuts and governmental fiscal concerns through the year and into 2015, Creating Resilient Communities continued to focus on combining multiple forces across the watershed to complete studies and restoration projects and promote river education. A recent table of the projects being completed by current Creating Resilient Communities members revealed that over $5.5 million dollars’ worth of research and projects is going into the Deerfield river watershed. An example is: the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) awarded a 604b Water Quality Management Planning Grant to the Franklin County Council of Governments to conduct a Fluvial Geomorphic and Habitat Assessment of the East Branch North River. This study will be able to be used by towns to plan and prioritize projects, as well be a strong base of support for future grant applications.

Creating Resilient Communities remains an unofficial and volunteer group. Supporters come from all over the watershed and represent an impressive base of municipal concern over flood resilience. While much of their work takes place around a group of tables, it has been a forum for extremely productive conversation.