Getting Answers: global warming’s impact on floods and droughts in western Mass.

Weather extremes can pose many threats, including to our water systems.
Published: Oct. 3, 2022 at 10:31 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WGGB/WSHM) - Western Mass News is getting answers from a climatologist at UMass Amherst who is warning the public that global warming is leading to more floods and droughts in Massachusetts, adding that our infrastructure needs to adapt to withstand these weather extremes.

That includes protecting something we cannot live without — water.

“It’s something we’re going to have to get used to, more record extreme heat,” said UMass Amherst Professor of Climatology, Dr. Michael Rawlins.

Inside UMass Amherst’s Climate System Research Center, Dr. Rawlins is tracking temperatures and finding that Massachusetts saw a record warm August.

“That’s bringing with it a host of extreme climate events, such as increased flooding, more extreme precipitation events, more worsening conditions, things during drought, like we had in this past summer,” Dr. Rawlins explained.

Weather extremes can pose many threats, including to our water systems.

“Water is essential to our health, our economy, and public safety,” said Kathleen Baskin of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s Water Resources Bureau.

She told Western Mass News that water system failures can have devastating impacts. In August, a raging flood in Jackson, Mississippi, left thousands without access to clean water, and a warming climate could lead to more historic floods.

“The warmer atmosphere holds the water longer, and when it’s released, it releases a lot of it, and it comes down at once,” Baskin said.

The Springfield Water and Sewer Commission is the largest public drinking water supplier in the state.

“With these cycles of drought followed by extreme precipitation events, you know we will see changes in water quality in our reservoirs,” said Springfield Water and Sewer Commission’s Director of Engineering, Darleen Buttrick.

The commission has embarked on a massive, $550 million, 6-year capital improvement project to modernize their system and make it more resilient to weather extremes.

“The work we have to do is very significant,” said the commission’s spokesperson, Jaimye Bartak. “We have a very old system and the clock is ticking, and really, we have to get ahead of climate change.”

Construction on a new water treatment plant for Springfield is set to begin next year and take about 3 years to complete, replacing the existing one in Westfield that was built in the ‘70′s.

“One of the things that we’re seeing with extreme weather is impacts to the water quality in our reservoirs, and that’s in the form of organics that are in the drinking water,” Buttrick told us.

The new facility will include a process prior to filtration that will remove those organics from the water. Springfield’s water comes from a reservoir in the hill towns, but a third of the state’s water is supplied by the Quabbin Reservoir.

“There’s nothing in the landscape there that would be polluting the water if the water came up over it, and so, that’s a great relief,” Baskin said.

She added that flooding is not a major concern when it comes to Quabbin because the area around it is protected by thousands of acres of undeveloped land. It is the state’s aging infrastructure that she said needs updating.

“We’re developing new guidance for stormwater systems so that they will hold enough water and not flow over,” Baskin said.

The new guidance will be on how to size infrastructure, like pipes and culverts, to accommodate more intense rain and flooding like we saw in Hurricane Irene.

“2 miles of Route 2 was shut down for months, so these undersized culverts and passageways for the river to push through just got sort of blown apart,” Baskin told us.

Back at UMass, Dr. Rawlins said that the best way to mitigate these issues is by not building in flood zones, conserving water, and above all, cutting down on the amount of fossil fuels we burn.

“We certainly must adapt to these climate changes, so we must adapt to being more resilient and better prepared for extreme heat events, extreme flooding events,” he said.