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New Culverts Lower Flood Risks at Converse Lane

MIDDLESEX COUNTY, MA – The city of Melrose took to heart the lessons of the “Mother’s Day storm” of 2006, when several feet of water inundated streets, school yards, and playing fields, causing damages to residences and businesses. Since then, Melrose officials have taken significant steps to reduce the risk of flooding in several areas of the city.

With financial grant assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the city has completed drainage improvement projects at three locations where flooding proved troublesome in 2006 – at Ell Pond in the city’s central core, in Ward 2 at Melrose’s boundary with the town of Wakefield, and in the Converse Lane neighborhood at the opposite (southwestern) corner of the city. The residents of Converse Lane had been hit by flooding too many times,” said John Scenna, Deputy City Engineer and Director of the Operations and Engineering section of the city’s Public Works Department. “We had to do something to give them some relief.”

Historically, flooding in the Converse Lane area of Melrose has been an almost twice-a-year event. Located just east of the Middlesex Fells Reservation (MFR), a 2,600-acre state park, the neighborhood was commonly flooded to depths of up to 3 feet, and occasionally much deeper, by water draining from the Reservation following even moderate rainfall.

The culverts beneath Washington Street (at the eastern boundary of the MFR) and Converse Lane could not handle all the water during the peak of the rainfall runoff. The water backed up, existing catch basins were filled to overflowing, and streets, yards, and basements would be temporarily awash. Floodwaters often covered vehicles parked on Converse Lane, and at least one house was flooded so many times that it was declared a repetitive loss property by FEMA. A repetitive loss property has received at least four National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) claim payments (including building and contents) of over $5,000 each, and the cumulative amount of such claims payments exceeds $20,000; or for which at least two separate claims payments (building payments only) have been made with the cumulative amount of the building portion of such claims exceeding the market value of the building.

In the Natural Hazards Mitigation Plan for the city, completed in December 2004, flooding was recognized as a significant weather-related hazard to the city. Inadequate capacity of several of the main city culverts to transport the stormwater runoff generated during large rainfall events was determined to be the immediate cause of the flooding, and the Converse Lane neighborhood was identified as one of 19 high-flood-hazard areas in which such undersized culverts were the main cause of flooding.

In response to the conclusions of the Mitigation Plan, the city proposed replacement of the undersized culverts and construction of additional catch basins at Converse Lane. The existing 30-inch and 24-inch culverts beneath Washington Street and Converse Lane were replaced with 48-inch culverts. Farther downstream, at the eastern end of the neighborhood, the 48- inch culvert beneath Pleasant Street that carried stormwater to Spot Pond Brook was replaced with an 8-foot wide by 4-foot high concrete box culvert.

“While other drainage improvements in the city, such as those at Ell Pond and Ward 2, addressed flooding problems over larger areas, the Converse Lane project focused on a single, small neighborhood,” said Scenna. “But it was no less challenging to complete, as we had to tear up streets, lawns, and backyards with the least possible inconvenience to the residents.”

Did the Converse Lane project pass the test posed by the floods in March 2010? Bob Beshara, Melrose City Engineer and Superintendent of Public Works, thinks so. The neighborhood was a lot drier this spring than during past flood events,” said Beshara, “even though this year’s storm is considered the most severe to hit this area since Hurricane Diane in 1955. Thanks to the drainage improvements, there was no flooding on Converse Lane, not even any puddles. And Washington Street didn’t flood either, because the new larger culvert kept up with the flow, even at the peak of the storm runoff.”

Scott MacLeod, Hazard Mitigation Grants Coordinator for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), considers the Converse Lane project to be a mitigation success story, and “a best-practice model” for other communities.

Construction of the new drainage system for Converse Lane was made possible with a grant from FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grant program, which provides funding for hazard-mitigation planning and the implementation of mitigation projects prior to a disaster event. The federal share of project costs was $1.08 million, leaving the remaining $400,000 the responsibility of the community.