Holding Back the Waters
With every tick of the clock it seems our ignoring of climate change becomes more menacing. Climate change isn’t coming of course, it’s here. At this rate, it appears that we may well not act in time to prevent the rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change from significantly altering our shores and our lives. At the risk of sounding quite pessimistic, what’s known as “mitigation,” lessening the impact of climate change rather than preventing it, will almost certainly have to play a role. Who will likely play a critical role in that event, at least in the U.S.? You may or may not like the answer: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a leading contender. We heard a lot about them during the lead up to and recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Their presence in the South and along the Mississippi is well known, but what about New England.? Much like climate change, the Corps of Engineers isn’t coming, they are already here, big time. Their role is largely focused on helping to prevent serious flooding. Their surprisingly heavy, in my view, involvement in just the Blackstone Valley may offer some insight into what their activities will look like. Keep in mind that that these examples are just a few out of many many activities in which the Corps is engaged.
The Blackstone River travels from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island. Along the way, it falls about 500 feet. That fall involves the release of a considerable kinetic energy. It can easily turn a mill’s water wheels and provide sufficient power for major industrial activity. The Blackstone was the site of America’s first textile mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The River also floods, routinely. Some of those floods have been extremely damaging, resulting in the loss of life and tremendous loss of property. That’s been the focus of much of the Corps work.
The impact, present and future, of their work was brought home to me when we visited Woonsocket Falls dam, in November of 2018. To begin the story, here’s what we saw on a previous visit, in July 2017.
Suitable for fishing though I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Actually the image below is from August 2016, same location. Our friendly heron was taking her time, the water was very low, just the right height for a relaxed afternoon fishing expedition.
Fast forward to November, it looked like this (the video is 45 seconds):
If you’re looking in on a mobile device and don’t see the video click here.
A bit more impressive, you’d have to agree. The River is capable of significant variations in its height and flow. This was after a wet fall, but it can, and may become, a whole lot wetter. This dam was built after a serious, life threatening flood in 1955. The volatility of the River has drawn the interest of the Corps of Engineers all along it’s route. The gates you see can be raised or lowered to control the flow of the River. The dam cleverly also supplies hydroelectric power.
Just a bit north of the dam, you can see how the River was “channeled” by the Corps. The channeling also helps maintain human control of the River. However, channeling also inhibits the natural exchange processes between the River and the shore, processes which can help restore a river, among other things.
The channeling runs through the City of Woonsocket, as well as in quite a few other populated and industrial areas.
At the other end of the River, in Millbury, Massachusetts, you’ll see the large Diversion Channel. The Channel connects with the River and which normally looks like this (below). It was dug in the late 1940’s again in response to flooding in the City of Worcester and surrounding towns. Normally its nearly empty.
After our wet fall in 2018, it looked like this (below). The Channel acts like a temporary reservoir, a place for excess water to go rather than flowing into city streets.
Diversion strategies like this take a lot of land. There’s a larger diversion area along one of the tributaries of the River, the West River, in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.
If the River moves toward flood stage, flood gates in the dam below are closed storing water, allowing the water level to fall gently over time.
The dam itself is 2500 feet long. Behind the dam is a large stretch of protected land, over 500 acres that is largely managed as a park (by the National Park Service).
It is striking how many resources are already going into holding back the water. Again, this is only a small fraction of what is taking place, largely unnoticed. That is not to criticize the work done by the Corps. Much of it, at least in New England, is done to protect life and limb. If you’d like a more comprehensive run down, click here.
But, this is a big deal, one that is very expensive. The projected budget for 2019 is on the order of 4.75 billion dollars. Intervening in nature can also be very problematic, as the citizens of New Orleans and environs know. The management of the Mississippi River is perhaps even more problematic. We may be headed for the need to greatly expand their work, by a very large margin. Prevention or mitigation?
I’ll close with a couple of images from a “wall,” also constructed by the Corps, that actually does some good. These are the massive hurricane wall and gates that protect the City of Providence from flooding.