City hunts for debris in drainage system

On October 16, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

220 tons of gunk removed

A nightmare on Hunting St. - that is, if 100 years of funk happens to spill out into your basement. – Photo by Harry Kane

A nightmare on Hunting St. – that is, if 100 years of funk happens to spill out into your basement. – Photo by Harry Kane

By Harry Kane

Concerned residents of Hunting Street voiced their disapproval of a proposed housing development under discussion for their street, which they think could add to the existing flooding problem they have been experiencing over the years. But, in the midst of the Hunting Street controversy, the city has cleaned drain pipes and alleviated some of the sewer blockages in other areas.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Maryann M. Heuston has advocated for similar drainage cleaning methods to be implemented on Hunting Street. “I sent an email out to the city engineer,” she said, “and asked him if he could begin the same kind of short-term stuff that they’ve been doing for the last couple months on Dane Avenue, Dane Street and Washington Street.”

“The bigger issue,” Heuston admitted, “is that there’s a huge infrastructure piece that has to happen.” Cracks and collapses of the drain system, which was built in 1901, need to be fixed. But some residents, like those on Hunting Street, want debris removal, too. And it’s these same residents that want their streets’ infrastructure fixed before allowing high-priced condominiums on their block.

“The Somerville system backs up into our basement regularly,” said homeowner Shelly Newman. “It has nowhere else to go.” She thinks it has been an issue for the past 50 years. “People complain about flooding in Somerville,” she said, “but this is extremely unique because we’ve got this backing up at the very end of the pipe.”

Newman moved to 46 Hunting St. back in 1998. She knew about the flooding in the beginning, but it wasn’t until that first summer, during what she referred to as a “dramatic rain storm,” that Newman experienced the full impact of the defective drainage system remnant of a bygone era.

About five years ago, during city meetings, Newman insisted that the city get a contractor to look at the pipes. The contractor apparently said there was “100 years of gunk in the pipes,” according to Newman.  But, the contractor could do very little to alleviate the blockage.

Now the city is looking to allow a developer to build across the street from Newman’s home. “They’ve mistakenly zoned us,” she said, referring to the approval of the special permit needed to extend the elevation on the proposed development. The new 5-story building would replace the 2.5-story house on that lot. Newman doesn’t think that anyone has taken into account the “water runoff situation.”

However, the city’s engineering department claims that the cleaning and inspection operation for removing debris from sewer and drain lines has been effective in restoring the capacity of the drainage system, at least for the short term. The sewer and drain line work began in July and ended in early October, resulting in the removal of 220 tons of debris from Somerville’s drainage system in two distinct areas of the city, but not on Hunting Street. No word on when Hunting Street will receive relief.

Flooding has been a major problem in low-lying areas of Somerville, but with this initial phase of inspecting and cleaning portions of the drainage system completed, the city will try to act on the multitude of other sewer blockages that drain expenses from homeowners’ pocketbooks during large rainstorms. Many residents who experience flooding in their basement complain of ruined appliances, which can be costly to replace.

This first portion of the flooding prevention project cost approximately $175,000, according to city officials.

Newman’s next-door neighbor, Ana Maria Lima of 44 Hunting St., has been living in the same house since 1976. And over the years, her family has seen their share of big rains with disastrous consequences.

Lima recalls the great storm of ’96, when her basement water-level rose to 5-feet. “The first couple of times we lost all the furniture,” she said. Lima estimates she’s incurred roughly $20,000 in expenses, from routine repairs to ruined furniture, too moldy to use again.

Lima’s concerned that with the addition of a large, 7-unit building just across the street, the aging drain pipes could be overused, adding overflow of wastewater into her basement during a sewer backup. Since her basement is already prone to flooding, and the sewer and groundwater levels are nearly the same level as her basement floor, Lima’s fear of increased flooding is well founded. And, she feels that the city underestimates the gravity of her situation.

But, the developers of the 9,535-square-foot proposed building at 47 Hunting St., yet to be green-lighted, have agreed to the terms of the city’s staff report, which specify that “special attention has been given to proper site surface drainage so that removal of surface waters will not adversely affect neighboring properties or the public storm drainage system.”

And so the Hunting Street controversy continues. Meanwhile, a consulting firm has been hired to conduct a utility and roadway improvement study in the Union Square neighborhood of Somerville. The study hopes to identify the causes behind flooding and provide solutions to the problem.


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