Conservation Commission: will Muddy River flooding be controlled?

A regular meeting of the Conservation Commission on Tuesday, July 15, started at 7:00 pm, held in the fifth-floor meeting room at Town Hall. All commissioners plus staff Thomas Brady and Heather Lis were present. With chair Katherine “Kate” Bowditch leaving for a job in Europe, the commission elected as new leadership Marcus Quigley chair, Matthew Garvey vice chair and Deborah Michener clerk.

During reviews of projects, it became clear that long-running efforts at Muddy River flood control and environmental restoration continue to be threatened by limits in project goals and funds. The first part of this long-promised project is underway, but the scope of the next part has become uncertain.

In 1958, the Hynes administration, which had destroyed the “New York streets” section of the South End and was busy destroying Boston’s entire West End, paused to destroy part of the Back Bay Fens–burying about 700 feet of the Muddy River in grossly undersized culverts and presenting Sears, Roebuck with land above them to use for a parking lot. Sears threatened to move its Boston store and offices, located near the intersection of Boylston St. with Brookline Ave., out of the city if it did not get space for parking.

The Fens of today is a man-made object: a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., preserving some features of former marshland near the mouth of the Muddy River as it entered former Back Bay tidal mudflats, just east of that modern intersection. The 1950s Muddy River flow was channeled through two 6-foot-diameter culverts under the Sears parking lot, extending into parkland southeast of Brookline Ave.

Mr. Olmsted’s Muddy River channel through the Fens was a partly dredged, narrowed version of the historic Muddy River mouth. In the 1860s and before, the river bent southeast near the modern intersection of Park Drive with the Riverway, split into two weaving channels, joined Stony Brook flowing in from Jamaica Plain near the modern intersection of the Fenway with Ruggles St. and bent northeast in a broad channel, crossing modern Boylston St. as wide as the widest span between Park Drive and the Fenway.

The Hynes administration constricted the river flow, providing a conduit adequate for normal times but much too small for storms that occur about once every 50 years or more. In 1959, the former MTA invited disaster by buying the former Charles River Branch Railroad, then part of the Boston & Albany, digging a ramp for it into the Kenmore Square subway station, electrifying the line and renaming it the Riverside branch of what the MBTA was later to call the Green Line.

Only a few years later, in 1962, nature gave a warning: a rainstorm that made the river overflow just before the Sears parking lot, run down the ramp and enter the subway station. Nature’s warning was mostly ignored. The several-foot-deep flood led to floodgates installed along the ramp, but no other efforts were made to reduce or prevent future floods.

Luck ran out in October, 1996, when 8 to 12 inches of rain fell over three days. By then, the 1962 floodgates had been forgotten, and river water ran unobstructed into Kenmore Station. Water flooded higher than the ceiling of the platform and ran eastward toward the Back Bay stations. Much of the subway was shut down for a week, and it remained impaired for months beyond, as water-damaged equipment was serviced and replaced. Dozens of Boston and Brookline buildings and homes were flooded.

A project for flood control and environmental restoration is moving at the pace of glaciers. Its outlines were clear within a year. The Hynes disaster has to be ripped out, restoring surface flow of the Muddy River through the Fens. Wide but short culverts are needed under the Riverway, at the Park Drive intersection, and under Brookline Ave., between the Fenway and Park Drive. River channels that have silted up and that have been invaded by phragmite reeds over more than 100 years need to be dredged and cleared.

As promised many times over 17 years, apparently sustained work on culvert removal and replacement finally started this April. A so-called “groundbreaking” was held a year and a half before, but then work stopped without explanation after installing half the large new culvert under Brookline Ave. This part of the project was supposed to take about two years but is already nearing that length of time. So far, lots of fences are up, and Brookline Ave. is one-way toward Kenmore Square. No part of the Hynes disaster has been excavated yet. The torpid pace suggests 10 years might be realistic.

A typically insular Corps of Engineers has outdone itself on this project. Recently it has been advertising an asinine goal “to protect against a flood with a return frequency of 20 years.” To meet no more than that goal, no project may be needed at all. Cleaned of silt, the culverts under the Sears parking lot would probably do. A project that has already taken over 17 years–just to get started–should aim at protecting against at least a 200-year flood, The Corps of Engineers goal seems designed to shrink and, if possible, to avoid the next part of the project: dredging the river channels and removing the invasive plants.

Muddy River, except for the Charles the largest remaining open stream in the Boston environment, drains a watershed of about six square miles. Stony Brook, which joins the lower Muddy River in the modern Fens, drains about twice as large an area; it is now almost entirely enclosed in culverts. A large storm, about once a century or two, that deposits a foot of rain in a few days, loads about 1-1/2 and 3 billion gallons onto those two watersheds. The likelihood of such a storm was ignored by the Hynes administration in the 1950s and is being slighted by the Corps of Engineers.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, July 16, 2014


U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Muddy River flood risk management and environmental restoration project, June 13, 2014

Eric Moskowitz, Boston transit flood history, Boston Globe, November 19, 2012

Johanna Kaiser, Muddy River restoration is officially launched, Boston Globe, October 15, 2012

Hugh Mattison, The Muddy River restoration project, Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, 2009

Peter K. Weiskel, Lora K. Barlow and Tomas W. Smieszek, Water Resources and the Urban Environment, Lower Charles River Watershed, Massachusetts, 1630–2005, Circular 1280, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, October, 2005

Robert F. Breault, Peter K. Weiskel and Timothy D. McCobb, Channel morphology and streambed-sediment quality in the Muddy River, Boston and Brookline, Massachusetts, Report 98-4027, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, October, 1997

Thomas H. O’Connor, Building a New Boston, Northeastern, 1993, p. 64 on the Sears parking lot

Walling & Gray, Boston street map, 1871

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