By Emily DiSalvo, Greenwich Time, May 3 2023

(Photo credit: Emily DiSalvo/ Hearst Connecticut Media)

HARTFORD — Every spring, as the snow melts in the north, the Connecticut River swells and spills onto the land around it.

Connecticut residents are used to it. Many towns and cities have claimed the land alongside the river for parks and walking trails with the knowledge that there will be several days each year when the land is inaccessible due to flooding.

But with the imminent and ongoing threat of climate change affecting weather patterns everywhere, are floods getting worse?

Marc Nicol, director of park planning and development at Hartford’s Riverfront Recapture, said the flooding isn’t worse, but it’s different. A, a hefty spring flood season is a sign of a normal snow accumulation.

“You don’t see this significant snow accumulation in Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Vermont into Canada like we used to,” Nicol said. “And as a result of that, there’s just not enough stored water up north to cause a significant spring flood.”
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Instead of snow, there’s often heavy rainfall in January and February.

“It causes what snow is up north to melt,” Nicol said.” It’s nothing that goes extremely high. It’s what we would consider just a high-water event or perhaps a minor flood. But we’re seeing them more frequently and in the spring it has a tendency to last longer.”

The higher water lasting longer means installing docks in the parks is not always possible.

“It’s high enough that it prevents us from installing docks and doing other things on the river,” Nicol said. “So I guess it’s both a blessing and a curse having warmer weather.”

Rebecca French, director of the Office of Climate Planning at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said flooding is projected to worsen in Connecticut in the years to come due to the warming of the air.

“When a storm forms, there’s more moisture. They’re supercharged,” French said. “They’re gonna result in much more rain, heavier rain events, getting more rain in a very short amount of time. Those conditions result in flooding, which can result in more frequent riverine flooding, more frequent stormwater flooding on streets.”

Each year, Riverfront Recapture incurs a small cost due to flood cleanup, a cost Nicol thinks is comparable to a municipal snow budget.

The varies from $25,000 to $30,000 for a years with minimal high water or flooding to as much as $100,000 for high flood elevation or numerous events in the same season. The staff has to pick up a combination of trash, woody debris and river silt.

At Hartford’s Riverfront Park, the boathouse is specifically designed to weather flooding, saving Riverfront Recapture money each time it floods.

“It’s essentially a big box that is absolutely built like the Rock of Gibraltar, and it was resistant to what’s considered to be the 100-year flood level, which in Riverside Park is about elevation 30,” Nicol said.

When water flows into the building, it does not get trapped, which helps avoid water damage.

“Everybody says, ‘Oh my god, your building’s underwater,'” Nicol said. “It was totally built to go underwater. And we’ve taken the time and the effort to design it so that it’s as easy to prepare for flood as possible. And it’s easy to clean up after flooding and get it back fully operational in a shorter period of time.”

Not just Hartford has come to expect the floods each spring. Windsor Center River Trail bordering the Farmington River flooded several times recently, which Mayor Donald Trinks called a “spring right of passage.”

French believes putting parks alongside the river is a smart climate change mitigation tactic. Most parks do not contain many “impervious surfaces,” meaning water will be absorbed in parks and not end up in people’s basements.

“We want parks to be as pervious as possible,” French said. “Many are surrounded by gardens or anything with soil, grass on top. Any of those kinds of materials, water can soak through. That’s what we call green infrastructure.”

Science has advanced to a point where Nicol at the riverfront parks and French at DEEP can track flooding patterns to anticipate a flood and how much water will impact an area.

“We have real-time data that comes to DEEP that alerts us to when there’s going to be conditions for flooding, and we put out alerts,” French said. “This is something our agency is very involved in from an emergency perspective.”