Storms along the Charles River will flood dozens of critical facilities such as fire stations, hospitals and schools in towns down the riverbed, from Newton to Dedham to Franklin. The only grocery store in Wellesley is at risk for flooding, too. And as the decades pass and the climate crisis worsens, the effects will be more significant.

At least, that’s what a recent flooding model from the Charles River Watershed Association projects.

The climate crisis is often looked at through a global lens. But the changing climate feels less global and more local for those getting hit hard by more common and more damaging natural disasters — which is where projects like the flooding model come in.

Massachusetts municipalities are taking a regional approach to address climate change. More than a dozen municipalities worked together to create the flooding model through the Charles River Watershed Association, conducted by environmental consulting firm Weston & Sampson, to assess their collective needs. Local governments are also jointly applying for grants, collaborating on plans to reduce emissions and advocating for policy changes at the state level in the face of a monumental challenge with limited resources at their disposal.

“When you’re talking about some of the impacts that are expected from climate change, while they are local, they are not necessarily jurisdictional. They’re not necessarily defined by political boundaries,” said Julie Wood, a deputy director at the Charles River Watershed Association who oversees the project. “And flooding, of course, is a prime example of that. Flooding doesn’t stop at one town boundary.”

Protecting Massachusetts’ municipalities

Many Massachusetts cities and towns have hired sustainability managers to lead their efforts against climate change.

Within their local governments, sustainability-focused workers often act as internal consultants, working with just about every department to implement energy-saving measures — which means that participation from fellow employees is essential to getting things done. They propose and coordinate projects — and secure funding for them — such as replacing diesel school buses with electric ones, or proposing changes to building codes to make future developments more energy-efficient, or trying to preserve open land near a river as a buffer for when flooding comes.

Though each sustainability manager's job varies in structure and level of authority, with some housed within a transportation or public works department, they’re generally tasked with two problems: mitigation and resilience.

“Climate change is happening,” said Martha Grover, the sustainability manager in Melrose. “The mitigation is the energy-efficiency work, the renewable energy, that we’re trying to fend off. But at the same time the atmosphere is warming, the Earth is warming. The impacts we’re experiencing every day, we need to learn how to adapt and make our communities more resilient to the flooding, the heat, the rising sea level."

“Both things have to happen,” she went on, “and we need to speed it up.”

A meeting of the technical team, led by Indrani Ghosh with Weston & Sampson, with the Charles River Watershed Association. The Zoom brought together the flooding project's participants from around the watershed.
Screengrab by Eliza Jobin-Davis Courtesy of Weston & Sampson

With Massachusetts’ many miles of coastline and its aging infrastructure, there’s no shortage of government greening projects. More workers are getting hired in towns and cities where such positions simply didn’t exist in the past, christened with new titles like sustainability directors or coordinators. And there’s also buy-in from political leaders and citizens in the liberal commonwealth, which means sustainability managers don’t have to spend as much of their time convincing others that resilience and mitigation efforts need their attention.

It’s a substantial and liberating change from even a decade ago, as several sustainability coordinators told GBH News.

“When I started seven years ago, I don’t think people in Natick were as aware or concerned about climate change,” said Jillian Wilson-Martin, Natick’s sustainability coordinator. “There wasn’t as much receptivity to the fact that the climate was changing and that we needed to prepare for it. And now in conversation, supervisors who are responsible for plowing streets or for purchasing vehicles, they get it and they know that we need to be working on solutions together.”

A woman in a bright yellow hazard vest and a beanie stands on top of a stormwater drain, just off a road, and measures the depth with a massive yardstick.
The Charles River Watershed Association's flood model required lots of field work, such as measuring hundreds of stormwater drains.
Courtesy of Weston & Sampson

Resilience emerged as a focus in just the last few years, as the impacts of climate change such as extreme fires and flooding became more pressing. On the mitigation side, many towns are just now setting target dates for net-zero emissions, giving themselves until 2030, 2040 or, like Boston, 2050 to balance out the amount of greenhouse gases they emit and absorb.

The new emphasis on regional work, Wilson-Martin added, is, in part, by government design. Sustainability coordinators go where the grants are, so state opportunities dictate the cities’ and towns’ greening agendas.

“More state funding is definitely needed for municipalities, but the state does give us some great direction and does that by providing grant opportunities,” Wilson-Martin said. “We’re really working more regionally.”

There are, of course, limitations on working together. Regional bodies and commitments don’t have governmental power, making them “toothless,” says Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University. It’s ultimately up to the towns and cities how they devote their resources and their time.

“It’s very difficult to coordinate,” Fitzgerald said. “If you didn’t do what you said you did, there was no ramifications to that at all.”

"Flooding doesn't stop at one town boundary."
Julie Wood, deputy director at Charles River Watershed Association

But for resilience work in particular, Wood says, it’s crucial to work together. One town’s attempt to stem flooding could make things worse for communities further downstream.

“If everybody’s just trying to act in a vacuum and serve their own best interests, you’re likely going to create other problems down the line,” she said.

Tackling climate change with ‘copy and paste’

Massachusetts towns and cities woke up to the importance of creating positions devoted specifically to sustainability at different times, which means many are playing catch-up. Melrose brought on a sustainability manager a decade ago; Brookline just created a director-level position in January.

With seven years on the job, Natick’s Jillian Wilson-Martin is, relatively speaking, an old pro. She volunteers her time with other towns who are just getting their own sustainability programs up and running.

“We all need to work on basically the same things, so feel free to copy and paste Natick’s plan and just customize it to your community based on your politics, the different unique aspects of your community,” she tells neighboring towns. “Since we’re all working on the same thing, it makes sense to partner because there are so many opportunities to save time and money to get the job done.”

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration formed the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program in 2017, opening up funding for resilience by offering grants for government projects that would ward off the effects of climate change. And for cash-strapped departments, putting new funds at their disposal is what they need to jumpstart their efforts.

Working together means cutting costs for departments that rely on grants — departments that are often, as Melrose’s Grover put it, “a department of one.” While some cities might have the funds and political will to enact bigger projects, others need to team up. Arlington, Natick and Melrose, for instance, worked with the Boston-area regional planning agency Metropolitan Area Planning Council to develop net-zero plans and track down sources of greenhouse gases in their communities, supported by funding from the state.

Two maps, one on top of the other, show hexagons of varying shades of blue around the Charles River that would potentially flood, with darker and more frequent hexagons appearing in the 2070 projection.
Projections in Dedham show likely areas of flooding for a 10-year storm in the present day versus in 2070.
Courtesy of Weston & Sampson

“We were able to create a net-zero action plan and greenhouse gas inventory for a tiny fraction of the cost of hiring a consultant to do those things for us,” said Ken Pruitt, Arlington’s former energy manager.

“The sustainability municipal staff are just incredibly scrappy,” added Wilson-Martin. “We usually don’t have budgets, we’re almost fully grant funded in terms of our work and most of us are bringing in 10 times or more the amount of money that we make in terms of grants.”

Where do sustainability workers go from here?

Working regionally is ultimately an effort to speed things up in the race against the climate crisis clock. On the mitigation side, a town declaring that it wants to hit net-zero emissions in a few years or decades is like when the United States declared it would land on the moon in the early 1960s.

“You can say you want to go to the moon, but you’ve got to be able to build a vehicle, and get people in it, and get it there, and then get it back,” said Tom Barrasso, Brookline’s sustainability director. “We now need to formulate that into an actual plan with the funds and technology that’s available right now.”

There are more funds on the horizon, thanks in part to municipal staff tapping their state partners on the shoulder. The Charles River Watershed Association, for instance, asked for the state to put $300 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the MVP program, the state’s resilience fund. (The state Legislature passed a bill last week directing $100 million to climate resilience, with tens of millions more to broadly address the changing climate. The bill is on its way to Gov. Baker's desk.)

"You can say you want to go to the moon, but you've got to be able to build a vehicle, and get people in it, and get it there, and then get it back."
Tom Barrasso, Brookline’s sustainability director

But not all goals are as lofty as a metaphorical moon landing. For the flooding model along the Charles River, just one of the problems that sustainability employees are working on with partnering departments, the next step is figuring out how to prevent the worst of the flooding they’ve foreseen.

With a new grant from the state’s MVP program, the group has the funds to roll out a few interventions, like possibly creating more wetlands as a buffer, more stormwater infrastructure and flooding storage. Wood, the project’s leader, says that thinking aggressively is the only way to make a big impact.

“None of the strategies that we tested even got us down to present-day conditions, let alone getting better than that,” Wood said. “We really can't think about this with our 2021 brains. ...We can’t be thinking in terms of, ‘What’s affordable right now, what’s politically feasible right now?’ We really need to start thinking more about, 'what is coming and how are we going to protect ourselves?'”