Special to the Patriot-Bridge
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) today issued draft regulations to strengthen wetlands and stormwater resilience by providing flood control and preventing storm damage to shorelines and infrastructure from the impacts of climate change. The proposed regulations will help protect areas vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge, promote nature-based solutions to flooding, streamline certain permitting processes, and use updated precipitation data to inform decision-making.
The regulations are proposed under the Wetlands Protection Act and the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act. MassDEP will accept comments on the draft regulations until March 1, 2024.
“Data tells us that inland and coastal flooding are two of the biggest threats to Massachusetts. The storms we saw this summer showed us that there is no time to waste,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper. “These updates strike a balance to preserve and protect development along our waterways. These changes also present Massachusetts with another opportunity to lead – we’re promoting the most cutting-edge nature-based solutions along our coastlines.”
“We cannot continue a ‘business-as-usual’ approach if we want to build more resilient communities,” said MassDEP Commissioner Bonnie Heiple. “With these regulations, we’ve integrated the latest science and green infrastructure techniques to mitigate climate change impacts and protect residents, municipalities, and businesses from costly rebuilding efforts. MassDEP is grateful for the engagement of stakeholders and agencies in developing this proposal and looks forward to continued feedback on these regulations.”
The proposed Wetlands regulations would protect the coastal floodplain, which hosts nearly $55 billion in structures, of which about $40 billion is residential, $12 billion is industrial, and $2.5 billion is commercial. Of the nearly 2.5 million people living within the 78 coastal communities in Massachusetts, approximately 55 percent live within Massachusetts-designated Environmental Justice Block Groups, representing communities of color, low-income populations, and/or communities facing language barriers.
Coastal and Inland Flooding Resilience
The proposed Wetlands regulations will promote resilience by creating performance standards to protect the natural buffering function of wetlands and floodplains and help prevent damage to both the natural and built environment. The standards will require elevation of new development in areas of the coastal floodplain where most storm damage occurs and minimize new development in the most vulnerable area of the coastal floodplain where waves are higher than three feet. The regulations encourage nature-based approaches to improve resilience, such as restoration of salt marshes, coastal dunes, and barrier beaches on the coast, as well as inland wetlands. Updated stormwater management standards will reduce stormwater pollution to water bodies throughout the state, helping to improve the water quality of our rivers and streams.
The regulations are designed to be flexible for homeowners and families. Single-family homes and housing development with four or fewer units are exempted from the stormwater requirements of the Wetlands regulations and new housing developments with five to nine units per lot must meet new standards only to the extent possible.
Updates to Waterways regulations – which protect and promote public use of tidelands and other waterways in Massachusetts and are commonly known as “Chapter 91” – require license applications to consider projected sea-level rise for certain projects and encourage relocation of building mechanical systems away from the ground floor.
Incentives for Nature-
The Wetlands regulations promote Green Site Design, which uses natural solutions – like trees and buffer zones – to manage stormwater, instead of more expensive detention basins and other traditional infrastructure. By using nature to address stormwater runoff and pollution, developers will receive Green Site Design credits and will substantially reduce the need to build and maintain more costly stormwater management systems.
Updated Precipitation Data
The proposed Wetlands amendments use up-to-date data sources to evaluate precipitation – replacing the 1961 data that is currently used with 2019 data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Storms have been increasing in intensity with climate change so that today’s storms deliver more precipitation than they did 60 years ago. Using outdated data to design stormwater systems means pipes that are too small to carry increased volumes of water – resulting in overflows and flooding. The switch to data that are more reflective of current conditions will prevent resulting damage to buildings and bridges, scouring of riverbanks, and other problems.
The proposed regulations streamline certain permitting processes. The Wetlands regulations are updated to align with the EPA Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System General Permit and the Transportation Separate Storm Sewer System Permit to improve consistency and protect surface waters, including wetlands, from stormwater runoff pollution. The Waterways regulations allow modifications to licenses for identified smaller structures (primarily small docks and piers) to account for sea-level rise and maintaining public water access.
These regulatory updates are among the 142 priority actions for state agencies to direct under the ResilientMass Strategy released in November 2023. The Strategy was developed to address the impacts of climate change, such as flooding from precipitation, high heat, and coastal flooding and erosion. ResilientMass identified inland flooding as the most significant climate hazard in Massachusetts.
The proposed amendments were developed over several years in close consultation with a broad range of stakeholders, including more than 10 sessions with stakeholder groups, more than 25 presentations, and meetings with various groups and interested parties.
MassDEP is accepting public comment on the draft regulations until 5 p.m. on Friday, March 1, 2024. Virtual information sessions and public hearings on both sets of regulations will be held throughout January and February; more details are available here. For more information on the Wetlands Regulations, turn here. For more information on the Waterways Regulations, turn here.
“The Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions (MACC) is pleased that MassDEP is publishing important updates to the Wetlands Protection Act,” said MACC Executive Director Dorothy A. McGlincy. “These proposed regulations, along with the climate related goals established by the Healey-Driscoll Administration, will help minimize impacts from severe storms in a changing climate. Additional urgency and coordination will be needed in our continued fight to preserve wetlands, open space, and biological diversity. MACC supports the Conservation Commissioners who are on the front lines of protecting our precious resource areas.”
“The urgency of these regulations is underscored by this week’s major rainstorm causing extreme flooding, power outages, damage to homes and businesses and most tragically, a death. How we manage water has profound implications on not only our environment, but also public health and safety,” said Charles River Watershed Association Executive Director Emily Norton. “We are pleased that these proposed regulations offer so many improvements in terms of updated precipitation models, stricter rules around building in floodplains, more consistency for developers and municipalities between state and federal rules, and more. We do not have the luxury of moving slowly when it comes to climate resilience, so kudos to MassDEP and the Healey-Driscoll Administration for acting now to protect our communities and natural spaces from the impacts of our changing climate.”
MassDEP’s mission is to protect and enhance the Commonwealth’s natural resources – air, water and land – to provide for the health, safety and welfare of all people, and to ensure a clean and safe environment for future generations. In carrying out this mission, MassDEP commits to address and advance environmental justice and equity for all people of the Commonwealth; to provide meaningful, inclusive opportunities for people to participate in agency decisions that affect their lives; and to ensure a diverse workforce that reflects the communities we serve.