The world climate crisis became a pressing local concern Aug. 8 when a microburst unleashed a torrent of rain, overpowering the town’s stormwater systems and flooding dozens of homes and businesses.
In a substantial portion of town the 5-inch-per-hour rain met the criteria for a 1,000-year storm, and town leaders fully expect similar storms to occur far more frequently than on a millennial basis.
To Stephen Frail, chair of the town’s Climate Action Plan Committee (CAPC), this is further evidence that climate change clearly requires a local response.
Established in early 2022 by the Select Board, CAPC has been engaged for more than a year in long-term planning to support the town’s efforts to comply with a series of state mandates related to the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2050 (2050 CECP).
Frail emphasized that these state climate goals are legally binding for Needham. The law is a combination of carrots and sticks — incentives and grant programs to assist communities with compliance, balanced by requirements that building codes, procurement policies and other local regulations and policies essentially need to become more “green.”
“The state recognizes that we have to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Frail. “Human-created carbon is causing climate change and the only way to reverse that is to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere.”
“We need to start leading by example,” he said of Needham’s obligations. “The good news is doing that actually can help prove out a lot of the technologies that already exist — heat pumps, for example. Solar and wind at enterprise scale is already a reality. It’s already working.”
An ambitious agenda
The CAPC’s initial planning was undertaken by more than three dozen residents, including elected officials, who were chosen and then deployed across six working groups. Each group focused on different aspects of climate impacts, such as Climate Smart Zoning & Planning, Clean Energy Supply and Net Zero Building.
The nine-member committee is distilling the working group’s efforts with help from the consulting organization, Kim Lundgren Associates (KLA).
Frail said the need to prepare the town for events such as Aug. 8 was already on the list of major considerations prior to the storm.
“The idea that we have to plan for these type of storms and change the way we build and the types of things we ask builders to do as part of their projects, is going to be essential,” he said. “You have to be thinking about a 5-inch-per-hour rainstorm. That’s going to be more common.”
The committee has already settled on its first recommendation, that the town create a full-time position for a sustainability coordinator. The town has repurposed a position in DPW administration that recently became available and will be will be posting for a sustainability coordinator after Labor Day.
After the storm, the town heard from numerous residents who had multiple versions of “nobody told me” issues — nobody told me my house was in a floodplain, nobody told me about sump pumps or French drains, etc.
Frail says a sustainability coordinator would offer one-stop shopping for residents with a wide range of questions on environmental issues, such as the merits of heat pumps, solar energy options, and upgrading electrical systems.
Like any emerging market, the alternative energy ecosystem has its share of bad actors, and consumer education and protection is very much needed.
“One of the biggest things a sustainability coordinator can do is become the single source of truth — the one that can help residents and businesses cut through a lot of the noise. Because there is a lot of noise,” said Frail.
“As we look at climate change as a growing issue, being prepared for these no-notice or little-notice incidents is going to be more important going forward,” Michael Lethin, the town’s emergency management administrator, said in the aftermath of the storm.
The Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC), of which Lethin is a member, will meet Sept. 18. Lethin said post-flood lessons learned will certainly be discussed.
“To the extent that these types of natural disasters are going to accelerate, you don’t want your DPW to be focused on disaster management all the time,” said Frail. “It becomes very hard for them to do their other job, which is proactively planning for the future and working on infrastructure.
“A sustainability coordinator could be helping people focus on the long-range adaptation strategies that they need to do. Let’s not wait for the next storm.”