An old solution to a consistent problem — flooding — is gaining new life in the Saugus River Watershed, with a renewed focus on the construction of floodgates as a possible salve to high tides spilling over into low-lying areas in Everett, Lynn, Malden, Revere, and Saugus.
The Regional Saugus River Floodgate Project traces its origins back to the 1980s, when the Army Corps of Engineers was asked to investigate possible solutions to flooding across Saugus, Revere, Malden, and Lynn, according to former Corps Project Manager Robert Hunt, who spearheaded the project at the time. The corps developed three potential solutions, which were ultimately presented to the communities.
The first, a local protection plan, would have involved the construction of more than 13,000 feet of walls and earthen dikes along the edge of the marsh and the banks of the Saugus River. The second option would have involved nonstructural solutions, primarily floodproofing measures for buildings, including home-raising, utility cells, utility rooms, and closures for doors, windows, and other openings. The final solution developed by the corps was the floodgates. According to Hunt, the floodgates would be located near the General Edwards Bridge.
According to Hunt, the proposal consists of nine 500-foot-wide gated openings “designed to provide safe passage for navigation and the natural tide levels and flushing in the 1,650 acre tidal Estuary landward of the gates.” The gates would be tied to 3.1 miles of shorefront improvements along Lynn Harbor, Point of Pines, and the Revere Beach Reservation.
The project also calls for the purchase of the Estuary to protect its flood water storage and environmental resources. According to Hunt, it would “protect 5,000 buildings, 8,000 housing units, 10,000 residents, 20,000 employees, and 400,000 commuters in the region against the worst coastal storm likely to occur and against sea level rise.”
That solution ultimately won out with communities at the time. It appeared to be on the verge of becoming a reality in the 1990s. Eventually, it fell away when state officials, under former Gov. William Weld, opted not to back the proposal. At the time, the project was estimated to cost $114 million, with funding contributed from both the state and federal governments. Officials in Revere and Saugus supported the project, while some in Lynn and Nahant harbored concerns.
Now, after a trio of winter storms pounded Massachusetts last week and Saugus experienced a pair of flooding events, renewed attention has come to the floodgates proposal decades after it first emerged. And the project has been gaining momentum beyond just this week.
Perhaps the most significant step forward came in 2022 when President Joe Biden signed the “Water Resources Development Act of 2022” into law as part of a broader legislative package, including the National Defense Authorization Act. In that act, the secretary of the army is directed to “expedite the completion of a feasibility study for… flood and coastal storm risk management and ecosystem restoration, Boston North Shore, Revere, Saugus, Lynn, Maiden, and Everett, Massachusetts.”
But, according to Hunt, funding has not been allocated for the study, meaning it remains stuck in neutral. He urged Revere, which is the project lead on the Coastal Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan funded by the state through its Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, to “not wait for Washington” and seek funding on the state level to begin the study.
Hunt said the study itself would cost between $1 and $3 million and take one to three years to complete, and estimated the cost of constructing the floodgates themselves at “$300 million or close to it.” The impact of sea level rise, which has accelerated as a result of climate change, only makes matters worse, he said.
If the project is, in fact, funded, Hunt estimates that the area could see some floodgates in place by 2034.
For Saugus Town Meeting member Peter Manoogian, who represents the area of Saugus closest to the Saugus River, said this week brought “the absolute worst” flooding he’d ever seen.
Manoogian is convinced the floodgates are the answer.
“The floodgate is the solution, period,” he said.
Saugus River Watershed Council President Debra Panetta, the chair of the Board of Selectmen, said, “We would like to see the floodgate project fully funded.”
“It would serve as great protection for our community,” she said. “It has been very successful in other high-risk communities.”