With Ongoing Sewage Overflow Projects Top Priority, Haverhill Plans for Future Environmental Disasters

Haverhill Public Works Director Robert E. Ward inspects a deep sinkhole behind a Mount Washington home with Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency East Local Coordinator William Fisher and others. (Courtesy photograph.)

Haverhill’s top environmental challenge is heavy and frequent rainfall, according to a “natural hazard” assessment. If overwhelmed, combined stormwater and sewage pipes can overflow into the Merrimack River.

Hanna Mogensen, of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, told Haverhill city councilors Tuesday night the regional assessment allows communities to access federal money for non-emergency measures and offers a “roadmap” to prevent future disasters. Led by Emergency Management Director Robert P. Pistone, also the city’s police chief, city department heads put together Haverhill’s part, identifying 14 ongoing projects key to disaster prevention.

Introducing Mogensen, Pistone said the “plan is about 300-odd pages. She wrote that down into this document here, which is about six pages,” adding, “Hanna, in layman’s terms, is a rockstar. We’re very, very fortunate. We’ve been working with her for almost two years, and her level of commitment to her craft is incredible.”

Public Works Director Robert E. Ward updated councilors on separating pipes that carry both stormwater and wastewater, the city’s highest priority in the current version of the 2024 Merrimack Valley Region Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. In 2016, the city reached an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to begin phasing out remaining combined sewer overflows.

Public Works has been working to replace one under Locke Street. Originally receiving low-interest loans from the state in 2022, Ward said permitting delayed the work for a year. Since the preliminary design phase, his team discovered they needed more materials like pipes.

“A lot of times, when you’re in a conceptual phase, you don’t know what you’re going to run into when you get into the details,” he said. “That saying, ‘the devil’s in the details,’ is true.”

Councilors approved Ward’s request for an extra $2 million, bringing the loan to roughly $12 million. He said his department is doing sewer separation in “high gear,” including applying for a Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant to pay for work needed in the Riverside area. The money is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which mandates local governments have an up-to-date mitigation plan to access its resources.

“We really are going to take our best shot at this one because my understanding is there’s a fairly sizable amount of money available,” he said.

After combined sewer overflow events, Mogensen said Haverhill’s next biggest challenge is hurricanes and tropical storms, which can cause events like the 2006 Mother’s Day Flood. Of the city’s 18 projects—14 ongoing, and four complete—roughly half are devoted to flooding alone, while most of the rest address it in part.

The city declared a state of emergency last August after flooding caused parts of the city sewer system to collapse. All told, the city and its residents suffered an estimated $8.5 million in damage. With higher water levels in recent years, people living in the Wood School-area told WHAV their yards and basements flood regularly.

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