Below is an article written by Bruce Cohen, former project consultant with Massachusetts Clean Water Action. It contains a brief history of the river and the flood chutes and gives insight into how a restoration of the Hoosic River which includes biking and walking paths, meadowlands, a bird sanctuary, riverside restaurants, breweries, and artist markets is a potential economic catalyst for North Adams.
How a River’s Resurrection is Bringing Hope to North Adams
By Bruce Cohen
A two-and-one-half mile ribbon of concrete snakes through North Adams’ downtown. With twenty-foot high, forty-five feet wide concrete walls, the structure appears more like a trench designed to repel an invading infantry than a passageway for a river.
In North Adams, these forbidding concrete walls, built in the late 1950s for flood protection, define the 70-mile long Hoosic River, whose headwaters are in Cheshire, MA and flows through northwestern Massachusetts, eventually draining into the Hudson River near Troy, NY. Because the concrete chutes have the effect of creating fierce water velocity and heating the river to a level that virtually no aquatic life can survive, native cold-water species like brook trout and sculpin won’t venture anywhere near the chutes.
And yet North Adams’ salvation may just lie in the Hoosic. Imagine that instead of the river keeping people and fish away, it drew them into the city. The concept is somewhat ironic– a radical restoration, bringing back the river’s natural features and returning it to the people. Tearing down aging concrete walls, replacing them with a twenty-first century flood-management system. Fashioning a riverbank of winding walking paths, bike trails, boat launches, and artisan markets.
It’s an audacious project that illustrates the potential to tackle many of the great ills threatening America’s urban water ecosystems today and provide an economic catalyst for struggling former industrial cities like North Adams.
Spearheading the project is Hoosic River Revival, a nonprofit organization in North Adams that is currently focused on getting the first step off the ground, a $9 million pilot project. In its conceptual design, the project is daunting as it must meet a multitude of criteria: technological– maintaining the existing level of flood protection; ecological– restoring the river’s natural habitat so that fish will once again pass through the South Branch; economical—creating cultural and recreational attractions that will draw visitors.
Pilot Creates Roadmap
“One challenge is there are so many unknowns right now,” says Judy Grinnell, president of Hoosic River Revival. “That’s the value of starting off with a pilot project, providing a better understanding of what will work, from an engineering standpoint, as well as ecologically, politically, and economically.”
In August, the project landed a tremendous endorsement when the group won a $500,000 allocation in funding in the state environmental bond bill, which would help to finance revitalization of a mile-long section on the South Branch centering on the downtown. Grinnell noted those funds would enable initial permitting and design for the project, with estimated costs of about $300,000.
How did the Hoosic in North Adams come to be paved into a sea of concrete? The history lies in a series of devastating floods that struck North Adams throughout the early twentieth century. Among the greatest was caused by the Hurricane of 1938–the worst hurricane in modern New England history– eclipsed by only Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The eye of the storm followed the Connecticut River into Massachusetts, leaving two people dead and three hundred homeless.
Then in December 1948, a storm saw the Hoosic rise nine feet and four inches above normal, essentially cutting off North Adams from the outside world. Highways, bridges and railroad tracks were destroyed and manufacturing plants shut down from Western Massachusetts and New York to Connecticut.
Ultimately, the concrete flood-control system was constructed over a decade by the Army Corps. Engineers and completed in 1961 at a cost of $18.9 million.
The legacy of the flood chutes is the North Branch of the Hoosic is an environmental train wreck. Periodically, the state issues a report card on the water quality of Massachusetts rivers. The Hoosic in North Adams repeatedly earns a solid “D” on almost every measure: aquatic life — concrete chutes render no livable habitat; bacteria — fails to meet standard for swimming; aesthetics — chutes are ugly.
Returning Trout Fishery
The sheer scale and variety of issues facing the Hoosic makes the project all the more astonishing. Replacing twenty-foot floodwalls with winding riverbanks; allowing the river to return to a coldwater habitat that supports a vital trout fishery; building biking and walking paths, meadowlands and a bird sanctuary; creating riverside restaurants, breweries, and artist markets.
One notable feature could potentially see the existing Ashwilliticook Rail Trail wind through a new grassland meadow constructed on the site of a current industrial recycling company. In 2012, Massachusetts Clean Water Action, a Boston-based environmental advocacy organization, successfully settled a Clean Water Act enforcement action against the company. That resulted in the firm agreeing to stop discharging polluted stormwater into the Hoosic and make a $30,000 payment that Clean Water Action directed to Hoosic River Revival for seed funding. Currently, officials from the company, Hoosic River Revival, and North Adams are in discussions about land options.
At the eastern border of the South Branch, a tunnel will connect the downtown to a potential riverside cultural district featuring a new Hoosic Tunnel Museum and Greylock Market, an artisanal market comprised of businesses like restaurants, microbreweries, potters, and weavers.
Adjacent to the museum, a waterfront plaza will have great amphitheatre steps leading to the river, which could provide access to a host of new waterfront-recreation businesses from fishing outfitters to boating and cycling rentals. Grinnell notes other design elements could include interpretive signage describing North Adams history, arts, and architecture, as well as education on the Hoosic’s ecological restoration.
Another striking aspect of the Hoosic project is the potential to bring economic justice to North Adams, a community that long has missed the prosperity enjoyed by communities elsewhere in western Massachusetts—-spurred in large part by arts and outdoor-recreation tourism.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Berkshire County was built along the Hoosic and Housatonic Rivers, whose dams powered saw mills, textile factories, and dye works. Urban river communities like North Adams suffered disproportionately when factories began to close in the post-war period. In 1970, manufacturing jobs accounted for 40% of jobs in Berkshire County; by the early 1990s, more than half of those jobs were gone. This is reflected in stark socioeconomic statistics. North Adams suffers from an adult poverty rate of 17.8%, compared to 10.4% for Massachusetts. And one quarter of North Adams’ children live in poverty, compared to 14% in Massachusetts.
North Adams has looked to other cities with aging concrete-flood control systems seeking river revitalization as an economic catalyst, most notably Los Angeles, a version of the Hoosic’s revival writ large.
LA’s Greenway 2020 initiative is a $1 billion public/private partnership, initially focused on transforming eleven miles of the concrete-lined Los Angeles River into a greenway corridor with terraced riverbanks, cafes, and bike paths that would run through communities in LA that are among the most blighted and ecologically degraded in America. The goal is to eventually attract $5 billion in private investment over the next 15 years that could generate as many as 18,000 jobs.
As for North Adams, the economic impact of the project on the quality of life for North Adams residents is sizable. The $9 million pilot project is projected to produce 108 new jobs in Berkshire County and $13.8 million in increased economic activity, according to a study by Steven Sheppard, an economics professor at Williams College. In addition, local and state taxes in Berkshire County could increase by $400,000. Over the longer term, the study sees significant potential for the expansion of tourism in North Adams, estimating that every 10,000 outdoor-recreation visitors would generate 10 jobs and $763,000 in spending.
Catching Prized Brookies
From an ecological perspective, the Hoosic’s revival would be nothing short of transformational. A place where trout anglers from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New York are coming, seeking to catch a prized gunmetal gray and red brookie. A place where spawning trout can freely swim upstream and downstream, hide from predators, find food, and attach their eggs to hidden rocks. Today, fish are blocked by several small dams and weirs, which are slated to be removed in the restoration.
How will this happen? Essentially, by reconstructing the channel to create, well, a river with natural features. Two of the most important features that trout need are cold temperatures and moderately flowing, oxygenated water. To achieve this, the river will be sinuous, wider and deeper, with rocks, branches, leaves, and other organic matter, creating pools, riffles and runs where trout can hide and lay eggs. Grasses, shrubs and trees will line the riverbank anew. Most importantly, thanks to the removal of the concrete chutes and shade of the trees, the water temperature should drop.
As for tackling the Hoosic’s bacteria problems, there will be no magic-bullet. The sources of bacteria are numerous—feces from dogs as well as wildlife like deer, geese, beavers, and raccoons; leaking sewer connection pipes; illegal sewer connections. The bacteria poses a threat as well to a viable trout fishery. Pinpointing the sources of contamination is particularly challenging. Though reconstructing the river corridor will provide an invaluable opportunity to investigate nearby sections of North Adams’ wastewater-collection system for potential sewer leaks and make repairs.
In the end, if Hoosic River Revival’s grand experiment says anything, it is that our urban waterways are a powerful symbol of both degradation and hope. If North Adams can get it right, their example could blaze a path for other cities across Massachusetts and New England.
Bruce Cohen is a former project consultant with Massachusetts Clean Water Action, whose early seed funding supported, in part, Hoosic River Revival’s pilot project.