To read SAND's 2006 comment letter regarding Fort Point groundwater, click here.
To read a SAND news thread from about the groundwater issue, click here.
To visit the City of Boston Groundwater Trust website, click here.
To visit Citywide GET, a non-profit advocacy group website, click here.

(c) South End News
Issue Date: 3/8/2007, Posted On: 3/12/2007

BRA votes to expand Groundwater Overlay District

by Chris Orchard

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Board voted Thursday to expand the Groundwater Conservation Overlay District (GCOD) to parts of the North End and the Fort Point Channel and to the Bullfinch Triangle. The expansion must now be approved by the Zoning Commission, which is expected to vote on the matter March 28.

As a result of the expanded Overlay District, most of Downtown Boston, including the South End, Back Bay, Fenway, Bay Village and Chinatown, is now protected by special zoning that was created to protect groundwater levels under Boston’s landfill.

In the 19th century, large areas of Boston, including the South End, were built on landfill that was originally harbor and marshland. Bostonians built these landfill areas, in part, by driving wooden piles into the water and marshland. To this day many buildings in Boston are supported by these centuries-old wooden foundations. As long as these old wooden piles are submerged in groundwater, they remain strong. However, if groundwater levels deplete and expose the wooden piles to air and termites, the piles begin to rot and decay, and the very foundations upon which Boston is built can crumble, causing extensive damage.

Under natural circumstances, rainwater falling to the earth and seeping through the ground would replenish, or recharge, groundwater. However, in Boston, where much of the land is covered with pavement and buildings, rainwater runs off into the municipal drainage system, unable to seep into the earth and recharge groundwater. Many older buildings have leaky foundations and sump pumps that pump water into the drainage system, exacerbating the groundwater problem.

As a result, the BRA drafted the GCOD to protect groundwater levels, and the Zoning Commission approved the Overlay District in February of 2006. Any substantial real estate development located in the GCOD must prove that the project does not negatively impact groundwater levels. Additionally, any development in the GCOD must build a system, such as a dry well, to capture rainwater, thus helping to recharge groundwater.

When the original GCOD was enacted last year, the zoning code did not include the North End, Bullfinch Triangle and Fort Point Channel. Those areas, while built on landfill, have maintained high groundwater levels. However, after a year of analysis, which included recording groundwater levels with monitoring wells, the BRA decided to expand the Overlay District, arguing that groundwater needs to be protected in light of the presence of historic buildings in those neighborhoods and the amount of new real estate developments getting built.

Unlike within the original boundaries of the GCOD, however, developments in the North End, Bullfinch Triangle and Fort Point Channel would not be required to capture and recharge groundwater. This is because groundwater levels have remained high in those neighborhoods. Instead, new developments must prove that they would not pose a negative impact to groundwater levels.

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