Complaints about Hartford’s Park River began not long after colonizers arrived. Before anyone thought to regulate harmful industry, tanneries and other such polluters set up on the banks of this tributary of the Connecticut River.
The gripes soon flowed: it was dirty, and when the Industrial Revolution arrived there were frequent fish kills. It stank. Without an ounce of sense or humility, people also built housing directly next to the river, seemingly not expecting a river to act like one. Because its path ribboned through the formerly heavily residential portion of downtown, its faults were noticed.
The push to manipulate this river did not begin with concerns about flooding – a fact that has been washed away by local folklore about how we came to bury the river.
It was the stench of stagnant water wafting into the tenements, housing so close to the river that at least once a resident fell off his back porch, knocked himself unconscious, and then drowned in the shallow water. Rather than regulate industry or suggest builders construct housing at a more reasonable distance from waterways, Hartford chose to un-river itself.
It’s a complex, winding story, but one tidbit worth mentioning is how at a City Plan Commission meeting in 1911, several solutions for cleaning and beautifying the Park River were debated.
One proposal was to cover the river from Hamilton Street to where it empties into the Connecticut River, for “building and highway purposes,” according to the Hartford Courant. Expense sunk this suggestion, along with worry that a conduit would lead to damage from floods. A scheme to change the river’s course in hopes of speeding its flow was killed for cost. Money and aesthetics had officials passing on the plan to turn this into a canal. The option approved by the Commission was instead one that included removing “few and unimportant” buildings along the river and extending Bushnell Park to Main Street, modifying the river bed with rocks for a cascading effect and adding vegetation along its banks. The plan to cover the river from the east side of Main Street to the west side of Front Street was included in this “cheap” treatment.
Much of what was approved then never came to be, except for modifying the river in some way “to gain additional width for Jewell and Wells streets” and to add roadways atop other sections. Decades later, when massive floods catalyzed funding, those who were pressing for highway and housing development got their wish, and the river was placed in a conduit from its mouth to the area between Park and Hamilton Streets, with another mile south crammed into concrete channels from there until Pulaski Drive. A small portion of the river’s North Branch was later covered. This did not happen all at once, and following the burial downtown, flooding increased near houses in a section of the Frog Hollow neighborhood which today is largely covered by an unused Aetna parking lot. We never got that 1911 addition of vegetation buffering the river, that’s for sure.
Water wants to move, to soak into the ground. When it meets resistance, it can burst through or it can pool up. We’ve paved over just about everything with hubris and asphalt, expecting water to not behave like water.
When a building is surrounded by an asphalt lot – pavement right up to the building – it can’t be a surprise when water finds its way inside. Rain gardens in parking lots and along the curb would have reduced the flash flooding issue many experienced in Greater Hartford during the heavy downpours on Independence Day. For one thing, their design is more forgiving than storm drains that are easily clogged by litter and natural debris. The bonus is it helps filter pollutants; if you were curious why so many beaches close after excessive rainfall, part of the answer is that runoff contains chemicals from road and lot surfaces and we do not adequately, everywhere, use integrated water management
The twelve $170M North Hartford Projects offered as solutions to long-term complaints of basement flooding appear to provide no green infrastructure, only gray. While the old sewer system, without doubt, needs repair, we would be fools to gloss over the ways that we have actively exacerbated problems, whether that’s by rebuilding Weaver High on the same swampy land that caused structural problems noted in the 1980s or by rebuilding two large scale housing developments in recent years equally close to the Park River – one north and one south of the school. Some of the addresses reporting issues are not far south and east of there; water runs downhill.
For years, Park Watershed advocates advised owners of sprawling surface parking lots along the river to limit parking with impervious pavement, add bio-swales and rain gardens, and more, and by and large, their recommendations grounded in science have largely been ignored. Could DEEP find grant money for green infrastructure to manage stormwater, or will we be in a never-ending cycle of flooding complaints either as more surfaces are paved or the gray infrastructure breaks with age?