Saturday June 15, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- They've tried raising the level of the field, conducted drainage improvements, and even considered changing the course of the river that runs behind the outfield fence.

But no matter how many ideas city officials have either undertaken or considered, nothing has been able to stop Wahconah Park from flooding during a heavy rain. Wahconah Park turns into Wahconah Lake.

The latest evidence of this ongoing phenomenon occurred when this week's torrential rains once again turned Pittsfield's historic baseball stadium into the ol' fishing hole.

"From what I've been told by people who have been here much longer than I have, these are historically high water levels," said Pittsfield Suns' General Manager Kevin McGuire.

Wahconah is the ballclub's home, and flooding in the outfield, along with flooding of the parking lot, forced the Suns to postpone Wednesday night's game. On Friday afternoon, the parking lot was still flooded, but the Suns had pumped out the baseball field. Less than a foot of water remained near the right center field fence.

"We're dealing with it as much as we can and looking for bright sunny days ahead," McGuire said.

Could the flooding at Wahconah Park be eliminated once and for all?

People familiar with the park or who have a knowledge of civil engineering say it's theoretically possible, but the solution would be very expensive and extremely difficult.

Among the suggestions: Build something high enough to prevent the west branch of the Housatonic River from overflowing into the 18.2-acre parcel during a heavy rain, or create the kind of dike system that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has suggested to protect lower Manhattan.

"We could channelize the whole west branch of the river behind Wahconah Park much like a flood control project," said James McGrath, the manager of Pittsfield's park, open space and natural resource program. "Is that practical or feasible? Probably not."

Given the sensitivity to the river, McGrath said he doubts they'd get a permit for a project like that, "and the costs would be exorbitant."

Wahconah Park, which also includes a basketball court and athletic fields in addition to the city's 3,500-seat ballpark, is located entirely within the 100-year flood plain of the west branch of the Housatonic River. Due to that status, any flood control measures undertaken on the land would require approval from either federal, state or local authorities.

Plus, if a way was found to keep the river from inundating Wahconah Park, the flooding that normally takes place there during a heavy rain would likely occur somewhere else downstream.

"The water has got to go somewhere," said Marshall White, who owns White Engineering Inc. of Pittsfield.

White believes the construction of a flood-deterrent project at Wahconah Park would cost more than $1 million.

"I haven't studied it, but there's just an awful lot involved up front in getting permission to do it," White said. "The materials, I imagine, would be quite expensive."

Removing the 93-year-old Tel-Electric Dam on Mill Street, located a couple of miles down river from Wahconah Park, has been discussed in the past because it is believed the water level of the river would be lower if the dam was taken out. According to Eagle files, city officials first considered taking out that dam in the 1920s. Changing the course of the river was bandied about in 1934.

According to McGrath, the Tel-Electric Dam is one of the top 10 dams in Massachusetts that the state is seeking to remove. But he said studies are still being conducted to assess the environmental impact on the rest of the river if the dam is taken out. One problem: a lot of contaminated sediment is located behind the dam.

"There does seem to be some evidence that the removal of the dam would lessen the contribution of flooding into Wahconah Park," McGrath said. "But we're not really certain to what extent because the technical studies are going on as we speak."

In 2009, the city spent $724,582 on improvements to Wahconah Park, which included $275,000 in local funding. But those improvements were intended to reduce the after-effects of the flooding, and improve the usability of the park after the water had receded -- not eliminate the flooding entirely.

"Work was done on the parking lot to shore it up," McGrath said. "A new layer of gravel was put down so when the water recedes, you can park on it that day because it's a flat surface. Five years ago, you wouldn't have been able to park there for 10 days."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224.