City Hall requests $3 million to dredge ponds

The city will soon dredge the ponds next to City Hall, and the price tag is more than five times higher than the last time that work was done.

At a joint meeting of the Finance and Public Facilities committees, members voted to recommend approval for Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s request $3 million to dredge the ponds, a project that has been in capital improvement plans for four years but was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both committees voted unanimously for approval, but not before several councilors recommended changes to long-term planning regarding flooding and waste removal.

Sticker shock

“We did start permitting this prior to the pandemic,” Newton Public Works Commissioner Jim McGonagle said. “During the pandemic, all permitting through the Army Corps of Engineers—which is one of the major permits we need to accomplish this work—along with the DEP came to a screeching halt.”

The city got its final permitting in early 2022, and the project was put out for bids.

The last time the ponds were dredged was in 2013, and the cost for that project was $450,000, McGonagle said. This time around, the lowest bid was for $2.7 million. The highest was about $4 million.

“I’m still really having a hard time grasping that,” McGonagle said. “Even our engineer’s not sure why the price escalation was as high as it was.”

The DPW rejected the bids and did some research, and McGonagle discovered that the price increase is related to disposal.

The material dredged from ponds is normally used as a top layer for landfills. And these days, there aren’t many landfills left in Massachusetts, McGonigle continued. That decline in landfills has created issues with trash disposal across the region and has escalated the price for disposing of the dredged materials.

There are also fewer contractors doing this kind of removal now, given the increased permitting and environmental measures required.

The city put the ponds project out for bid again this year and got two bids: one for $2.5 million and one for $4.2 million.

The city picked the lower $2.5 million bid, and the DPW is asking for $3 million because it’s common to include a 20 percent contingency with these types of projects to cover any unexpected costs that come up during the work.

 “It sounds like we did the best we could, and it sounds like going into the dredging business would be a good idea, a lucrative business,” Councilor Emily Norton quipped.

Councilors Julia Malakie and Alison Leary suggested the city think about long-term planning for water dredging and waste removal, because of the decrease in places in which to dispose of waste.

“I’m quite sure we won’t have any more landfills in the state of Massachusetts, probably in less than ten years,” Leary said.

Flooding mitigation

Dredging the ponds will help with nearby flooding in some cases, McGonagle continued, because removing the silt out increases pond capacity and keeps the silt from ending up downstream.

But having the ponds dredged last year would not have prevented the flooding seen at the Newton Free Library parking lot next to City Hall in August, because that flooding came with a large amount of rain in a short time.

“When we had flooding recently in the parking lot, we had three inches of rain in less than 90 minutes,” McGonagle said. “The entire system was surcharged, so we just didn’t have the capacity to handle that amount of rain in that short amount of time.”

So while dredging the ponds will increase the capacity at City Hall and help flooding in many situations, it won’t do much for times when we get a lot of rain in a very short amount of time.

Councilor Leonard Gentile was concerned by both the price tag and the fact that the dredging won’t stop the most severe flash flooding in the area.

“If we have another storm similar to the one we had in August, where we get a tremendous amount of rain in a short period of time, we’re going to see more flooding,” Gentile said. “I’m not pointing that out to try and place blame. It’s just frustrating that this is going to happen.”