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Old Lyme homeowners digging for answer to flooding problems

Old Lyme — White Sand Beach residents Harry Gough and Rich Lemieux say they have to get out a shovel every time it rains to keep the flooding at bay.

Flooding happens because water in the marsh adjacent to their homes has nowhere else to go, they said. They blamed a clogged drain pipe that extends as part of an underground culvert system from the marsh to Long Island Sound.

So they make the trek from their doorsteps, along the invisible path atop the 18-inch pipe, across the beach and down to the metal pole that signals the drain's outlet. Then they dig out the sand around and inside the pipe so that water can flow again.

It's a problem that's been going on for years, according to the neighbors.

"Pretty much every time it rains, we have to do this," Gough said Sunday morning shortly after low tide as Lemieux opened up the pipe in a gush that continued unabated as they talked. Gough said it would likely continue for four or five hours before the flooding on their properties goes down.

Gough said the most pressing need is the replacement of the final, 20-foot section of pipe that washed out to sea during a 2018 storm. He described it as a "temporary fix," estimated at about $1,000, that would buy time to hire an engineering firm to come up with a long-term plan and to identify grant funding sources.

The residents, who both moved to the area in 2014, said the problem became more pronounced after the section of pipe was swept out to sea in 2018. They said they've been trying for years to get somebody to take responsibility for the problem with no success.

The marsh and most of the culvert system runs through private property, but the outlet is below the mean high water line within state jurisdiction. The neighbors said the area in question is outside the boundaries of the White Sand Beach Association, though the flooding does affect some members.

First Selectman Tim Griswold could not be reached to comment Sunday about the issue.

Documents from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) indicate it was the town that made the most recent repairs to the area in question, which runs from a concrete structure on the beach to below the high water line.

Gough said the pipe running under the sand collapsed and caused a large sinkhole in October 2018. The town dug out the old pipe and installed a new one, according to Gough.

The complaints come as residents in nearby Hawks Nest and Miami beaches deal with similar problems related to clogged pipes. In that case, Griswold has said guidance from Town Attorney Jack Collins indicates the pair of 36-inch pipes and the wooden crib are the town's responsibility, since that's who built the system in the late 1940s and has repaired it since.

Century-old problem

A hundred years ago, the salt marsh was connected directly to Long Island Sound by a natural tidal creek. But cottages began to spring up in the 1930s and a culvert was installed to divert the flow, according to DEEP. The 70-foot system with 18-inch pipe and a tide gate, which was used in the summer to drain the marsh to prevent mosquito breeding, led to the proliferation of the non-native, invasive Phragmites reed plants in the marsh — and to flooding around it.

Documents show that in 1997, the agency installed a new culvert connecting to the existing concrete culvert. It was part of a project to restore the natural functions of the salt marsh by increasing the flow of salt water in and freshwater out. The agency changed the 70-foot culvert with 18-inch pipe into a 120-foot culvert with 24-inch pipe.

Gough said the 24-inch pipe extended only as far as the concrete chamber on the beach near one of the beachfront homes on Seaside Lane.

A 2000 document from the agency, which counted the project among its "success stories," said there had been no flooding in the three years since the work was done and that the risk of fire from dead Phragmites was greatly reduced.

Now the flooding and Phragmites are back.

Water on Lemieux's land, situated in front of the 5-acre marsh, extended underneath his back deck Sunday morning. The last time it rained was Friday, when National Weather Service data shows 0.15 inches of rain fell in the area.

Gough said if an inch to an inch and a half of rain falls, he'll have 8-10 inches of water in his garage. He had his house raised in 2019.

Flooding after Hurricane Ida inundated his property to the point he ended up taking a dinghy to get something out of his basement, he said. He estimated it took about 36 hours with the pipe fully unobstructed for the water to recede.

He compared the situation to the one at Old Colony Beach, where over $1 million in federal grants addressed flooding around Sheffield Brook.

"They only got a couple of inches on their streets where they used to get feet," he said. "And even the few inches they got they said dissipated in a few hours."

The Old Colony project was made possible by an $820,700 federal conservation grant in 2014 to restore and dredge Sheffield Brook to reduce the chance of flooding. That same year, the town received $300,000 in federal Superstorm Sandy funds for a new culvert and outlet for the brook.

Flooding problem is "really dangerous"

Frank Antonacci, owner since 2019 of the beachfront property the White Sand Beach pipe runs through, said the situation is "really dangerous."

He pointed to the deteriorating square of concrete in front of his house, which he said is part of a chamber within the culvert system he worried is in danger of collapse. He also said the outlet when it empties into the Sound causes "a quicksand situation" that can be dangerous for children.

"I've been down there walking and all the sudden you drop three, four feet into the sand," he said. "You have a little kid down there, it's a real issue."

Antonacci said there needs to be a permanent fix.

"The DEEP has made alterations previously and we're hoping they will step up here," he said. "There's millions and millions of dollars for coastal restoration and stormwater fixes — more money now than ever — and we're hopeful DEEP can expedite it because this is a known issue for many years."

The state environmental protection agency could not be reached Sunday to comment.

State Sen. Paul Formica said he brought the issue to DEEP and continues to advocate for a resolution.

"I think DEEP should stand up and fix this problem as they did for the beach area around the corner," he said.

Formica expressed support for the replacement of the 20-foot section of pipe as a way to provide "temporary relief" until a long-term solution is engineered, designed and installed.

A written update from Michael Grzywinski, of the DEEP Land and Water Resources division, was shared with Formica Nov. 3 by the agency's legislative liaison, Harrison Nantz. It said a plan from Mystic-based Docko Inc. brought to the agency by Antonacci for a permanent fix was "beyond DEEP's capacity" to do on private land.

Grzywinski said in the letter that the agency offered to perform "certain repairs to the existing pipe," but Antonacci said he's only heard mention of these temporary fixes and has not been shown any plans or seen any action taken.

Grzywinski said he wasn't aware of specific grant opportunities but that they may become available from time to time. He said the local Flood and Erosion Control Board was empowered by the legislature to take charge of projects like this.

The law specifies erosion control boards can levy taxes and special assessments to fund green infrastructure projects.

Ray Hackett, a resident of the beach area who said he has to keep his lawnmower in his kitchen because his garage keeps flooding, reiterated that the issue has been going on for too long.

"It's just frustrating, because it can be fixed," he said. "It's an easy fix if we can just get people to work together and do the right thing."

e.regan@theday.com

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