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LONGMEADOW — A three-day workshop to explore the restoration of Cooley Brook ended on May 7 with a presentation about how the brook, as well as Laurel and Bliss parks, could be improved.

Cooley Brook is a 1.5-mile stream that begins in Bliss Park and flows west, under Laurel Street, through Laurel Park and under Longmeadow Street, before feeding into the Connecticut River. The brook’s water quality and localized flooding have been an ongoing concern for the town and residents.
In the past, the town has contracted with Conway School of Landscape Design, which has designed two projects for the area, the most recent being in 2023. Recently, the town used a Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant from the state to contract with the engineering firm Fuss & O’Neill to create preliminary designs for Cooley Brook, and Bliss and Laurel parks. The grant was part of the over $550,000 Longmeadow has sought and received to address the conditions at the brook and parks.

The Fuss & O’Neill team have worked with several members of the town government — Planning and Community Development Director Corrin Meise-Munns, Parks & Recreation Director Bari Jarvis, Town Engineer Time Keane and Conservation Agent and Tree Warden Leah Grigorov — along with members of the Connecticut River Conservancy in crafting the preliminary design options.

The three-day workshop included a “walk and talk” tour of the brook, a self-guided tour with images placed throughout the park to draw attention to areas that could be improved, a survey and an informal discussion about the brook. The preliminary designs will incorporate resident feedback from the workshop, which has had a turnout of about 25 people at each event.

While the survey and the self-guided walking tour will be open for two more weeks, the data collected so far shows that most survey respondents want Laurel Park to offer a healthy ecosystem and accessible trails. The preferences point to “simple, minimal, rustic park improvements,” according to the presentation.

The project is focused on two main goals: reducing flooding and rehabilitating Cooley Brook by stabilizing the banks, preventing further erosion and improving the water quality and habitat.

Analysis of the brook determined that there are several factors — mostly the result of previous human intervention — that have caused the brook to become impeded and restricted its natural ability to mitigate stormwater.

Much of the area around the watershed is covered with asphalt and other hard surfaces, which results in stormwater runoff from surrounding neighborhoods. The culverts that allow the brook to flow beneath Laurel and Longmeadow streets are undersized, limiting the amount of water that can pass through and causing the brook to overflow during storms and erode its banks. There is also old water infrastructure from the brook’s time as the town’s source of drinking water that now keeps the water from flowing effectively.

Laurel Pond

One of the major topics of the presentation was Laurel Pond. The brook’s two dams, including the one that created Laurel Pond, break up the flow of the brook. Senior Geomorphologist and Water Resources Engineer Candice Constantine said the ponded water behind dams is also warmer, which leads to changes in which species inhabit the area. They also cause clay, silt and sand deposits to settle in the pond after major rain events. These deposits have compounded over the years and made that section of the brook shallow, limiting its ability to contain water during storms. The result is flooding.

If the town wishes to maintain a pond in Laurel Park, Landscape Architect Andrew Bohne said it will require maintenance and need to be dredged on a cycle of between 10 and 30 years to keep the sediment from building up.

There is another option, however. The dams can be removed, allowing the brook to “meander” and find a natural path through the ground. Bohne said he understands people have “emotional ties” to open water but said removing the dams is “the best plan for the waterway to restore it to a healthy condition.”
Either way, the preliminary designs showed the use of large rocks to create sloping, stepped-down access to the water.

Other proposed changes to the brook and parks include trail enhancements with accessible paths, improved entrances at Laurel and Longmeadow streets and a safer crosswalk area on Laurel Street. In combination with open bottom culverts, stream “daylighting,” or opening some areas where the brook flows underground, would lessen the velocity of the water flowing through the system. This would reduce erosion and flooding during extreme weather events.

In Bliss Park, stormwater storage and infiltration chambers could be installed beneath the baseball and softball diamonds and a natural stormwater treatment area with raised walkways could filter stormwater as it seeps into the ground. Bohne said the area could drain within 48 hours. He said this would provide “huge [water] quality improvements.”

Bohne said, “Everywhere needs to act like a sponge,” absorbing stormwater. Green infrastructure and plantings along the roadways would keep runoff from flowing directly into the brook. There are large stands of pine trees in Bliss Park, which do not absorb much water. He suggested removing them and reforesting the area with native trees that make better use of groundwater.

When it comes to plants, Bohne said, “There is an immense amount of invasive species” throughout the parks, which he said should be removed. Senior Resilience Scientist Julie Busa pointed out that the parks would look more open immediately after the invasive species were removed, but those areas would fill back in with native vegetation.

Feedback

People attending the presentation had various opinions about parking at Laurel Park, with some advocating for the elimination of parking lots and others pointing out that they are needed for people with mobility impairments and parents with young children. One resident spoke against paved paths and said he preferred them all to be dirt, but Busa explained that areas need to be accessible. Bohne said the paths can be made with several materials, including gravel or concrete.

One Edgewood Avenue resident shared that many of her neighbors have basement flooding problems and use sump pumps to remove the water. She said she had spent $20,000 mitigating water issues on her property and urged the use of retention ponds to collect stormwater.

Shade structures and bathroom facilities were other aspects of the design about which the survey showed split opinions. Some wanted to avoid manufactured structures, but Bohne noted that those amenities may encourage people to visit the parks longer.

Someone asked about the three bridges in the parks that her sons helped build as Eagle Scout projects. Bohne had not known they were built by scouts but said he was not surprised. He did not answer that question but said design decisions would be informed by feedback from residents.

Funding

The project is at least two or three years from construction, according to both Bohne and Meise-Munns, but the timeline is largely dependent on funding. Meise-Munns said there is a large amount of grant funding available, which the town is planning to pursue. If the dams and the old, defunct infrastructure are removed, Busa said it will make the project more attractive to funding sources. She commented, “No one wants to fund dammed areas anymore.”

Bohne said, “These projects have a way of gaining momentum. When they’re community supported, the get funding fast.”

Busa added, “It’s in the governor’s best interest to see these projects move forward.”

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