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Ever-shifting river threatens Ripton

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RIPTON RESIDENT CAROL McKnight points out erosion along the Middlebury River as it flows through Ripton Village.  An Aug. 6 flood sheared 10 to 15 feet off of her backyard, raising concerns about how future erosion could affect residents’ homes and town buildings in the village.<br /> <br /> Independent photo/Trent Campbell

By JOHN FLOWERS

RIPTON — Folks who live near a river will tell you there’s something comforting about listening to the gentle gurgle of water as it meanders down a country mountain.

But folks like Carol McKnight also know that a meandering river can suddenly hop its banks and turn into an angry, destructive freight train. After having seen the Middlebury River do just that on Aug. 6 and shear more than 10 feet from the backyard of her Ripton village property in the process, McKnight doesn’t sleep as soundly during a rainstorm.

“I’m feeling extremely anxious,” McKnight said on Tuesday, as she walked around the exterior of her beautiful home in the heart of the Ripton village. The home was surrounded by a gushing moat only three months ago during a devastating flood from which some areas of Addison County are still recovering.

“I’m very concerned,” she said.

McKnight and her neighbors immediately downstream, Rick and Molly Hawley, are now seeking guidance and help in shoring up the river banks along their shrinking property to ensure their homes don’t wind up cascading down to East Middlebury on some future rain-soaked day.

And McKnight and the Hawleys stressed that it is in the town of Ripton’s best interest to see the banks reinforced and the Middlebury River redirected into the channels it has abandoned over time at the whim of Mother Nature. Town officials acknowledged mounting evidence that the next cataclysmic flooding event could result in the river not only taking out the McKnight and Hawley properties, but gushing over Route 125 and into the three municipal properties that define Ripton Village: the town office building, the community house and the 1864 Ripton United Methodist Church.

Representatives of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will hold a meeting at the Ripton town clerk’s office from 10 a.m. to noon on Monday, Nov. 17, to discuss potential flood mitigation efforts for the Middlebury River. Town officials hope to learn what, if any, federal aid might be available to contain the river within its banks and perhaps redirect it into some of its traditional arteries.

“The problem is, the river has a mind of its own,” said Ripton Planning Commission Chairman Warren King, who has been monitoring the river and its potential impact on Ripton’s historic district, which includes the church, town offices and community house.

“There is some evidence that in succeeding flood events, more of Ripton Village will be put at risk,” he said.

King explained that recent and historic flood events have brought an increasing amount of small rocks — also known as “shingle” — downstream, depositing them in existing river channels. As a result, the river has had to move around these shingle deposits, changing its course in the process. Unfortunately, that new course has led the river closer to its current banks and on a crash course into neighboring properties and, potentially, Ripton village.

Officials agree that state and federal authorities cannot continue to try and stave off disaster by dumping loads of rocks along the riverbank. McKnight noted that strategy was tried along her property around six years ago; the rocks are now probably somewhere in East Middlebury.

“If I had one of those homes and was determined to tough it out, I would invest in the largest boulders I could buy and put them along the river bank,” King said. “I’m talking about boulders as big as cars.”

That is an expensive and permit-fraught proposition, one the homeowners may have to absorb on their own, officials said.

“The town is already overextended because of the one-two punch of the June and August storms,” King said.

McKnight and the Hawleys knew of the river’s potential dangers when they bought their homes, both of which have weathered various storms — including the 1927 flood — for more than a century.

“The river, when it is behaving, is a wonderful plus,” said Rick Hawley, who with his wife bought the home 15 years ago. “We were aware the river could get high, but we had never had any damage.”

Not until Aug. 6, when the river took out a 100-foot long, 12-foot-wide swath of the Hawleys’ backyard. Water came all the way up the Hawleys’ house, flooding their basement, taking out their furnace motor. The erosion has fortunately not taken out their septic system.

McKnight, too, suffered substantial losses from the Aug. 6 storm. After shaving off the edge of her backyard, the water took out many of the flowers, shrubs and trees McKnight has carefully planted and nurtured during the 34 years she has owned her home. Floodwaters rushed into her basement, leaving her furnace completely submerged and destroyed. McKnight, a psychologist, works out of her home, which she has expanded and improved over the years to make it more serene and comforting to clients. The abode is endowed with special artistic flourishes, such as a mural on her garage door, stain-glass windows and panels and other unique features.

She would not relish the prospect of being “bought out” by the government if her home is ultimately deemed to be in a hazard area.

“It is difficult to put an estimate on what is a work of art, not just a home,” McKnight said.

State, federal and local officials will discuss the homeowners’ plight, as well as potential long-range fixes. That might include installing weirs upstream to “deflect the current in a more benign direction,” according to King.

“You encourage the river to use exiting channels or different channels.”

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