Editorial: Midd River controversy could be role model for river restoration

It’s always hard to say you’re sorry, but anytime 50 residents turn out to a routine meeting of any community board, you know something has upset a large segment of the public and an apology may be in order. And so it was on Tuesday when a crowd addressed the Middlebury selectboard on what many perceived as overzealous work to shore-up town bridges and a retaining wall in the river that, as a consequence, has done what some say is irreparable harm.
Emotions have been high for the past several days. Allegations have been made that the town has long been angling to do serious reconstruction work in the river to reduce future flooding in East Middlebury by channeling the river, and Tropical Storm Irene presented the perfect opportunity to bypass the normal state permitting process. The town is naturally defensive about such allegations and had defended its work as necessary and done with state approval.
Tuesday’s meeting helped diffuse some of those raw emotions and, more importantly, the town made a step toward clearing the air by stopping any further work until expert advice can be solicited.
Let’s review what appears to be common knowledge:
1) After the flood waters from Irene’s rains subsided, Middlebury town crews took bulldozers, excavators and other heavy equipment into the river to reinforce what they suspected were vulnerable areas to bridge supports and a retaining wall between the Lower Plains Bridge and just below the Grist Mill Bridge. The town had consulted with state River Management Engineer Chris Brunelle and gotten his approval for the work between the two bridges.
2) It is a known fact that state agencies dealing with the disastrous flooding throughout the state were swamped and stretched way beyond thin, and everyone’s immediate concerns were safety and preserving infrastructure when and if possible.
3) It’s also a fact that the temporary flooding to East Middlebury and the minor erosion created by the Middlebury River along that section was nothing compared to the severe damage done to other parts of the state and were way down on the priority list for Brunelle and others — as well it should have been.
4) Work on this section of the Middlebury River started Sept. 1 and continued until Sept. 13. Toward the end of those two weeks, workers went downstream of the Grist Mill Bridge despite protests from area residents, concerned groups like the New Haven River Anglers Association and Fish & Game representatives. Some of that work included what protestors labeled as channeling the river.
5) The work done in the river by the town was so egregious that state officials are conducting an investigation to see if the town overstepped its authority and was too brazen in its reconstruction.
6) What is also true is that town crews were trying to solve what they perceived as a threat to safety and property in the best way they knew how; and do it before the next heavy rains came rushing through town.
No doubt mistakes were made, and admitting as much goes a long way to mending bridges and getting everyone to work toward common solutions.
The question now is how does the town take this lemon and turn it into lemonade.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the tone from the selectboard and town officials had gone from what had previously been very defensive, to opening the door to constructive criticism and finding ways that they might help reverse the damage done through restoration.
That’s a great start.
The town can take further steps to restore the public’s trust by inviting at least one expert to address the East Middlebury community in a public meeting to explain how rivers flow and the best practices to contain future flooding, while also managing river ecology. Having an open meeting, which selectboard member Travis Forbes suggested Tuesday night, helps the community buy into possible solutions and bridges the divide between those who are solely concerned with town infrastructure and those whose primary concern is with the river’s inherent character.
The town may have to pony up some money to fund its share of appropriate studies to determine how to right the wrongs that may have been committed. So be it. If harm was done, helping to restore the river is simply the right thing to do. But time is of the essence.
The hopeful outcome is that rather than be the poster child of how not to respond to a disaster like Irene’s flooding, Middlebury could serve as a role model to other towns in how to restore and reconstruct a river that has been compromised by the emergency — and often destructive — use of heavy machinery. This doesn’t excuse what appears to be the town of Middlebury’s overzealous approach in this instance, but it does make the most out of a bad situation and may help avoid similar mistakes in any other Vermont towns still facing serious challenges in their efforts to rebuild.

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