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White River work spurs scrutiny

GRANVILLE/HANCOCK — In the days and weeks after Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in late August, it wasn’t uncommon to see excavators in rivers across the state, clearing culverts and rebuilding riverbanks.
The White River in Granville and Hancock was no exception.
Hancock road commissioner Jim Leno said the town went to work on the waterways shortly after the storm to unplug culverts. Mostly, the town worked on streams and tributaries of the White River; the White River itself, as well as the Hancock Branch (which runs along Route 125), is subject to permitting by the state’s Agency of Transportation and Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Leno said that in some cases, the town took gravel from the White River to fill in town roads that had been destroyed, but that after the initial emergency response, that practice didn’t continue.
“I was given permission to do that, early on,” he said. “We stopped on our own.”
The issue of post-Irene river work has come into stark view in recent months, as towns, citizens and river experts express sometimes dueling views on the best procedure to address the changes made to state’s rivers, as well as best practices going forward.
Patrick Ross, an ANR river management engineer, said towns around the state received verbal permission to go into rivers immediately after the storm because the priority was on freeing people from their homes, clearing out culverts and repairing roads that had been destroyed.
“For the first week to 10 days it was complete chaos, and for the first 30 days ANR did verbal authorizations,” he said. “After 30 days, we went to a paper permitting system. We did onsite permit authorizations … with every permit, we tried to weigh what people were doing, and tried to minimize impacts to streams and rivers.”
But Ross said most of the significant river work was done in the very early days, to varying degrees of success.
“A lot of things, frankly, were done in those first couple of days,” he said — in some cases, towns and property owners straightened channels, put up berms and dug out river beds to attempt to prevent flooding.
Greg Russ, of the White River Partnership, said the work in the rivers was a far cry from anything that happened after the flooding of 1973, when excavators drove from town to town through the river, digging out, dredging and channeling.
But he said many waterways in the area do bear signs of work, which can affect river flow.
“There was a lot of habitat destruction, with people cleaning the streams out,” he said. “But the rivers that were untouched post-flood are fine.”
Removing obstacles like gravel bars and curves can actually speed up the river, setting up dangerous possibilities for the next time it floods.
“The slower the water is, the less energy is in that water,” said Russ.
Still, Patrick Ross said there were times when there was no choice but to go ahead with work that could damage the waterways.
“Sometimes you had to work in the streams — there was no way around it,” he said.
Now, it’s up to the state to evaluate the work that was done, and to combat potential issues that could arise from the work.
“There are good ways to rebuild, there are OK ways and then there are bad ways,” he said. “Probably 10 percent of the work that was done was not very good.”
But it’s also been an opportunity for rebuilding better. Russ said his partnership received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help towns install new culverts where they were blown out. The culverts accommodate more water flow, and they’re embedded in the ground to preserve a stream bottom that is hospitable to fish and other wildlife.
Russ and Ross both said this type of culvert is a new standard, and it’s much more sturdy during flooding events than smaller, non-embedded culverts.
One larger culvert is going into Taylor Brook, on Route 125 in Hancock.
“It should handle much more flow,” said Ross.
“What’s good for fish is good for people,” said Russ. “You invest a little in a culvert and it doesn’t blow out.”
RIVER RECOVERY
Ever since Irene hit, Ross has been busy traveling around the state, looking at rivers. He said the mode has mostly changed from immediate recovery to planning long-term projects.
And the decisions Ross has to make now aren’t easy — they involve a delicate balance, weighing the effects of every project on a number of interests.
“When you have a massive flood like this, public infrastructure, riparian rights of landowners, fish and wildlife all play into the decisions,” Ross said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Take the area near Buffalo Farm Road in Granville, where a tributary stream overflowed and ran across the flat area straight through private property.
Ross said next year, the stream channel will be rebuilt and the flat plain — which is host to a number of houses and D’s Dog House and Tavern — will have to be restored. But, he said, left to their own devices the waterways would recover just fine from the storm.
“Mother Nature has a way of rebuilding herself,” he said. “For the most part, we’re confident that the streams will rebound.”
Rebuilding the stream on Buffalo Farm Road, said Ross, is primarily a concession to human needs.
“For about 250 years now, we’ve built in some pretty vulnerable locations,” he said. “We’re forced in many locations to rebuild in places we probably shouldn’t.”
And each time a major flooding event hits, it’s the same story: homes, properties, businesses, roads and bridges are destroyed.
“As long as we live next to the streams and the babbling brooks, we’re going to have to rebuild every time there’s a flood.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andrea@addisonindependent.com.

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