Officials spar over impact of river work

EAST MIDDLEBURY — A group of federal, state and Middlebury representatives met on Tuesday to discuss the future of the East Middlebury stretch of the Middlebury River.
The meeting came in the wake of last August’s Tropical Storm Irene, after which the town of Middlebury put earthmoving equipment in the river and started dredging to repair damage and guard against future damage.
Army Corps says Middlebury violated Clean Water Act
Read the story here.
The town was slapped with a Clean Water Act violation for what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called excessive dredging (see related article). Town officials were ordered to stop work and found themselves caught between the competing interests of homeowners living along the Middlebury River, who were calling for further dredging of the river, and environmental conservationists, who did not want any more dredging.
On Tuesday, 10 government scientists, engineers and other officials met for three hours, visited the river and worked to get everyone on the same page for how to proceed with the river. They discussed the town’s legal parameters, planning problems, funding sources and the environmental issues involved.
Marty Abair, senior program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, set the tone of the discussion, ordering the town not to work on the river — between the Lower Plains and Grist Mill Bridges, where dredging occurred —  until after the spring to see how the river recovers on its own.
“My immediate concern is getting restoration of that reach where the work was done,” she said. “When the town went in and cleaned the river out, it left it with nothing, basically. So what we want to do is restore the fish habitat in that region.”
Although the Army Corps is primarily concerned with restoration, town officials said they were most concerned about the safety of town residents. Along with Amy Sheldon, a seasoned river scientist and East Middlebury resident, the town is working to draw up a plan to mitigate flooding in East Middlebury and find a long-term solution to protect homes.
One solution Abair and others identified is to prevent future building in the flood plain.
“There are a hell of a lot of towns, villages and homes in Vermont that are in places where they never should’ve been built,” she said. “We all know that, and I think one of the biggest things that’s come out of Irene, and all of the other flood events we’ve experienced in recent past, is protecting our flood plain corridors and enacting zoning ordinances to prevent construction in the flood plain.”
Shannon Pytlik, a Department of Environmental Conservation river scientist, asked Town Planner Fred Dunnington if there is a law in place to prevent future development along the East Middlebury flood plain. According to Dunnington, there is not. But he said the town would consider the prospect as it looks to propose a new town plan. Pytlik told Dunnington that adding such an ordinance would be wise.
“I can tell you from a funding standpoint, for any FEMA or state water quality-related grants, the town would be much more competitive if you adopt some kind of protection through there because … it doesn’t make sense to put money into a community … if zoning regulations allow for development in other hazardous areas.  It’s like throwing money in the trash,” she said.
The town’s first step in dealing with flood hazards along East Middlebury is to conduct two engineering and river studies. According to Sheldon, funding for these studies and flood mitigation work looks promising.
FEMA’s Public Assistance Program will fund the majority of repairs to the East Middlebury floodwall, just below the Grist Mill Bridge. Since this renovation work will require an engineering study, Sheldon and Middlebury officials can use it to help create a flood mitigation plan for the corridor. The state is waiting to hear back from FEMA, but state officials expect that towns across Vermont will receive a 90-percent reimbursement for every public project.
“I think the biggest news is that FEMA public assistance will help us with the Grist Mill floodwall,” said Sheldon. “That’s potentially the most expensive part of what we want to do.” 
Once the town has finished its own hazard mitigation plan, it will likely apply for a federal hazard mitigation planning grant to conduct an engineering study on the river stretch next to Ossie Road, where the Army Corps built a berm to contain the river in the 1980s.
But even with these studies, the East Middlebury river corridor is an extremely difficult place to engineer a tame river because it sits at the bottom of a steep mountain where rushing water deposits a huge amount of sediment that scientists say will continue to fill in the streambed.
Fisheries biologist Chet Mackenzie of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department shared his experience on river projects on steep grades like those in the Middlebury and New Haven rivers.
“With these steep-gradient streams, they’ll work all summer, and that fall we’ll get a flood event and it just tears that stuff right out,” he said.
Engineer Michel Lapointe of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service added, “You can engineer everything with good principals and Mother Nature’s still going to do what it wants.”
Another issue was dredging.
“Our bridges and bedrock — that’s what determines the bed of the channel. We can dredge as deep as we want, but the rivers are just going to fill back in,” Pytlik said. “Is the community going to pay to go in and (dredge) every year?”
In recent months, East Middlebury residents along Ossie Road have expressed concern about the withering berm that protects their houses from floods. But even redesigning this isn’t as simple as would at first appear.
“Everything we do on one side is going to impact somewhere else,” said Lapointe. “So if we’re raising the water on the side of the berms, we’re going to raise the water across the whole flood plain, which means the further bank is getting water further up the bank and every time that water drains out you’re loosening the material on the banks and that’s where a lot of these mass failures start from,” he said.
That’s an issue that an engineering study should assess.
“We want to obviously secure the residents of East Middlebury village as much as we can,” Sheldon said. “But there’s nothing mankind can do that will make them completely safe from the river because it’s a natural system with a lot of power and energy behind it.
“I think what Irene’s taught us is we have a lot of homes and infrastructure (along rivers) and like it or not we’re not buying them out right now,” she added. “And we need to protect them. Otherwise, people get hurt, they lose their assets and their homes, and no good comes of it. Maybe that means we’re in the next iteration of learning.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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