Middlebury starts new era in co-existence with river

EAST MIDDLEBURY — Like many of the state’s waterways right now, the Middlebury River has slowed to a virtual trickle in some spots amid what has been a hot, dry summer by Vermont standards.
This stands in sharp contrast to a year ago, when Tropical Storm Irene sent sheets of rain into the Middlebury River, which jumped its banks in sections of East Middlebury. The first anniversary of Irene has given state and local officials — along with those affected by the flooding — pause to recall Irene’s fury, the damage the storm left in its wake, and steps that have been taken to pick up the pieces and learn from some of the mistakes.
“We have a heightened awareness of the potential of flood damage, what should and shouldn’t be done before and after storms, and we are working toward better preparedness,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington.
Among other things, the town has formed a Middlebury River Task Force to recommend ways to study the river’s characteristics and recommend ways of improving stewardship of the waterway. The panel has also been looking at the merits of remapping the Fluvial Erosion Hazard (FEH) zone that would, among other things, better delineate the river’s area of influence. This zoning designation surrounding rivers has been adopted in 18 other Vermont communities, including Ripton and Brandon. It is a designation that could allow the town to better compete for state funding for river management projects.
The selectboard held a public hearing in the proposed remapping the FEH zone on Tuesday — the one-year anniversary of Irene flooding. The board did not accept the proposed FEH zone remapping as presented, in part due to its proposed parameters and concerns about how the move might affect the property values of residents living within the zone. Members of the selectboard will help planning staff rework the FEH proposal for a new public hearing this fall.
Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears said the manner in which the state and local communities responded to Irene’s flooding is still serving as a lesson one year later. Towns like Middlebury were initially sharply criticized for the manner in which they mobilized equipment into the Middlebury River to remove sediment to try and keep the waterway within its banks and away from homes. Some East Middlebury residents believe work crews should have removed even more debris and sediment following the flooding, as large deposits of rocks and sand have forced the river to carve out a new channel that is cutting into residential properties.
Dunnington said the town did what it thought was appropriate in an emergency situation.
“It turned out that the work done on the Middlebury River, although seriously criticized by many, turned out to be mild in contrast to the work done in central Vermont,” Dunnington said.
Ossie Road resident Maren Mecham spearheaded an advisory petition following Irene that sought to send some important messages to state and local officials: That they work together to study the river and devise a plan to better protect surrounding properties from future flood events. Mecham on Tuesday said she is pleased with how the spirit of the petition is being honored.
“There seems to be some cooperation going on,” she said. “I am please with what the town has done.”
Mears said he understood Middlebury’s initial response to the storm.
“I was pleased ultimately that the town responded as it did; they listened to our river engineers and they backed off doing the work when we asked them to and they fixed things when we asked them to,” Mears said. “I think their response was understandable, if a little misguided at the outset. But the thing that is most important about the Middlebury River and the community along it is what didn’t happen. There was not the kind of massive flooding — and it wasn’t by sheer luck. You had the same levels of sheer rainfall throughout that area, and it was the fact that so much of the floodplain and wetlands along the Otter Creek were maintained that Middlebury suffered as little damage as it did. To me, it points out one of the places where some of the state policies and work that frankly a large number of people — including farmers, watershed groups, the local government, the state and the federal government — all contributed to preservation of large areas of strategic wetlands. That made a really important difference in terms of minimizing  downstream flooding.”
The resiliency of the Otter Creek floodplain and wetlands was but one of the observations made by state and local officials following Irene.
“There are so many different levels of lessons learned,” Mears said. “Some related to how we operated, functioned and communicated within state government; some were about how we actually apply some of our resources to the problems out there, that range from solid waste management  — hazardous waste spills, oil spills; and the whole set of  issues surrounding river management and flood protection.”
Mears said state government’s protocols in responding to devastating storms are being significantly upgraded as a result of the lessons learned from Irene.
“It has strengthened us, in terms of communications,” Mears said. “We have a much stronger and more robust set of protocols and understandings and ongoing conversation between (the Department of Environmental Conservation), the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) and the Department of Health.”
Mears added that Irene reinforced the importance of regional planning commissions.
“We have collectively learned how valuable the regional planning commissions are as a resource and as a translator between state government and local government,” he said. “They play a really critical role in facilitating getting state services to the right places in local government.”
And state officials learned that there are times when the local communities simply need to react quickly and need more resources to do so.
“We have identified that local governments are on the front lines in so many ways, whether it’s transportation, solid waste management, spill response and all of the basic services… and that so many of our communities lack the resources, capacity and training to do that work,” Mears said. “We have a lot of work to do collectively within the state to help communities be better prepared — and in some cases that means taking some (responsibilities) off their plate and in other places, increasing their capacity.”
Mears noted the Vermont Agency of Transportation is working on a program to train VTrans road crews on how to install and size culverts and bridges and replace roads to make them more resistant to flooding, and to work in rivers “in  a way that doesn’t make things worse in the long run.” Those VTrans workers, Mears said, will then be able to train their local counterparts on such subjects as river dynamics.
At the same time, Mears said communities need to be given more information on “how to comply with the National Flood Insurance Program and how to engage in good practices for protecting floodplains.”
While there is a lot of work still to be done, Mears is pleased as he travels around the state to see how Vermont is recovering post-Irene. Debris has largely been removed from affected waterways and the highway system is back on track, he said.
And things will only get better, he believes.
“What I think we are going to see in the next two years, pretty dramatically … is rivers recover their equilibrium,” Mears said. “In some cases, that may be painful to watch. There is going to be, any time there is significant rainfall, some fairly substantial mobilization of sediment. The rivers are going to turn muddy and there is going to be more erosion. There are still a lot of unstable stream banks. As a result of Irene, we are poised to mobilize quickly to respond to those situations that pose any kind of a threat.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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