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Sports Column: Anglers help conserve New Haven River

I always loved thunderstorms as a child. My favorite place to watch them was lakeside on vacations in Maine. I still enjoy a good thunderstorm now and then. But since the flood of 1998 — and since I moved into a house on the side of a hill in the middle of the woods — my feelings have changed.
In 1998 we lived a short walk from the New Haven River below the village of Bristol. Even several hours after the flood had subsided from its peak, the roar was so loud it sounded like the river was coming through our yard. When we walked down to the bridge, we saw the tremendous damage the flood had done. Our bridge, like all five bridges in the town of Bristol, was damaged. Two of the bridges were washed away completely.
A mile downstream of us, the New Haven completely blew through its banks where it flowed past the edge of the Saunders’ farm. The raging current wiped out a whole row of trees along the riverbank and busted out into the farm, taking out massive amounts of topsoil and rendering acres of cornfield worthless. Driving down Route 116 the next day I saw river where I had never before seen river.
Over the past 14 years the obvious signs of the 1998 flood have faded along most sections of the New Haven. I can still seen some scars slowly healing over, but they aren’t obvious. However, the stretch of river between the A. Johnson mill and the one-lane bridge on 116 — the patch of Saunders’ farm that was swept down to Lake Champlain — has never re-stabilized. It has continued to shift dramatically, with one big meander curve shifting nearly 30 feet per year to the point where it is now 400 feet west of its pre-flood path.
This past weekend a thunderstorm swept through Addison County with torrential rains. Watching from a window in Middlebury I wondered what damage it would do. Not much, it turned out. In fact, it brought some welcome cooler air in with it. And those cooler temps, along with more water in the Middlebury River, prompted me to get out for an hour of late afternoon fishing Tuesday. I saw two fish, but didn’t land either. So I consoled myself by going to the New Haven River Anglers Association monthly meeting at American Flatbread.
Actually, I was planning on going to the meeting anyway. As enjoyable as it is to sit and talk fishing with other passionate anglers — and there is plenty of that going round at NHRAA meetings — this week’s meeting was more significant. Kristen Underwood, a river scientist who works both as a volunteer member of the Bristol Conservation Committee and as a consultant for the Agency of Natural Resources, was making a presentation on the so-called “Saunders’ Project.” That’s a major conservation effort aimed at stabilizing the New Haven River and restoring its riparian buffer in the area where it was blown out at the Saunders’ farm and downstream.
A first step of this project involves stabilizing the riverbank at its large westernmost bend. Large logs placed in the river and against the bank act as the stabilizers, while also providing underwater structure very helpful to aquatic life. A second component is the planting of trees to restore the buffer. The topology of the river at that point, and the type of soil through which it flows, naturally allows for some annual shifting and for a so-called “braided” river: one with several channels. This project will allow some continued natural shifting of the channel, but should help prevent the catastrophic shifts such as in 1998, while also slowing down erosion and sedimentation downstream, and providing shade that will keep the river cool. When the project is completed there will be some public access points created.
The project already has support from several sources. The U.S. Forest Service as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are providing some consulting work. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources earlier provided a grant to collect data and do landowner outreach in support of the conservation effort. The Vermont River Conservancy (www.vermontriverconservancy.org) is also taking part acquiring channel management and access rights to the river from private landowners.
Kristen asked the NHRAA to help with this project through both a monetary gift and through volunteer labor that will happen over the next several months and may take up to a year and a half. Of course members of the NHRAA have long been committed to the health of the river from which the group gets its name. Pete Diminico, a former president and one of the key founding members of the NHRAA, is also the founder of the New Haven River Watch, and the NHRAA regularly takes part in River Watch activities as well as other conservation activities.
It was not surprising that they voted unanimously to support the project both through labor and a generous gift of $2,500. It was also not surprising they did so quickly, leaving at least 10 minutes left of meeting time to sit around talking about fishing. Sadly, the only story I had to tell this week was about the two that had gotten away.

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