Post-Irene dredging mistakes in Middlebury River are corrected

MIDDLEBURY — Workers in one day completed major restoration work on an 1,800-foot stretch of the Middlebury River that had been ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene in late August of 2011 and then subsequently dredged of debris by the town of Middlebury.
The work in question — completed by two excavators during a 10-hour period on Oct. 1 — took place within three small stretches along the river in East Middlebury. These spots, known well by area residents, include: from Brown Novelty upstream to where a pre-existing floodwall was washed away; from the Grist Mill Bridge upstream to the halfway point of a town-owned island; and from the flood chute opened by Irene to the Upper Plains Road Bridge.
The goal of the project, as described by East Middlebury resident Amy Sheldon of Landslide Natural Resources Planning, was to restore in-stream habitat features to as close to pre-Irene condition as possible by replacing large native stones that had been pushed to the side of the channel during post-storm dredging. That dredging drew sharp criticism from state, federal and some local officials who feared the work would increase the downstream force of the Middlebury River, as well as eliminate fish habitat.
It was on Sept. 13, 2011, that the town received a “Stop Work Order” from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to discontinue any excavation in the river channel. Then on Sept. 25, the town received a letter from the Army Corps of Engineers questioning the town about the work and explaining how to correct the “apparently unauthorized” work. On Oct. 25, 2012, the town responded to the Corps letter indicating Middlebury’s willingness to work with the Corps to address habitat restoration concerns, according to Sheldon.
Army Corps and Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife officials participated in a site visit to the river this past June 8 and determined, in concert with local input, that the “least destructive, most productive way” to return the habitat to pre-Irene conditions would be to replace the boulders and rocks that had been cleared to the banks during dredging in 2011.
That plan was put into motion on Oct. 1, with great success and on a budget of less than $10,000 from the Middlebury Department of Public Works budget, according to Sheldon, who supervised the work.
“It was great. The whole thing went much better than we anticipated,” she said. “It expedited the recovery of large material back into the channel. It also creates great pools for the fish and improves their habitat.”
It should be noted that the Oct. 1 restoration work is but a fraction of the reparative and preventative work to be performed on the Middlebury River during the months and years ahead. The Middlebury River Task Force has developed a broader scope of work — also known as the “East Middlebury Flood Resiliency Plan”  — following study of a 1.7-mile segment of the river stretching from the Sand Hill Bridge to the Route 7 bridge. That plan calls for, among other things, restoring roughly 5 acres of floodplain between Lower Plains Road and Grist Mill Road; repairing the existing floodwall downstream of the Grist Mill Bridge; armoring 1,400 feet of the protective berm off Ossie Road; and extending the floodwall downstream of the Grist Mill Bridge by approximately 110 feet.
Peter Diminico is a member of the Middlebury River Task Force and has been a major force behind the New Haven River Anglers’ Association. Diminico explained the positive impact the river improvements will have on indigenous fish. The reintroduction of boulders into the channel will reduce the force of the river while creating small pockets and lanes in which fish will be able to feed and rest.
“I don’t want people to think this is a miracle fix,” Diminico said. “The intent was to help the river get back to where it was. From an angling point of view, it should help.”
Sheldon is pleased with the result and is eager to work toward other fixes for the river.
“I’m glad it was resolved and we can move on,” Sheldon said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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