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Effort to rein in river gains steam in East Middlebury

EAST MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents next year will likely be asked to support a bond issue of around $2 million to finance a project aimed at preventing future flooding of the Middlebury River in East Middlebury.
It’s called the “East Middlebury Flood Resiliency Project,” an effort of more than three years to design, and obtain funding for, a series of construction projects designed to keep the river within its banks.
“If we can give the river the room it needs to dissipate its energy before it gets into the heart of the village, the chances of having those catastrophic failures is significantly less,” said Amy Sheldon, a natural resource planner and river scientist based in East Middlebury. Sheldon, who is also one of Middlebury’s representatives in the Vermont House, is leading the town’s flood resiliency efforts.
Residents living along Route 125 in Ripton and East Middlebury have contended with flooding a couple of times during the past decade in the aftermath of major storms, such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
It was in the aftermath of Irene that a Middlebury River Task Force was formed to study the river’s characteristics and recommend ways of improving stewardship of the waterway. The town subsequently established a Fluvial Erosion Hazard zone to delineate the river’s area of influence, a move that put Middlebury in a better position to compete for state and federal funding for river management through the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
Since Irene, Middlebury has also completed a townwide “hazardous mitigation plan,” has conserved significant portions of land within the river’s East Middlebury corridor, and has made repairs to the Grist Mill Bridge.
All of this has laid the groundwork for the next, crucial phase in the flood resiliency program: getting final design plans for what officials are calling “in-channel mitigation projects” to help prevent future flood/erosion damage in East Middlebury.
The project consists of three parts, according to Sheldon:
•  Making repairs to the floodwall at the Grist Mill Bridge.
•  Armoring a portion of the large berm, or mound of earth, off Ossie Road.
•  Increasing the water and sediment storage capacity of the river upstream of the Grist Mill Bridge.
Sheldon has received a proposal from MMI Engineering to complete final project design. Middlebury officials want to see the related engineering and archaeological assessment work done by this August. The town would then send an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its final approval and funding, which could lead to a bond vote next Town Meeting Day (March 2018).
A positive public vote could lead to completion of the river work during the summer of 2018.
Officials said state and federal funding would cover 75 percent of the project costs, with local taxpayers responsible for the remaining 25 percent.
“What’s hopeful is that the state has $7 million to spend for FEMA post-Irene recovery efforts and we have a new director of Vermont Emergency Management (Lauren Oates) who’s ready to make this — and other projects like it — happen,” Sheldon said.
While officials have been disappointed with the time it is taking to get the flood resiliency project started, the extra time has resulted in a few benefits.
Planners have some new information to use in drafting final design plans. This will be helpful, in part, Sheldon said, when analyzing the work done to open a flood chute within the river that the town commissioned soon after Irene struck.
“We now have really good satellite data that gives us elevations to the two-foot level,” Sheldon said. “We have this new data, and we are going to be able to revisit the modeling … mostly on the upstream portion where the channeling was done, to evaluate other alternatives.”
This new data could reveal ways of making the project happen without needing land from three property owners along the upstream portion of the river, Sheldon noted. Some affected landowners have been reluctant to cede their land for the flood mitigation work.
“We have not gone back to those folks yet,” Sheldon said. “We’re going to re-do the model, double check, and see if we can meet the needs for increased water and sediment storage upstream of the Grist Mill Bridge, using just town lands.”
The town has money set aside to negotiate property acquisition, if the landowners are amenable.
“We totally respect if they’re not interested and we will double check to see (if their land is still needed),” Sheldon said. “If we need it, we will see if they are open to selling it. If not, we’ll do something else.”
That “something else” might include periodically removing sediment near the Grist Mill Bridge when the water level is low, according to Sheldon.
NOT AN OPTION
Not doing anything is really not an option given the flood implications for people in the East Middlebury village area, officials said.
Sheldon recently made a chart marking past flood events within the past 100 years that affected either Ripton, East Middlebury, or both.
“In reviewing the photographs from Irene, I think you are reminded of the fact that we may be due for another flood,” Sheldon said. “We need to do something.”
Buying out properties along the Middlebury River and letting the waterway choose its own course does not seem like a realistic option at this point, according to Sheldon.
“The town of Middlebury has invested heavily in protecting the (river) corridor already,” Sheldon said.
“If we don’t give (the river) the room it needs, we’re at risk.”
Middlebury selectboard Vice Chairwoman Susan Shashok — who is also an East Middlebury resident — said she’s pleased to see the flood resiliency project progress to a point where actual construction is on the horizon.
Shashok joined the selectboard in 2011, soon after Irene did its damage. She is one of only three current selectboard members who were in office when the river upgrades were first discussed.
“It’s been a long wait,” Shashok said of the flood-related upgrades.
“The residents I have spoken with are very excited.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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