High waters: Vermont adopts ‘counter-intuitive’ approach to river management

By Cynthia Prairie
©The Chester Telegraph — 2014

“One hundred years ago,” says Vermont river engineer Todd Menees, “it made sense to build on rivers — for hydro-power for mills, for commerce, for travel … ” as well as for some of the best farmland that lies in the floodplains.

But, he says, “We now have the technology and the economy to move away from the river.”

And now, we have even more reason. According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment report, “The Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the United States,” with a 70 percent increase between 1958 and 2010 in “the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events.”

ON THE COVER: During the July 28 flood in Chester, a dumpster floats under a Route 11 bridge where the Williams Rivers converge.  Photo by Mark Burbela.

HIGH WATERS, THE SERIES

Torrential rains, new methods of flood managementWhat not to do and why

With torrential downpours becoming a regular occurrence in Vermont, there are also more reasons to begin treating rivers like the powerhouses of nature that they are instead of a wild horse that can be tamed.

Two years after Tropical Storm Irene devastated many Vermont towns, temporarily or permanently displacing 1,400 households,  killing six people and causing  more than $800 million in damage, the state legislature mandated that the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources come up with a standardized way of dealing with the state’s 26,000 miles of streams and rivers.

It did, and that is now codified in the 184-page Vermont Standard River Management Principles and Practices, which came out in May of this year with the help of Milone & MacBroom engineers of Waterbury and Fitzgerald Environmental Associates of Colchester and the Vermont Rivers Program.

State watershed coordinator Marie Caduto calls this a whole “new way” of approaching river and flood management in Vermont.

But the “new way”  just may be counter-intuitive to many farmers, and land-, business-  and homeowners who work hard to keep the rivers within their banks all the while protecting their water views and home and property values.

Menees (pronounced Men — eece) and other river experts with the state now say that berming, rip-rapping, dredging, straightening and “putting a river back in its place” do more harm to landowners than good, and they don’t work.

It may spare the property of the rip-rapper a few years of nature’s inevitability, but during the next torrential storm, landowners downstream may experience the wrath of a river that picks up speed and strength every time it bounces off  rip-rap, is unable to reach a slowing floodplain thanks to berming or holds enormous amounts of dangerous water because it has been dredged.

Each method of holding waters back has its problems, says Menees. “Dredging makes a river deeper so that more water can fit into a small space, concentrating energy instead of dispersing it in a floodplain.”

Berms, on the other hand “increase the water’s … elevation and concentrate energy elsewhere.” And rip-rap won’t last forever, he said, and even with federally funded projects they must be maintained by the homeowner.

Avoiding floodplains, building on rivers

The trick, both say, is to avoid building in much needed floodplains, which accept the water that overruns rivers then diffuses that water’s energy across a wide space.

With torrential downpours becoming a regular occurrence in Vermont, there are also more reasons to begin treating rivers like the powerhouses of nature that they are instead of a wild horse that can be tamed.

“No matter where you live on the globe, you have to deal with Mother Nature. But when you fight Mother Nature, you lose,”  says Menees.

The Chester Sunoco Station flooded during Irene and then again, pictured here, on July 28 of this year. Photo by Shawn Cunningham.

The Chester Sunoco Station flooded during Irene and then again, pictured here, on July 28 of this year. Photo by Shawn Cunningham.

“When people make a change to the river, they may not see its effect for years,” says Menees. The Vermont Rivers Program, he adds, “wants to keep people out of harm’s way in the floodplain or off the river banks.”

And some areas, says Caduto, will just have to be protected from any development at all.

While the state would prefer to avoid the old river management techniques, Josh Carvajal, a floodplain manager with the state, says,  “preference is different from reality. If there is a structure there, the state will allow you to try to preserve it. And that includes a road, home and underground utilities” by permitting for specific techniques.

However, he added, “We’d like to break the cycle of maintaining infrastructure that keeps getting damaged by flood.  … We want to keep new encroachments from streams.”

So what do you do if your home is in a floodplain? Menees says that if you’ve been flooded before, you’ll be flooded again. And he urges residents that if they qualify, “take the buyout.” *

* A town or city can sponsor a home or business for a Federal Emergency Management Agency buyout. The qualifying owner is then paid “up to” market value of the property “pre-disaster.” The town takes possession of the property, tears down any structures and clears the property.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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