Middlebury Sees Backlash After River Rechanneling

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(Host) Many cities and towns ordered heavy machinery into rivers after the floods to shore up banks and reroute streams. That’s what Middlebury did, even though the town was relatively unscathed.

As VPR’s Kirk Carapezza reports, residents and state officials now worry that rechanneling the Middlebury River might exacerbate future flooding.

(Carapezza) Unlike many places in the state after Tropical Storm Irene, Middlebury never had a real emergency.

Levels rose, but neither the Middlebury River nor the Otter Creek caused the damage seen in other Vermont towns.

(Berry) "The Middlebury River, after the storm, set right back into its footprint."

(Carapezza) Patrick Berry lives in East Middlebury. He’s Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife commissioner, but when it comes to protecting the river he prefers to speak as a resident and amateur fisherman.

(Berry) "I mostly take the kids out bass fishing now."

(Carapezza) Berry stands on the Grist Mill Bridge, looking over one of his favorite fishing spots.

The river winds fairly close to the road, and Berry says it’s here where Irene threatened the fish population and damaged town infrastructure.

(Berry) "This retaining wall was significantly undermined, and there are houses right there. This was a really important area for the town to get access to."

(Carapezza) But Berry says the town went too far when it decided to dredge and rechannel the river. He says that work has only increased the stream’s velocity, and raised the threat of future flood damage.

Select Board Chairman John Tenny says the town has a different view.

(Tenny) "There was another, impending storm one week following Irene – right on its heels – so there was a lot of concern. The concerns were that there were extreme blockages in the river channel. My son actually lives there, so I was certainly seeing that first hand."

(Carapezza) Tenny says the town has ceased work because of public protests.  But he’s confident the excavation and dredging was necessary and appropriate.

It’s a classic narrative: Towns are shifting from recovery to rebuilding, but many lack the expertise to balance reconstruction with conservation.

In Richmond, for example, the select board is debating whether to shore up the Winooski River. It wants to know if the town can still waive environmental standards for this disaster without risking its FEMA assistance.

David Mears encourages that debate.

(Mears) "What we need in the state of Vermont is to have an informed and thoughtful public conversation about how to deal with this set of issues."

(Carapezza) Mears is the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.

(Mears)"These are not easy issues. These are issues that involve questions about whether to relocate people back in homes at a time frame when we also need to make sure that people have a place to live and heat before the snow flies."

(Carapezza) Mears says Irene has made it abundantly clear that the way we live is intimately connected to the landscape.

(Mears) "The more we can work to find ways to integrate and take into account the way that natural systems behave. The better off we’ll all be; the stronger and more robust our economy will be; and the more resilient our infrastructure will be."

(Carapezza) Some in Middlebury still argue the town acted in haste, but most people are looking forward. They hope to put their heads together, find a new course and factor in as a model for the rest of the state in Irene’s aftermath.

For VPR News, I’m Kirk Carapezza

(Host) The Middlebury select board meets Monday night to talk about the issue again.  Like the last meeting, it’s expected to be standing room only.

You can track local news and browse government minutes from Middlebury and more than 50 other communities on Public Post.


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