Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Serving an 'Overlooked' Population

Bradford, Vt. -- Like many of the migrant workers who support Vermont's dairy industry, 41-year-old Rosalia Garcia-Moreno spends most of her time working: feeding calves, milking heifers and caring for her family on Paul and Mary Knox's 800-cow farm on Route 5 in Bradford. She’s the only woman among a group of 10 Mexican workers at Knoxland Farm, and she juggles her full-time job with caring for her three children.
    It's not a glamorous life to begin with, but it's made more challenging by Garcia-Moreno's diabetes, which was diagnosed while she was pregnant in 2004.
    For migrant farm workers, the challenges of managing chronic illness are compounded: many of Vermont's estimated 1,200 to 1,500 migrant laborers lack regular access to health care. Even when workers are made aware of available clinics, scheduling the time off and arranging for transportation can be daunting.
    Not only that, but health care professionals in one of the nation's least diverse and most rural states rarely speak Spanish, making interactions difficult. Also, workers are sometimes afraid to seek treatment: a farm worker suffering from arthritis in his hands may not want to reveal to his employer a condition that could affect his work.
    The challenges standing between Vermont's migrant workers and access to health care are what spurred Dartmouth Medical School students Holly Schroeder and Karl Dietrich to take action. Two years ago, Schroeder and Dietrich applied for a fellowship to bring health care to what Dietrich called a “relatively invisible” and “overlooked” population, and today, the program is starting to take off.
    “We both came into med school with an interest in service,” said Schroeder, a Massachusetts native who speaks fluent Spanish and has worked in health clinics in Latin America. “That's why we got into medicine in the first place.”
    Schroeder and Dietrich, who grew up in Hanover and who also speaks Spanish, received a $2,000 Schweitzer Fellowship to work with year-round migrant dairy workers in Vermont. The two decided to focus their efforts in Orange County, identified as one of three counties in the state with a high concentration of such workers.
    As Schroeder and Dietrich began researching the issue, they caught wind of a Wells River doctor with Little Rivers Health Care, a federally-funded clinic for the medically under-served. The medical students had heard that Dr. Stephen Genereaux was one of the few people in the area who had made an effort to work migrant farm workers.
    Genereaux, who had practiced public health with Yupik Eskimos in western Alaska, said in an interview that he liked the chance to get out of the office and bring health care to “folks that need it.”
    “There's parts of our community that are underserved,” he said. “Some are really obvious, you see them every day, and some aren't so obvious. (Migrant farm workers) seemed like a not-so-obvious group that needed help, needed care.”

    But reaching out to migrant populations in Vermont proved difficult because of Genereaux's lack of Spanish skills. That is, until Schroeder and Dietrich contacted him out of the blue one day in 2010.
    “We emailed him and said … ‘Do you do any work with them?' And he wrote back, ‘We've always wanted to and we’ve laid the groundwork, but we didn’t have the manpower to make it happen,' ” Schroeder said.
    Schroeder and Dietrich provided the manpower, the language skills and the grant money. On one of their first visits, they milked cows alongside migrant workers at Knoxland Farm, gauging workers' reaction to the work they wanted to do. It seemed positive, so they continued.
    Now, nearly two years later, the fellowship money has run out, but the program is still going strong. Schroeder and Dietrich (who expect to receive their doctoral degrees in 2013) are recruiting and training first- and second-year medical students, and they hope the program will continue after they move on.
    The team now works with seven farms and more than 50 workers. They visit farms bi-annually to screen for diabetes, blood pressure, body mass index, vision, hearing and cholesterol, and make workers aware of the clinics available to them. They administer flu shots and have arranged dental care. They act as interpreters when workers visit the clinic.
    The primary goal, though, is to develop a relationship that allows farm workers to feel comfortable opening up about their health. Then the medical students can help workers find solutions for treatment.
    “People are really starting to open up,” Schroeder said. “I think they like us and think we're kind of funny.”
    She added that after the first few visits, workers began disclosing health problems they'd previously kept to themselves. Both students agree that their association with Genereaux has been vital.
    “He has an incredible relationship with the community,” Schroeder said. “He goes to people's houses. He's one of those amazing, old community rural doctors. … We believe we need to get along with the farmers as well as the farm workers to have a good relationship with both, and Steve is invaluable. They all trust him.”
    “Establishing that degree of trust has really helped in terms of not making people skittish,” Dietrich added.
    Schroeder and Dietrich don't ask about workers' immigration status. They say they don't want to know, don’t want to get involved. They want to focus only on health care. Officials from the University of Vermont Extension program and the Vermont Farmworkers Solidarity Project say the approach is legal.
    Though the issue of illegal immigrants has lately been making headlines in Vermont -- undocumented farm workers were deported from a dairy farm in Franklin in January, and two others were arrested during a routine traffic stop in September, prompting a public outcry that led Gov. Peter Shumlin to update the state's bias-free policing laws -- Schroeder and Dietrich said they haven't gotten any backlash from anyone concerned that they’re aiding illegal immigrants.
    “The community already knows they're there,” Schroeder said.
    Lifelong dairy farmer Paul Knox, owner of Knoxland Farm, said that the prevalence of Hispanic labor has been the biggest change he's seen in the dairy industry since the 1950s.
    “Initially it was because we were having trouble filling positions,” said Knox, who employs four local workers and 10 migrant workers on his farm in Bradford. “But now it's because I've just never found anybody that will do the job as well as they can. They’re just unbelievably good at observing things and being good with animals. I think it’s part of their heritage.”
    The attitude toward such workers differs across the state, Schroeder said.
    “I think of Vermont as three different regions. The Burlington area definitely has the bulk of the migrant farm workers population. Between Burlington and Middlebury, there are a lot of resources … and a very proactive community supporting them with lots of services,” she said.
    “Then up by the border, it's very dangerous to be a migrant farm worker. People will see someone who looks Mexican in Walmart and pick up the phone (to call Border Patrol).
    “Our region is between that. There's not community-wide support, but there's acceptance that they’re there and without them these farms wouldn't exist.”

    One dark evening, in between milking shifts, Schroeder and Dietrich met in a brightly-lit, concrete-floored room adjacent to the milking parlor at Knoxland Farm.
    One of the workers, Leon Gomez -- all smiles under his thick black moustache -- had consistently tested for high blood pressure in their previous visits, and Schroeder and Dietrich were showing him how to use an automatic blood pressure cuff to monitor his condition.
    Gomez was quick to laugh off the potential gravity of his health issues, but Rosalia Garcia-Moreno -- who knows too well the repercussions of ignoring an illness -- just as quickly intervened.
    In Spanish, she told her friend that just because he didn't feel the effects of his condition every day didn't mean it wasn’t serious. “If you don’t take your medicine, you could die!” she exclaimed. (Schroeder translated.)
    “She's a huge resource for us,” Schroeder said of Garcia-Moreno. “She says the things I don't always feel comfortable saying.”
    After Gomez mastered taking his own blood pressure, he began showing other workers who were  trickling in after their milking shift how to use the cuff.
   “It's funny how it's changed things here,” commented Wendy Longmoore, a Newbury resident who works at Knoxland farm. “It used to be all about cows. Now it's about health care.”
    “What Holly and Karl give us is the ability to … eliminate the language barrier plus medical skills,” said Paul Knox. “I can communicate about the cows but I can't communicate technical things about their health.”
    Schroeder and Dietrich hope that as more medical students get on board with their project, they can expand into the Northeast Kingdom and possibly New Hampshire. They hope to figure out how to get federal funding specifically designated for seasonal laborers -- money that drives a similar, more robust program for migrant workers in Maine, but which seems to be unavailable for dairy workers in Vermont. They dream of finding funding to create a mobile clinic out of an RV.
    “It gives me renewed confidence in the world that young, energetic, bright folks like them are going to be doctors some day,” Genereaux said.
    Driving home along dark, empty roads after their visit to Knoxland Farm, Schroeder and Dietrich commented on the nature of their work. They're usually the only medical students who walk into class smelling like a barnyard.
    “That's why people like us,” Schroeder said.
    “It's that irresistible cow odor,” Dietrich quipped.

Unrelated photo by me

Monday, November 21, 2011

Size matters.

Jumbled thoughts of a tired mind.

Last night, I went to a wonderful potluck at the Cobb Hill cooperative housing trust in Hartland, Vt. (Quick aside: I think every truly great potluck I've ever gone to has been in Vermont. It is a state that excels at potlucks.)

The dinner was thrown for a group of about 30 Occupy Wall Street-ers who came to Vermont to regroup and recharge after being violently evicted from their city-within-a-city at Zuccotti Park. Nancy Theriault opened her home to all of them, and they slept on the floor, gave each other asymmetrical haircuts on the front porch, went swimming in the pond (in November!) and partook in bonfires, sweatlodges, music jams, and the kindness of Nancy's Hartland community, many of whom opened their homes and hearts as well. Many of the protesters had never been here before, and they seemed blown away by not just by the state's beauty but by the people who gave them each a pair of wool socks, who started an instrument donation to replace all the instruments police smashed; who gave them maple syrup and cheese and showers and laundry and even free massages and acupuncture.

In exchange, the Occupy group held a Hartland General Assembly to give Hartland residents a taste of what's been happening every day in the city, to answer questions about the current state of the protest and its future, and to share stories from the front lines of a movement that, love it or hate it, has irreversibly changed the social and political discourse in this country and around the world.

Lying in bed after I got home from the potluck assembly, I thought about a Tea Party meeting I covered for work a few months ago, and how different the Occupy Wall Street protesters were from the Tea Party members I met – and yet, how similar. For occupying such polar ends of the political spectrum, they share the commonalities of movements borne of utter dissatisfaction with government, with social trends and the with overall state of apathetic, wasteful mainstream America.

Obviously, I'm not the first to compare the two, but that's not what I was staying awake thinking about. In two years, the Tea Party rose from from nothingness to a political force playing a notable, if not decisive, role in the current Republican presidential race. Can you imagine OWS doing the same?

In the dark, I thought for just a second that it would be cool to see OWS rally behind a major political candidate – even though that seems highly unlikely at this point. I imagine most wouldn't support any politician. A part of me admires that, while another part of me thinks that to really change anything, having a say in government is vital. But that's all beside the point. Even if some incredible figure were to rise from ashes of discord and make it to office, the chances for crushed hope seem unbearably high. No one person can fix the system. It's too complex. Like all the hopeful people who voted for Obama in 2008 and now criticize him for being too cozy with bankers or abandoning the environmentalists, there is bound to be disappointment. People expect insta-results. I hate to sound pessimistic (or to borrow a hated phrase), but the problem is almost too big to be solved.

The “problem” is not evil people running banks or social inequality or an unfair tax system, though those are all problems. The real problem is just the sheer size of everything. We're too big. How can anyone understand something so huge as the United States, with its giant budgetary and economic issues, social justice issues, education, nutrition, energy policy, foreign policy, prison, agriculture, military and media issues? Tackling a problem you understand is doable. But trying to change something too big to even make sense of is utterly daunting.

And making sense of our own issues doesn't even cut it these days. We apparently need to understand everything going on everywhere else, too. I recently read that the U.S. military announced it's been spending millions on a secret air base in Ethiopia where for months it's launched drones to spy on suspected terrorist operations in Eastern Africa. Are we supposed to applaud this? Who knew we had shit going on in East Africa? We've got our finger in every pie. Apparently, that's one advantage of being a country on our good side: you're given the privilege of letting us develop secret military bases in your borders.

Empires all dissolve. Every empire in history has, and I don't think anyone these days would deny that the United States is an empire and that we, too, will someday reach our zenith and someday after that crumble into decline. Maybe we've already reached that point.

But what do empires have in common before their collapse? They've grown, as my dad would say, too big for their britches. It suddenly seems like all the issues I try to wrap my head around are related to size. Population? Too big to be supported by the way we currently manage natural resources. Why'd the housing crisis happen? Because we built our houses too big. Financial meltdown? Banks that were too big to fail. Homogenization of culture? Blame it on big box stores. Health issues? Big people. CO2 emissions? Big cars. Soil, pesticide and nutrition issues? Big, un-diversified farms.

Maybe our empire has grown so morbidly obese that it's bound to collapse, and maybe that's not a bad thing. But it's always nice, even in the throes of destruction, to have choices. If we start now, maybe we can have a say in what our own little worlds will look like after this colossus slowly, imperceptibly crumbles into something much more manageable – as we transition, as Bill McKibben says, from the era of the big and the few to the era of the small and the many.

As McKibben writes, “we will still have endless problems, but they’ll be more limited. A careless local farmer can still sicken his customers, but he can’t sicken millions of them at once. A corrupt banker can wreak havoc in his community, but not so much havoc that it topples the financial system. Problems will stay problems, instead of ramifying into disasters. If a hailstorm wrecks my solar panels, I’ve got an issue, but it’s not blacking out the East Coast.”

Solving the biggest problems is going to take a sweeping change, across our entire culture and the way we think. But it is not a change that can be made by one big sweep. It'll take each of us wielding our own small brooms. While the size of the problem seems overwhelming, it's good to know that a shift toward the small has to start small, and small is you and me.

i am thankful for beer.
for hot food and warmth when it's cold,
and cold pools to jump into when it's hot.
for fresh water, dark and delicious.
for friends in every season,
solitude too. i am thankful for the rain,
and the wind, the snow and the sun,
the deep drifts of february
and the steady drip of april.
i am thankful for alpine meadows
full of yellow and purple flowers
and a sole orange tent against the sky.
i am thankful for my bed.
i am thankful for the people who write books.
for a hard day's work.
for those who start revolutions and make art,
who smile easily and think deeply.
for continents and maps.
i am thankful for my hands and feet,
the air i breathe, the confidence to state cliches,
knowing they're sometimes true.
i am thankful for mountaintops and the rocky edge of the sea.
for medicine.
for knowledge, and for all that we don't know,
all there is to explore, and all that we'll never understand.
i am thankful that this list could go on all night,
forever and ever,

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Living in the shadow of what we learned"


Mining Vermont's Rivers

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

Stockbridge, Vt. -- Paul Dougan could be forgiven if he had mixed emotions. As he stood on the back deck of his cabin on a recent frosty morning, a yellow excavator below rumbled over what was once one of Dougan's favorite fishing holes, attempting to repair the ravaged streambed of Lilliesville Brook.
After Tropical Storm Irene, 90 percent of Stockbridge's roads were washed out, forcing Dougan to walk five miles on his bad knees to get to Bethel from his remote cabin. If not for Stockbridge's decision to rebuild roads with gravel from Lilliesville Brook and other town waterways, Dougan and many of his neighbors could have been stranded much longer.
On the other hand, even Dougan -- a proponent of the once-common practice of removing built-up gravel from rivers -- agreed that the emergency work carried out in Lilliesville Brook went too far. By removing the river's natural gravel bank, Dougan said, the town further endangered the road it was trying to rebuild, as well as put Dougan's cabin at greater risk of future flooding.
“That was a mistake, taking all that gravel out,” he said, gesturing to a river that had grown from a narrow trout stream to a channel some 60 feet wide. “Now the brook wants to go down the street.”
Federal officials, state conservation groups and others agree. Lilliesville Brook has been identified as one of dozens of sites in the White River basin where excessive gravel removal after Tropical Storm Irene caused environmental damage and put riverbanks, homes and roadways at greater risk. And it was far from an isolated issue; similar damage happened across the state.
Normally, stream work in Vermont is highly regulated, overseen by one of five river management engineers employed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
In the chaos following Irene, though, engineers were overwhelmed, unable to visit hundreds of sites where emergency river work was needed. So the state made an exception: instead of requiring written permits for streambed alteration, verbal permits were deemed sufficient. The policy was in effect from Sept. 3 to roughly Oct. 5.
What happened next is now the subject of intense debate.
“The state become lawless for several weeks,” said state Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Bethel, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. “We had an emergency policy that was pretty much ‘Do what you have to do and we'll sort it out later.' ”
State regulators and town officials reject such broad-brush criticism, saying they did their best under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
In most cases, they say, the work was necessary for rebuilding and was done as authorized. But in other cases, they acknowledge that the gravel removal went too far.
At times, the verbal permitting process degenerated into a game of telephone: a river engineer told a town manager the extent of the work authorized, the town manager told the road commissioner and the road commissioner told the contractor. By the time the contractor told the person operating the excavator, the marching orders had inadvertently changed.
“It wasn't ill-intended,” said Mary Russ, executive director of the White River Partnership. “One guy says one thing and by the time they got back to these places, the verbal permit had been rendered in a different way than intended.”
“We had town road crew members, independent contractors, individual land owners, National Guardsmen, the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the Maine Agency of Transportation all jumping in to help out,” said Jim Ryan, a state watershed coordinator who was pressed into service as an additional river management engineer following Irene. “It was very convoluted, who was working for who and who was taking orders from who.”
But not all excessive gravel removal was accidental.
In some cases, town officials and private landowners seemed to have deliberately taken advantage of the chaotic situation to engage in the kind of gravel extraction that has been all but banned in the state since 1986. River scientists have long warned that “graveling” is damaging to a river's stability and leads to future flood damage, but many Vermonters still believe that digging a river channel deeper actually decreases flood risk -- and that it's their right to do so.
“There's a cultural issue here,” McCormack said. “People who have lived on the river all their lives think that we ought to be removing more gravel with less regulation. Since the flood, people have been able to extract gravel more freely than before, and the attitude among many people was that ‘It's about time.' ”
After the initial shock of Irene wore off, environmentalists began to speak out about the army of excavators they'd witnessed in Vermont waterways. In many places, they said, recovery work did more harm than good.
“Some of the work went too far beyond what was … really necessary,” said Kim Greenwood, Water Program Coordinator at the nonprofit Vermont Natural Resources Council.
“I expect to see the repercussions not only of Irene but of our responses this spring, and for many years to come. I think we'll see rivers move and unfortunately more property loss this spring as a result.”

It's difficult to pinpoint all instances of unauthorized gravel removal or stream alteration in the weeks following Irene. Ryan, who issued verbal in the White River basin, said that in approximately one-quarter of the 60 or so sites he visited after Irene, the work went beyond the authorized plan. He also witnessed work being done without any authorization at all.
“I shut down dozens of operators in the river operating without a permit,” Ryan said.
For sites where a town or state agency could be held accountable, restoration work has been planned or has already been completed to mitigate the risk.
In cases where private landowners re-channeled or dug out rivers before Ryan was able to get to the site, though, establishing accountability hasn't been possible -- and therefore, neither has ordering restoration work to protect downstream residents.
River engineer Todd Menees, who covers the Springfield to Rutland area (including the Ottauquechee River watershed), said he witnessed fewer problem sites, putting the figure at about 5 percent in his region. Menees provided records of 36 site visits he conducted, but would not disclose in which instances the work went beyond his verbal authorizations, saying that he didn't want to damage his relationships with the town officials who are his partners in restoration work.
Menees said it was frustrating to be on the receiving end of complaints of graveling gone awry, and that critics fail to comprehend the complex challenge of local and state officials faced with massive roadway damage and scant resources to repair it.
“It's cost some of these towns two, three million dollars. If (gravel) got washed off the road into the river, you go downstream and you get it. People don't understand that, but the hard reality is, we couldn't pay for our road maintenance even before the flood.”
The state's environmental enforcement office received complaints citing roughly 40 sites across Vermont where citizens, river engineers or environmental groups were concerned that gravel mining or river alteration caused unnecessary damage, according to state Compliance and Enforcement Director Gary Kessler.
Environmental enforcement officers investigated a total of 55 sites (including some they happened upon while investigating other reports), but no legal action was taken: in every instance, town officials or individual landowners ceased the unauthorized work when asked to and, in some cases, agreed to take on extra work to try to relieve the damage they caused.
Examining the public record of the sites visited by enforcement officers reveals little about whether the site visit found unregulated or excessive river work, or permitted work within the boundaries of the law.
A collaboration of environmental groups who have taken to calling themselves “the Graveling Guild” is trying to compile a list of places where they say excessive gravel removal occurred, but Louis Porter of the Conservation Law Foundation said that doing so has proved nearly impossible due to a lack of documentation.
Everyone seems to agree that the situation leaves room for improvement.
“We need to have in place a clearer system of what the requirements are (for streambank alteration after a flood),” DEC Commissioner David Mears said in a telephone interview. “Something more than just verbal approvals that would allow critical construction to happen but at the same time assuring that the work is done in accordance with a core set of standards and a way to hold people accountable.”
Still, Mears said, given the magnitude of damage wrought by Tropical Storm Irene, issuing verbal permits was critical. Even with Ryan added to the crew of five river management engineers, there was no way each engineer could personally supervise all the work being done in Vermont's 23,000 miles of streams.
“I don't know that we could've approached it any different than we did in retrospect,” Mears said.
Added Menees, the river engineer: “People have a right to rebuild their lives.”
Mike Kline, manager of the Vermont Rivers Program, suggested that going forward, Vermont could spearhead a national network of river engineers that would respond to a disaster in much the same way that smoke jumpers and firefighters respond to a wildfire. But given the continuing work of trying to clean up after Irene, such an effort seems far down the priority list.

Now that the days of verbal permitting are past, the state is shifting into recovery mode, bringing even more heavy machinery into streambeds to try to reverse some of the damage caused by post-Irene recovery efforts.
At least nine locations in the White River basin (comprised of dozens of individual stream sections) have been targeted for restoration work, including the section of Lilliesville Brook just upstream from Paul Dougan's cabin.
While Dougan watched from his deck several weeks ago, Greg Russ, a project manager at the White River Partnership (and Mary's husband), directed as excavator Ricky Andrews built the last of three rudimentary stone structures, or weirs, meant to redirect the flow of water away from the newly rebuilt road -- and away from Dougan's house.
Andrews, who was hired by the town to perform the original emergency work in the brook, was also using his Caterpillar to drop boulders and woody debris into the brook in an attempt to recreate fish habitat.
“In here, they took out way too much material,” Russ said, pointing, as Andrews swung his machine's giant claw over the brook, picking up boulders as if they were marbles and dropping them in the frosty water.
Stockbridge Road Commissioner David Brown said that after Irene, he did not seek authorization for in-stream work in Lilliesville Brook or elsewhere, operating instead under the assumption that he was covered by a state exemption that emergency measures necessary to preserve life or to prevent severe damage to property are allowed.
At each site, Brown said, excavators took out only the material necessary to rebuild the road -- but unfortunately, that was a lot of material.
Though Stockbridge was one of the towns in the region where graveling was most prevalent after the flooding, Ryan pointed out that it was largely done out of necessity -- with 90 percent of roads washed out, rebuilding them was a priority, and in most cases, material couldn't be trucked in.
In other instances, though -- including in a section of Lilliesville Brook farther upstream from Dougan's home -- private landowners dredged significant amounts of gravel, straightened the stream channel and had machinery out of the river before Ryan could get on-site.
“We have some accountability where the town did (the work) or if a landowner hired a contractor, but if … they did the work right after the flood and the machines were gone before the state got there, we don't have much recourse or enforcement,” he said.
“Above Paul Dougan's to the Bethel (town) line, I can think of three or four sites that were dredged by the private landowners that we can't fix or don’t have any resources to fix.”
Ryan noted other similar cases on Locust Creek in Barnard and Bethel and on the Tweed River in Pittsfield.

Lilliesville Brook provides a fairly obvious example of how the elimination of a gravel bank could cause what was once a narrow, deep trout stream to become shallow and braided, encroaching upon the roadway and nearby housing. In most cases, though, understanding river science is less intuitive.
“This issue is highly technical and one of the problems is that few people, including myself, fully understand the technicalities,” said McCormack. “If the state wishes to continue to regulate as heavily as it does, we have to do a better job of educating people.”
Some of McCormack's constituents -- including Paul Dougan -- believe that the now-illegal graveling practices of the mid-1900s not only helped towns save money on building materials but also helped rivers maintain their equilibrium. Therefore, they reason, the gravel extraction should resume.
“You've got to keep 'em clean,” Dougan said, of rivers, “and you've got to dig ’em out deeper.”
Dougan said that regular removal of gravel build-up in front of his house once created deep pools for brook trout and made the stream channel deeper, thus creating more space for water and preventing the stream from overflowing its banks. He's seen it firsthand: since graveling ceased in the 1980s, he said, floods have gotten worse, and brook trout have disappeared from Lilliesville Brook.
(Indeed, the Vermont DEC website confirms that an “unprecedented” frequency of flooding has hit the state since 1984.)
But river scientists say that while Dougan's observations make sense on a gut level, science has proven that graveling disrupts a stream's natural stability, making it more, not less, prone to flooding.
The Vermont DEC website states that “contrary to professional judgment and public opinion, extensive mining contributed directly to the destabilization of river channels and increased bank erosion and flood related property damage.”
Even before Irene, 75 percent of streams and rivers in Vermont were deemed unstable due to centuries of human intervention, said Greenwood of the Natural Resources Council. Part of the reason that damage from Irene was so extreme in the White River basin is that graveling in the 1970s and '80s began an “unraveling” process that made the recent flooding worse than it would have been, Greenwood said.
So why does making a river deeper actually contribute to flood damage?
Mary Russ explains it this way: “Think of a river as a conveyor belt,” she said. “They don't just move water, they move sediment.”
The water and the sediment always want to be in balance. While clear water is good for fish and other wildlife, even clear, fast-flowing water must be mixed with a certain amount of fine sediment. When gravel is removed from a river or backs up behind undersized bridges and culverts, the water downstream is out of balance and becomes “sediment starved.”
“It's hungry water,” Russ said. And hungry water is dangerous water: It picks up all the sediment it can get. If there isn't enough on a riverbed, it starts grabbing soil from the banks. Digging out a riverbed to make it deeper also increases the velocity of water flowing through, altering the speed and direction of water as it hits banks downstream.
“You may be protecting your property and your community,” Mears said. “But by digging out the banks, what you're doing is just moving the problem downstream to the next community.”
Other human intervention further destabilizes rivers. Armoring banks with riprap or re-channeling waterways prevent rivers from naturally flooding their banks and meandering across river corridors. It can also prevent rivers from dissipating their force in wetlands or by curving around bends.
“A stream is governed by the laws of physics,” Greg Russ said. “You can't fight it.”

Nonetheless, scientific advances don't always mesh with local beliefs. While towns have been responsive to requests that they repair damages done to waterways after Irene, convincing cash-strapped local officials of the need to spend money on restoring river health remains a challenge.
But Mears emphasized that what's good for rivers is often also good for the people who live near them. Spending a bit more now could likely save towns money in the future.
“The idea of recovery and restoring and rebuilding after the flood is entirely consistent with protecting our rivers,” Mears said.
“The two things go hand in glove. … Every time we rebuild in the same way in the same place without thinking about what the rivers have to do is just wasting money. It's just going to be washed away in the next flood event.”
Culverts and bridges are one example where river health correlates directly to human benefit.
The Russ' of the White River Partnership said in the aftermath of Irene, some sections of road were blown out by undersized culverts, while just a few hundred yards upstream, properly sized culverts left roads intact. Along Davis Hill Brook in Stockbridge, for example, too-small culverts became clogged with gravel and debris and no longer allowed the passage of water, destroying 1,000 feet of road.
  Well-designed bridges and culverts that accommodate sediment are also good for fish passage. The White River Partnership received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with towns and landowners to rebuild flood-damaged bridges and culverts in accordance with newer standards, including those on Davis Hill Brook. Mary Russ said the response from towns wanting free culverts has been “tremendous.”
Wherever they can, river engineers and conservation groups are also trying to move roads as far from waterways as possible. But while moving infrastructure is the only surefire way to prevent future damage, it's often a tough sell.
“Where else would I go?” asked Paul Dougan, when asked if he would consider moving away from Lilliesville Brook. It's an issue that river program coordinator Kline deals with on a daily basis.
“I say we manage rivers,” he said. “But we really manage conflict. The conflict between human investments and the dynamics of rivers is really at the heart of our work.”
 Dougan said that had he known what the future held when he built his cabin back in 1968, he would have surely chosen a different location. Those who study rivers hope other Vermonters considering new development will think similarly.
Towns can plan for the future by adopting updated floodplain maps and exercising more regulatory control over where new development springs up, Mary Russ said.
While towns were reluctant to have such discussions before Irene, one silver lining of the storm has been that officials and residents are now more willing to discuss flood-related planning.
Building in wetlands, for example, may exacerbate flooding downstream, because wetlands absorb floodwaters, dissipating a river's force.
Another step is for landowners to take part in river corridor easement programs. Organizations like the Vermont River Conservancy have been working to purchase land along streambeds from private landowners to conserve it from future development.
Native vegetation is planted along stream banks, and the land can still be used for agriculture -- but no permanent structures or roads may be built, allowing the rivers to run their natural course and dissipate their force
A similar program to help homeowners affected by flooding is available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, FEMA pays homeowners approximately 75 percent of their home's value to rebuild outside of the floodplain.
The Vermont River Conservancy is working with qualifying homeowners -- including four on Route 14 in Sharon -- to come up with the additional 25 percent.
If all goes as planned, at least a handful of vulnerable structures will no longer be in harm's way, and the river there will be allowed to flood and ebb as it had done for centuries. Elsewhere, though, the balance between river stability and human development is still precarious.
As Vermont looks toward a future made ever more uncertain by a changing climate, many hope that the state can move forward from past mistakes -- both those from a century ago, and those from last month.
“We're kind of living in the shadow of what we learned,” Greenwood said.
“We're still learning. You're really making your best guess about what the river needs, but in the end, the river always decides what it needs.”

 "Look, honey, bank erosion!"

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

 With the original Occupy Wall Street protesters evicted, here's an update about the women from Vermont I followed last month. I had some negative responses to this article in my inbox this morning.

Rarely are parents proud that their children have been jailed. But two Upper Valley mothers whose daughters were arrested at New York's Occupy Wall Street protest in the early morning hours yesterday couldn't be more pleased.
“They're working together with these people who are serious about trying to create a new way to live where there's equality and fairness and justice,” said Hartland resident Nancy Theriault, whose daughters Sophie Theriault and Hannah Morgan have been part of Occupy Wall Street along with their friend, Emma McCumber, since late September. “I'm proud.”
“I know she's got a really good head on her shoulders,” said McCumber's mother, Libbet Downs, of Reading. “She really cares about justice. She's very dedicated and passionate and doing what she believes in with every fiber of her being, so I'm not worried.”
The three young women from Vermont had camped in Zuccotti Park for roughly six weeks before police entered the protest site in the early morning hours yesterday, scouring the park of protesters' belongings and hauling 200 people to jail, including 20-year-old Sophie Theriault and 23-year-old McCumber. Those connected with the young women did not know what they were being charged with or where they were being held.
Morgan, 23, had spent the night at an art studio in Brooklyn and was not arrested in the operation, though she too was jailed and charged with disorderly conduct earlier in the week after dressing as a clown and participating in a mock bullfighting demonstration against the charging bull statue in Bowling Green Park near Wall Street. Morgan learned her clowning skills from her mother (a former clown) while growing up in Hartland; the YouTube video of her comedic dance has attracted nearly 52,000 hits.
“This is so awesome,” Theriault commented on her own Facebook page after posting the video of Morgan's arrest. The video -- and Theriault's unwavering support of her daughters -- garnered a flurry of positive comments, one of which proclaimed Theriault “the best mother in America.” (Her response? “I just lucked out, is all.”)
With reports that police blocked journalists from the site of the mass arrests, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter again played central roles in publicizing the latest saga in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Theriault stayed up through the night watching the live video feed of the protest and posting real-time status updates on Facebook that chronicled the information she was getting from her daughters.
“Dear friends -- I'm up in the middle of the night because I just received a phone call -- Zuccotti Park is being raided,” she wrote at 2:31 a.m. “Hannah is in Brooklyn, and fine, but Sophie is locked to something in the park, refusing to leave, and they are being teargassed. Please pray for them, and if you are NY, please GO THERE!!!”
(Accounts varied whether New York police used pepper spray on the protesters.)
Glued to her computer screen and cell phone, Theriault continued to receive updates until about 4 in the morning. After that, all was silent.
“It was crazy,” Theriault said yesterday afternoon in a telephone interview. “Sophie was texting me, and I was watching the live feed, and at same time, they both went dead. ‘They're moving in, they're coming closer,’ was last thing I heard from her.”
“She was texting me up until about 10 minutes ago. Now, nothing,” Theriault posted on Facebook at 4:07 a.m. “The OWS live feed has gone down. I got an e-mail saying that all of the people locked together have been wrestled to the ground and dragged off by police. … Stay strong, Soph. I love you.”
After a sleepless night in Vermont, the two mothers began receiving phone calls from Morgan, who reported that her fellow protesters were safely in jail, though she didn't know where. Their possessions where thrown away, the chains with which they had shackled themselves had been cut and the protesters were roughly handcuffed, Theriault said, but both mothers seemed assured that their daughters were not hurt and had been treated fairly well.
“They weren't hurt, they weren't pepper sprayed, apparently,” Downs said. “(Morgan) reassured me that there was a phalanx of lawyers on the sidelines.”
“They threw all their stuff in the trash,” Theriault said. “Sophie said, ‘I'm sorry, I think I lost your sleeping bag.' I’m really hoping Sophie’s banjo made it through.”
Despite the setback, the activists' mothers echoed the rallying cry that's arisen from the around the clean, empty park. The protests will go on, they say, and the young women from Vermont will be a part of them.
“They're determined to stay,” Theriault said. “They're there for the duration. It sounds like they're going to try to find another place or go back to the park. They sound resilient and determined and, if anything, emboldened.”
Both mothers say that they nurtured their daughters' activist spirits while the three girls were growing up in Vermont, and both admitted that they likely passed on some of their own passion for justice, peace and equality.
The mothers have each visited the protest in New York (though neither camped out) and said they'll continue to support their daughters in any way possible, regardless of the charges that might soon occupy their permanent records. Theriault is trying to rent an apartment in the city around Christmastime so she can spend the holidays with her daughters, and both sets of parents hope to bring their daughters home for a Thanksgiving dinner.
“I'm very proud, I'm thrilled for them to be right in the mix of such an amazing movement that's gotten worldwide attention,” Theriault said.
As of 5:30 p.m. yesterday, Sophie Theriault and Emma McCumber were still being held in jail. Neither they nor Hannah Morgan could be reached by telephone.
Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.
Blinking cursor,
you are but a blip on this vast plain of glowing white,
you mean nothing to me!

Friday, November 4, 2011


Tonight, while fat snowflakes lit up the night sky, I relaxed in a sort of child's pose in the bathtub, watching a tiny black speck no bigger than a grain of pepper floating in the bathwater. Suspended, it slowly drifted on an imperceptible current through the vast colorless void of the bath. It made me think of space, with the tiny speck of Earth suspended somewhere in its midst, surrounded by zillions of stars, the swirl of galaxies, the tie-dyed flashbulb explosions of supernovas. Here in the thick of the cosmos we spin like an-out-of-control top, all seven billion of us upside-down and rightside-up, glued to Earth's sphere by the miracle of gravity, hurtling together through space.

Long ago our worlds were small, our knowledge of them limited to a home, a village or a city, and the surrounding countryside that eventually ran into Endless Mountains or a Mysterious Desert or an Uncrossable Sea with Dangerous Sea Monsters! … until the map petered out into a great blank expanse. Who knew what was beyond? And who would have guessed at the complexity right beneath our feet?

How much we've learned about this planet we inhabit – and yet, how much less we know. As we've become gradually more aware of our spatial coordinates in the universe, we've lost our connection with the immediate places we inhabit. We forget how it was when everyone lived off the land, and in doing so we've lost the specialized, precise knowledge that once made every month a season unto itself, every detail vital. We move farther from the intimate knowledge that bore our language and cultures. Are we lonelier now that our sense of place has expanded into the gaping eternity of space and time? What's the trade-off?

The argument can be made that the modern experience has led to a great loss in place-based identity. But through that loss, the human race has come to know so much more than we ever have before. Our base of knowledge has become both wider in scope and narrower in focus. There is always more to learn, another molecular layer to scrape off. A square mile of Earth provides a lifetime of inquiry – nutrition and bacteriology and chemistry and soil biology; fungal spores and parasites and microbes, to say nothing of carpentry and home energy and geology.

And yet in the face of so much potential knowledge – surrounded by technologies that centuries ago would have made our heads spin – many of us seem to have lost our sense of wonder for the natural world. We are drawn more to flashy advertisements than the light of the night sky. How can we harness this great intellect we've cultivated to connect more deeply to this intricate, endless, fascinating world we live in? Even as we abuse it, it keeps revealing itself one layer deeper, always promising more, brushing aside the curtain just when you need it most for a tantalizing glimpse into a world where the indifferent laws of nature and the shape of the universe suddenly make sense for the space of a single breath. It's the moment when a fox pauses in the moonlight of a snowy night and looks right at you as you stand at your kitchen window while everyone else sleeps. Or when, in the midst of tragedy, one hand reaches for another. Ours is a world of curiosities, resilient and fragile at the same time, devastating and hopeful. It is the stuff told only by poets and music makers, captured best in a single note that makes your heart expand and ache and soar all at once.

Life is funny. The more we try to understand the limitless supply of information at our fingertips, the less sense we make of it. With the knowledge of countless generations spread before us, it's comforting to know that the world can still be held in a single drop of music. 

i love my macro lens

Nature Blog Network