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!"

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