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A familiar sign of spring came in mid-March to South Valley Road in Westminster West.

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Bus-eating roads and other mud season adventures

Municipalities and state tackle mud and improve water quality, one mile at a time

BRATTLEBORO—Spring is on the horizon! This time of year, Windham County residents slowly wave goodbye to chilly winter and welcome sunnier days.

But along with sugaring, shrinking snow piles, and crocuses comes Vermont’s most infamous interlude, mud season.

A spin around local Facebook posts shows a variety of vehicles up to their gunwales in mud, gravel roads with ruts deep enough to swallow the family pet, and signs saying “road closed. local traffic only.”

Is this year worse than previous years?

Yes and no, say some Windham County highway superintendents.

Like the frost crystals that freeze gravel roads solid in the winter, no two mud seasons are alike. For some road crews, the muddy roads are some of the worst they’ve seen. Others simply shrugged and said things are more or less fine.

Ultimately, controlling water is the key to maintaining dirt roads — less water means less mud. The goal is to implement practices that quickly drain, siphon, redirect, and whisk the water away from the road.

At their most basic, these practices ensure that residents can get to and from their homes and that EMS workers can respond to emergencies.

At their most complex, however, dirt roads are also a part of a system of improving and protecting water quality in Vermont and for its neighbors.

Jinxing themselves

“I would say we’ve had several mud seasons,” said Brattleboro Public Works Director Steve Barrett. “We had one earlier but we got over that.”

“And then we were like, ‘Geez, I think we’re not going to have too bad of a mud season,’ and we jinxed ourselves,” he continued.

Barrett’s highway supervisor, Al Franklin, called this year the worst mud season he’s seen in years.

During mud season, the DPW publishes a weekly Gravel Roads Condition report, which rates each unpaved road in town as good, fair, poor, or closed.

Barrett believes this report has helped residents better navigate local roads — like Meadowbrook Road, which Barrett called one of Brattleboro’s tougher dirt roads.

The road is heavily traveled and is often closed to all but local traffic in mud season, he said. Multiple residences line the curvy road, which also serves as a popular shortcut from Route 9 in West Brattleboro to Route 30 in Dummerston.

Meanwhile, the road is also a difficult road to work on because of the number of houses, curves, and swampy areas, Barrett and Franklin said.

So far, Brattleboro has used 2,600 yards of gravel to stabilize some of the muddier spots in town.

What makes a good dirt road?

According to the highway supervisors interviewed by The Commons, a well-constructed dirt road costs less to maintain than a paved road over the course of a year.

This year, Brattleboro will spend probably $30,000 on mud season — still less per mile than it costs to pave or maintain a paved road, Barrett said.

Dummerston Highway Foreman Lee Chamberlin agreed that, in his experience, dirt roads cost the town less, but it’s all relative. Use and cost are two factors that towns weigh when deciding whether to pave a road, he said.

A heavily traveled road — one like Dummerston’s East-West Road, which connects Route 30 and Route 5 — would quickly become a miserable mess if it were dirt, he added.

Barrett said that an easy mud season requires weather that mimics the conditions necessary for a good maple sugaring season: freezing temperatures at night and warmer during the day.

If this freeze/thaw cycle happens slowly over many weeks, then the frost that has built up in the road over the winter gently melts and drains away, he said — but if the thaw happens quickly, then the road will likely turn to soup before it can dry out.

The rate of thaw isn’t the only factor, Barrett continued.

Many of Brattleboro’s 23 miles of maintained gravel roads are old and have formed over time based on convenience rather than through planning and good construction practices. Spring water flows near or through many of these old roads, and the soils are “substandard,” with no capacity to divert water, Barrett said.

“There’s only so much money to help these roads,” he said.

In contrast, Barrett and Franklin both say that a well-constructed gravel road consists of multiple layers.

The deepest strata might be a porous grid or fabric to ensure that water drains out of the road. Next comes a layer of large stones, followed by a layer of medium-sized stones.

A layer of finer gravel — 1{1/2}-inch crushed — is next, and then comes the top layer, the smallest-sized gravel. The top layer is then shaped into a dome, or crowned, so that falling rain or snow essentially slides off.

If the area is wet or is near a spring, the road crew will also add underdrainage — usually a perforated pipe wrapped in a construction fabric and then surrounded by crushed stone. The holes in the pipe allow water to drain through, while the fabric and stone keep sediment from blocking the pipe, Barrett said.

Ditches on either side of the road also play a role in diverting water away, they said.

Warm, medium, and cold spots

Marlboro Road Foreman David Elliott said that mud season depends on how it “all goes out.”

Elliott oversees approximately 48 miles of gravel roads in Marlboro out of a total of 63 miles.

In his more than 20 years of heading Marlboro’s road crew, Elliott said every dirt road has its warm, medium, and cold spots.

Most years, the warmer spots dry out first, with the cold drying out later in the season, he said; if this thawing happens slowly, then the mud shows up in patches that are usually easy dealt with.

This year’s mud season has been OK, Elliott said — at least in his experience. But one driver’s OK is another driver’s nightmare, he added. The town has posted a few roads as open to local traffic only, but it hasn’t officially closed any.

The worst mud season Elliott remembers happened in the early 1990s. The weather had warmed in January and February enough to spur a mini–mud season. By March, temperatures quickly rocketed to the 70s and 80s. The roads turned to soup, he said.

With a good-humored tone in his voice, Elliott said, “Mud season is our fault.”

“Snow and ice — that’s Mother Nature, and we do a good job dealing with what she throws at us,” he said. “But mud is our fault no matter how you look at it.”

That’s because muddy roads are ultimately caused by people driving on them, he added, laughing.

On a serious note, Elliott said that people need to drive to work, to the store, or to school, and so the road crew will do its best to keep the roads open.

Travis Briggs, assistant road commissioner in Dover, where approximately 35 of its 60 miles of roads are unpaved, said that so far the mud season has been “not too bad.” The crew has needed to work overtime to patch roads with extra gravel only once or twice this season, he said.

But, he added, the roads are still thawing.

That morning, Briggs said, the road crew started their day plowing two inches of snow off one side of town while the other received only a dusting — meaning that winter isn’t over yet.

In general, Dover has been lucky for a couple years and has not needed to close any roads, he said. In some years, the crew has needed to scrape off the top layers of the road, pushing the material to the side to dry out. Later, the crew would plow the dried gravel back onto the road, he said.

“But this year, so far, so good,” Briggs said.

Chamberlin said the dirt roads around Dummerston have remained passable. The season seemed “pretty normal” to him but is lasting longer than previous years, he said.

Mud season tends to move through Dummerston in phases, he said. The town’s elevation can change by 1,000 feet, so roads at the 600-foot elevation start thawing first, while roads like Sunset Lake Road, which peak at about 1,400 feet, are still thawing.

For Dummerston, dirt roads have made more financial sense than paving, Chamberlain said — even with the department spending approximately three weeks grading the 52 miles of dirt road and making repairs.

Dummerston tries every summer to address any mud-season trouble spots so the crew won’t have to go back every year, he said. Adding underdrainage, keeping the road crowned all year long, and making sure the shoulders are lower than the road so water drains away are just a few of the techniques the crew uses, he said.

In Chamberlin’s experience, the better drainage practices have helped make mud seasons a little more passable.

Vernon is one town to have escaped mud season this year, said David Walker, highway foreman.

“I’m happy, and I’ll take it,” he said.

Mostly, he attributes the good fortune to the weather drying the roads quickly. Vernon only has a few miles of remaining dirt road, he added — most have been paved. Those that remain tend to be purely residential with little traffic, he said.

Municipal roads and water quality

In 2015, the Legislature passed Act 64, Vermont’s Clean Water Act, in response to findings of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the state was not meeting water quality standards. Specifically, levels of phosphorus in Lake Champlain were too high.

According to the Findings and Purpose section of Act 64, Vermont has 7,100 miles of rivers and 812 lakes of at least five acres in size. Yet, at the time the legislation was written, many of these waterways had some kind of water-quality issue.

To reverse this situation, Act 64 outlines a number of regulations. One set of regulations, the Municipal Roads General Permit (MRGP), aims to reduce the stormwater-related erosion from municipal roads both paved and gravel.

Under this permit, municipalities must create a local, multi-year plan to address drainage and reduce erosion.

The permitting process is still in its preliminary stages. The process began for towns in 2018.

So far, the state is happy with municipalities’ level of compliance, which is close to 100 percent, said Jim Ryan, municipal roads program coordinator with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Most towns are still completing their road inventories to identify which stretches of roadway are “hydrologically connected,” meaning their stormwater runoff could go straight into a waterway.

The state created a database of where it believes these vulnerable areas are, he said. Now towns are confirming the information. In Windham County, the Windham Regional Commission has assisted towns in conducting the inventory, he added.

Ryan explained that approximately 70 percent of Vermont’s road network are municipal roads. State highways make up approximately 14 percent of the network with the federal government overseeing 1 percent. Private roads make up the rest of the network.

The state estimates that 9 percent of phosphorus loads in state waterways come from road sources in general.

A lot of Vermont’s water-quality conversation has focused on phosphorus in Lake Champlain, but sediment is also an issue statewide, especially when discussing gravel roads, he said. Anything that falls on a road’s surface — oil, gas, antifreeze — can leach into the water, Ryan pointed out.

So when rain or snow falls on a road, “what we try to do is to disconnect the clean water [the precipitation] from becoming dirty water when it hits that road surface,” he said. “And what we try to do is shed that water off the road as quick as possible.”

Improving water quality has a lot to do with reducing erosion, Ryan continued.

Applying “the suite of best practices” — such as keeping a dirt road crowned, stone-lining ditches, and ensuring the shoulders stay lower than the road — can reduce erosion, he said.

The next step is to “disconnect” the runoff from flowing directly into a water source such as a river, Ryan said. This means directing the road runoff into a natural filter, such as a field, he noted.

The added benefit is that these practices also help gravel roads weather mud season, he said.

Ryan had a conversation about methods to improve dirt roads last week with his town’s road crew.

The gravel road that Ryan lives on “ate a school bus last week,” he said.

According to Ryan, the afternoon school bus “bogged down in a mud hole.” The town had to send a truck to pull the bus free. The kids were all stuck inside the whole time, he added. For them, it was an adventure, he said. For everyone else who travels the road, it was a mess.

Ryan reminded towns that the state has grant funding available to help them complete their stormwater-related road projects. Funding is also available to purchase equipment.

Road inventories and projects

Elliott said his crew has started a handful of road projects to bring the town in line with the state’s MRGP process.

“Just so we’re not behind the eight ball,” he said.

According to Elliott, the state identified 25 miles of hydraulically connected roads in Marlboro. He is waiting for the Windham Regional Commission to return its follow up inventory before planning additional MRGP-related road projects.

A few of the areas identified by the state as areas of concern don’t match Elliott’s on-the-ground experience. For example, one road identified as running next to a stream actually has approximately 75 feet of field and forest between it and the road.

Brian Harlow, superintendent with Putney’s Highway Department, laughed and said, “The roads are wonderful.”

On a less sardonic note, he said, this year hasn’t been as bad as others.

Putney has approximately 54 miles of dirt road compared to its 15 miles of asphalt. The road crew has spent a lot of time improving the drainage around the dirt roads, including installing underdrainage and ditching.

Harlow said that Putney is participating in the MRGP and that many of the methods designed to improve water quality also help the roads.

“They’re not a cure-all, but they help,” he said.

Briggs described Dover’s efforts as “proactive.” For example, the town had installed a number of stone-lined or hydroseeded ditches.

Hydroseeding, a planting process, reduces erosion by covering the bare ground with a slurry of mulch and seed.

The state offers grant funding so the full burden of financing the work doesn’t fall on the town, which is helpful, he said.

All the road supervisors thanked their communities for being patient as they tried to keep up with mud season.

When they can, crews will address a muddy spot by spreading extra gravel. Other times, however, it’s better to leave the road alone.

Driving heavy DPW trucks across a muddy road can hurt more than help, Barrett said. There’s nothing worse than trying to fix 1 mile of dirt road and ending up damaging 10 miles, he added.

Chamberlin believes installing better drainage systems has helped Dummerston’s dirt roads and saved the department a lot of effort and money.

Still, mud season is unpredictable.

Chamberlin chuckled.

“But then next week, Sunset Lake Road — there’ll be a big messy mess of mud up there, and you just never know,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #607 (Wednesday, April 7, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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