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Managing a running river

Windham Regional Commission and state host public meetings on Deerfield River

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WILMINGTON—Tropical Storm Irene’s rains lasted hours, but Vermont’s rivers and streams may take years to stabilize in their wake.

The North Branch of the Deerfield River swamped downtown Wilmington on Aug. 28, 2011, claiming one life and leaving the town under a layer of mud.

Representatives of the state Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and the Windham Regional Commission (WRC) hosted the first of two public meetings to present a draft River Corridor Management Plan for the North Branch of the Deerfield River on May 22.

Audience members asked about state agencies’ ability to work together, the problematic Route 9 bridge, and dredging the river.

The second public meeting will be held in Dover Town Hall in East Dover (not the Town Offices on Route 100) on June 5 at 6:30 p.m.

Although the state requires ANR revise its river management plans every five years, the plans for Windham County’s watersheds have lapsed.

In addition, Irene changed some of the rivers, which in turn has rendered moot much assessment data collected in 2005 and 2006, said Marie Levesque Caduto, watershed coordinator with ANR’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Some rivers changed course. Some became deeper or shallower depending on what debris was added or swept away. Some lost stabilizers, such as trees, along their banks. Some of the rivers are still in flux, and so their behavior, like springtime flooding, has become erratic.

Vermont’s rivers and streams may take years to stabilize after Irene, Levesque Caduto said.

The WRC has pursued updating a 2006 assessment, called a stream geomorphic assessment (SGA), and developing a river corridor management plan for the North Branch of the Deerfield River, which flows through Dover and Wilmington.

Funding for the process comes from the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Ecosystem Restoration Program and the Deerfield Enhancement Fund.

The initial river assessment included a study to better understand erosion, sedimentation, and flooding hazards in the watershed. The river corridor plan will use that data, combined with more recent information, to anticipate where on the river these impacts are likely to occur, the WRC said in a press release.

At its core, a river management plan aims to protect and restore water quality. Pollution from discharges or runoff is one of the biggest concerns, said representatives at the meeting. However, threats to a river can extend beyond chemical pollutants to issues caused by physical conditions in a river bed: Changes in flow or temperature can affect habitat and water quality as well, said Mary Nealon, aquatic biologist.

“Streams... we want them to change,” said Nealon. “But we don’t want them to change too quickly.” Nealon, a principal at Bear Creek Environmental, LLC, in Middlesex, consults with the state on SGAs.

River stressors include straightening the river — natural rivers meander — to accommodate roads or agricultural fields, floodplain encroachment, storm water runoff, and undersized bridges and culverts.

Route 100, which runs along the Deerfield’s bank, is brutal on the river, said Nealon.

In the 2005 assessment, the North Branch of the Deerfield River was divided into 14 segments, called reaches, that covered about 14 miles of stream channel.

According to Nealon, segments are rated good, fair, or poor. Most of the reaches in the assessment area rated fair.

The segment that flowed through downtown Wilmington was rated fair, owing to the river being channelized, the town having encroached the floodplain, and the Route 9 bridge having been built undersized.

A section in Dover rated poor.

Then audience members asked what Wilmington can do to prevent flooding.

Shannon Pytlik, river scientist with ANR, said there are measures communities can take, but added that any flood, if it’s big enough, could break through prevention measures.

Audience members also criticized confusion and lack of coordination among state agencies such as ANR and the Agency of Transportation in Irene’s aftermath.

“You’re right. We are getting better at that [working together],” said Levesque Caduto.

Federal, state, and local regulations “all need to be meshed into something that can be helpful,” she added.

Community member Frank Sprague said that in his view the Route 9 bridge should have been widened, and Dot’s Restaurant, which borders the bridge and river, should not have been rebuilt.

“If that bridge wasn’t there or was wider, it probably wouldn’t have backed up [as bad],” Sprague said of the flood waters.

Then, visibly agitated, he said if the water hadn’t backed up as badly, Ivana Taseva would not have been killed.

Taseva, 20, from Macedonia, was the lone Windham County fatality from the storm. She drowned when she was swept away by the Deerfield River in Wilmington.

“This bridge is a real problem, and this whole town knows it’s a problem,” said Levesque Caduto.

Sprague expressed frustration, and added, “It’s not if it floods again; it’s when it floods again.”

Cliff Duncan, who owns property along the river, quizzed the presenters about the feasibility of dredging the river.

Most of the debris in the river is manmade, Duncan said, so why can’t man haul the stuff out?

The answers are not black and white, and the decisions must be made case by case, said Pytlik.

“It’s not about an individual landowner, but about the watershed and how the watershed is functioning,” she said.

Levesque Caduto said that the town could enact regulations to prevent floodplain encroachment or other activities that stressed the river.

“It’s not just us [the state],” she said.

The WRC sent out about 250 letters to owners whose property abutted the Deerfield River in Wilmington and Dover. The state and WRC anticipate meeting with these owners to see if any are interested in participating in river management plans or projects.

According to Levesque Caduto, Bear Creek Environmental has identified about 20 potential river restoration and protection projects to mitigate erosion, sedimentation, and flooding hazards in the watershed.

The state and WRC have prioritized five projects to help stabilize the river in Dover and Wilmington, such as removing berms, purchasing easements for property within the floodplain, and replacing undersized culverts.

Levesque Caduto said she could not provide more detail on the projects until the state speaks with affected property owners.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #205 (Wednesday, May 29, 2013).

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