Finding zen for the Whetstone

River engineer talks about how people are changing their behavior after Irene

WEST BRATTLEBORO — Vermonters are still rebuilding from the flooding brought on by the 8-11 inches of rain dumped by Tropical Storm Irene last August.

River Management Engineer Todd Menees of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation said he hopes people will learn from the recent past and change their relationship with Vermont's rivers for a less flood-damaged future.

Last week, Menees walked along the Whetstone Brook with nine residents, most of whom live along the West Brattleboro portion of the brook, and members of the West Brattleboro Association.

Menees hammered one simple message: Give rivers space to move. Water is powerful and flooding is random.

“You can't change Mother Nature,” he said. “You've got to change yourself.”

Menees said river science has progressed in 30 years. Pointing to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' former practice of building berms along rivers, he said many older flood-proofing measures prove a more dangerous cure than the disease.

River engineers now recommend two measures for flood protection: leaving rivers to maintain themselves, except when their movements threaten manmade infrastructure or homes, and educating people to build away from the river's edge.

“What's good for the river, what's good for our budget, is good for us,” he said. “And I think about half the people [I speak with] don't believe me.”

Destruction in West B

Irene's late summer rains, which fell upon ground already saturated by a rainy August, gathered speed and volume as they flowed downhill to eventually converge on low-lying Brattleboro.

The excess rainfall whipped the normally quiet Whetstone Brook into a raging torrent of water as it jumped its banks seeking the relief of its ancient floodplain.

This may be good for the brook, but not for the relatively new population of humans, buildings, cars, bridges, and Route 9.

The flooding has altered the Whetstone, creating sandbars, toppling trees, making narrow portions wide, and making deep areas shallow.

Menees said the Whetstone will take years to recalibrate itself after the trauma of Irene. He estimates people will see big changes in the brook, like falling trees and shifting sandbars, for another year. Smaller changes will continue for at least another five years. Meanwhile, evidence of the storm remains.

Fine, gray sediment coats the parking areas behind American Traders on Route 9. Blackberry bushes from last August lay half submerged in the silt frozen by the force of rushing water. Seedlings and weeds poke up through sediment like green marbles tossed across a grey carpet.

Farther downstream beside the footpath connecting the public housing complexes of Hayes Court and Melrose Terrace, a bright orange traffic cone is wedged under a broken tree trunk. Churned up earth like brown wounds surrounds the empty mobile home lots in Glen Park, where broken pieces of mirrors, pottery, insulation, and electrical wires share the debris field with an animal skull, a baby rhubarb plant, and tiny wildflowers.

The results of Irene's destruction are only beginning to be revealed. The river will be recovering for years.

Menees awards permits for working in rivers. He views a river as a complete system encompassing water quality, fish habitat, flooding, erosion, public safety, and financial costs.

In this system, everyone lives upstream and everyone lives downstream. Cause a change in one portion of the river, and the effects ripple out in both directions.

Rivers have memories of 15,000 years, he said. Humans average about 50 years. For centuries, before people built West Brattleboro, the Whetstone snaked back and forth across the valley floor as erosion wore away some banks and filled in others.

“It's a process not in our time frame,” he said.

This long-term evolution holds true for the Whetstone as it destabilizes after Irene. This will take years, even decades, to work out, according to Menees.

Many of the estimated 4,000 frustrated people that Menees has spoken with since August ask why he won't let them fix the damaged rivers and fix them quickly.

“Where do you start, where do you stop, and who pays for it?” he asks. “[River stabilization] is a long-term process that you won't see.”

Residents on the Whetstone walk questioned Menees on how to best maintain or rebuild the brook, how to better protect the buildings along it, and how Brattleboro could convince towns upstream to change their development to lessen potential flooding in downstream Brattleboro.

“Where's the equity?” asked Menees. “That's a tough nut.”

Watersheds don't follow town lines, he said. Also, towns differ in zoning regulations, resources, and flood prevention measures. He said usually the best tack is appealing to a neighbor's sense of altruism.

“No matter where we live, we have our conflict - nature does her thing and we get in the way,” said Menees. “Equity is a very hard part of the equation.”

Finding balance

Rivers seek to balance the immense energy inherent in flowing water. Menees calls this balanced state “dynamic equilibrium,” where overall, the river system remains stable even while small changes occur, such as erosion at a rate of about one inch a year.

Rivers constantly erode the earth channeling them, depositing that soil at slower sections downstream. Healthy rivers meander. The altering of quick and slow speeds manages the river's energy so it does not reach damaging velocities, he said.

Over time, rivers bend and move altering their channels. Healthy rivers also have open floodplains that allow flood waters to expend their energy by spreading out and slowing down, Menees said.

When people build flood walls, excavate gravel from a river, or cut away trees lining a river bed they disrupt a river's natural balance. Often this increases the water's energy and speed, forcing the river to expend its energy in other, unintended ways.

Menees said he thinks this is what happened to Melrose Terrace and Glen Park. The flood wall intended to protect the Melrose housing units lining the Whetstone forced more water into Glen Park.

If, for example, if the Melrose flood wall was removed, the homes closest to the Whetstone were moved, and the stream bank was gently sloped, the Whetstone could move closer to equilibrium.

But will people learn from Irene? Menees said he is not sure.

In the weeks after Irene, Meeees said, what the flood carried away - lawn chairs, firewood, “marshmallow” hay bales, trees, and houses - blew his mind.

“You don't think that would put the fear of God into you?” Menees asked.

Yet eight months later, lawn chairs, firewood, hay bales, and houses are still lining river banks.

“[People] are not willing to change their behavior, but [they] can't change the river,” he said.

Menees said that, in human relationships, people know they can't change the other person. Instead, they must change their point of view and relationship to the other person.

The same goes, he said, for the relationship between Mother Nature and humanity.

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