Vt. experts: Some post-Irene river repairs harmful

November 15, 2011 - 7:25 PM

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene's flooding, Vermont became what one lawmaker called a "lawless state" in restoring its rivers, with crews digging gravel from stream beds and piling boulders on river banks to strengthen them.

Environmentalists and some state officials told Vermont lawmakers Tuesday that the result is serious environmental damage, especially to fish habitats, as well as a possible worsening of future floods.

Vermont has the expertise to care for its rivers in ways that minimize the threat and impact of future floods, said David Mears, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But state regulations were relaxed on an emergency basis following the Aug. 28 storm. In some instances, the result sometimes was shoddy river restoration work, Mears and others said.

Lawmakers heard testimony that efforts to put rivers back in the courses they ran before Irene may have done more harm than good in some cases.

"Spending money to do work without consideration for how river dynamics work is just money down the hole," Mears said. "We're just going to replace the same culverts, the same bridges, the same homes, the same roads over and over and over again if we don't do it right."

Ron Rhodes, a river steward with the Connecticut River Watershed Council, told lawmakers Vermont must avoid "more unchecked, unregulated emergency dredging, graveling and channelizing in an attempt to 'fix' the rivers. This is a failed practice of our past."

The day began with a talk from Mary Watzin, dean of the University of Vermont's environmental school, who gave the assembled members of three legislative committees a primer in fluvial geomorphology — the science of how rivers change their courses over land. The upshot, Watzin, state officials and environmentalists said, was that rivers need room to run with the least interference possible.

Rivers are speeded up and floods made worse by a range of human activities, they said. Straightening and channeling rivers means they can't meander around bends and dissipate energy. Replacing the soil and vegetation along river banks with boulders or other materials also denies the river a chance to lose some of its power and slow down. Impervious surfaces like streets, roofs and parking lots send storm water into rivers much faster than an absorptive marsh or forest floor.

Some of those involved in Irene recovery efforts used steam shovels and other construction equipment to dig in rivers for gravel to rebuild washed out roads. Patrick Berry, commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said this practice could hurt populations of brook and brown trout for years to come.

Mears said his department was investigating reports that some people were illegally extracting gravel for sale.

Rep. David Deen, chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said later that some of this work was done during prime fish spawning season and that the results won't be known until fish eggs hatch in the spring.

Sen. Richard McCormack, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said many of his constituents have resented a state law, passed in 1988, that bars removing gravel from rivers.

"You have a culture that to this day has never accepted that they can't," McCormack said. Following Irene, Vermont became a "lawless state" when it came to protecting its rivers, he said, with the prevailing ethic being, "Do what you have to do."