Vermonters, Deb Markowitz noted, are notably self-reliant, which is good. As might be expected of self-reliant people, they are well equipped. They have tools. They have energy. They have know-how. Some of them even have heavy earth-moving equipment. In and of itself, that’s also good, noted Markowitz, the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
In the days after Tropical Storm Irene flooded so much of Southern and Central Vermont last summer, some of those self-reliant, well-quipped Vermonters “thinking they were helping,” she said, took their bulldozers and bucket-haulers into the rivers to scoop out gravel, straighten out banks, and otherwise “improve” Vermont’s rivers.
Not so good.
In this case, the know-how of these self-reliant Vermonters had to do with running the machinery, not with the science of riparian zones, nor with what fish need to thrive. As a result, scientists say, the fish populations – already degraded by the flooding – are likely to stay degraded far longer.
As will the satisfaction of the thousands of Vermonters and visitors who try to catch those fish. A dredged-out stretch of stream is an aquatic wasteland where fish can neither feed nor hide. Those well-meaning, self-reliant Vermonters may have played havoc with one of the state’s most celebrated past-times, not to mention one of its more important tourist attractions.
“In some places, people over-did it,” Markowitz acknowledged.
Perhaps even in lots of places, at least if 406,000 feet, or 77 miles of stream is considered lots of places. That’s how much ended up “with major degradation of aquatic habitat resulting from post-flood stream channel alteration activities,” according to a report by biologists at the Fish & Wildlife Department, part of Markowitz’s Agency.
That’s a small percentage of Vermont’s total river length of roughly 7,000 miles, Markowitz said. But it’s almost 10 percent of the 800 miles of river affected by Irene and its floods. And that official estimate may be low. After examining the list of degraded river in the F&W report, Kim Greenwood, the water program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said it missed a few spots she knows of that were badly torn up by earth-moving equipment.
The controversy over the “managing” – and over-managing – of Vermont’s streams last year has smoldered rather than flared, partly because the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin was at first divided over the question in a peculiar and – potentially at least – politically embarrassing manner, one its officials would just as soon not discuss.
The peculiarity is that while the scientists at Fish & Wildlife were dismayed when they saw or heard about free-lance gravel-removal and bank-straightening, one prominent state official was not.
“We’ve got to get in here and get this work done,” said none other than Peter Shumlin at the time. “Irene left a mess behind and it’s got to be cleaned up.”
Irene did leave behind a mess that had to be cleaned up. In emergencies, such as clearing a road for medical vehicles, rescuing people whose homes were cut off from services, or clearing debris that might endanger a bridge or overpass in case of another heavy rain, a certain amount of digging in the rivers was no doubt necessary.
But Kim Greenwood, a scientist with a degree in aquatic resources, said some dredging was still going on more than a month later, after the roads had been open and the stranded people had been rescued.
“It went far beyond what was necessary,” she said, adding that at first the state sent a mixed message.
“The Governor was definitely not helpful,” she said. “He sent the message, ‘go ahead and dig.’”
After complaints from within the Agency of Natural Resources and from leaders of Trout Unlimited and other fishing groups, Markowitz stepped in, ending the emergency period in which towns or individuals needed only spoken permission from ANR staff to send heavy equipment into rivers.
But not as many as before the front-end loaders and the trucks went into the streams.
“Where aquatic habitat has been severely altered through…channel widening and straightening, complex habitat features will need to re-establish before improvements in fish and aquatic populations can be expected,” said the F&W report.” While relatively short reaches of impacted streams may recover in a matter of years, the recovery of longer reaches may take decades…”
State officials, though, might be less conflicted and less likely to be in denial abut what happened last September than many a dweller of the river valley areas where most of the dredging took place. Or at least so it seemed to two anglers trying to find stretches of river that had been dredged and other spots where they might catch a fish.
According to the F&W report, no watershed was more heavily “managed” than the White River’s, and no branch had more work done it than the Third Branch, which basically parallels Route 12 north of Bethel. More than 55,000 feet of the Third Branch were damaged by “post-flood channel alterations,” the report said.
But the reaction from the locals was, in effect, “dredging? What dredging? Nobody saw any dredging around here.”
Finally one person, who will not be identified to avoid causing him/her any trouble, said the river had been heavily altered, and specifically referred the anglers to the spot where Camp Brook enters the Third Branch, which had been made wider and deeper by dredging.
“If you want some other spots,” came the advice, “ask the town manager, Delbert Cloud.”
“Dredging? There was no dredging,” said Delbert Cloud. “If there’s any problem with dredging, ask ANR.”
Told there was not necessarily a problem at all, Cloud said, “there was dredging all up and down these rivers. The governor said to.”
Perhaps some of the same people who so enthusiastically brought the earth-moving equipment into the rivers last fall now see the errors of their ways.
The river where Camp Brook entered it was indeed wide and deep, and seemingly dead. Catching a fish can never be guaranteed, but this was a stretch of river in which an experienced angler wouldn’t even bother to cast. It was straight, deep, devoid of any obstruction or variety.
Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry said the Vermont division between those who would “manage” rivers and those who would leave them alone does not reflect the familiar (clichéd?) “woodchuck-versus-flatlander” split which characterizes some environmental battles. In this case, he said, the traditionalists in the rod and gun clubs agreed with the scientists.
“There was an outcry from the angling community” over the dredging Berry said.
But some Vermonters – no doubt like some people everywhere – appear convinced that rivers should look neat and orderly, should flow evenly over an even bed, should be straight and unobstructed, bordered by banks uncluttered by dead trees or big boulders.
The scientists say the opposite condition is closer to the truth, that a healthy river with a healthy fishery curves this way and that, is shallow here and deeper there, is obstructed by fallen tree trunks and boulders, and flows over a bed rich in vegetation, sustaining the aquatic insects which in turn are eaten by fish.
Deepening a section of river with a bulldozer, they say, might reduce flooding right along that section. But it will also increase the river’s velocity, making flood conditions worse downstream.
Above all, the scientists say, a river’s flood plain should remain as intact and as natural as possible. Starting with its state capital, much of which covers Winooski River flood plain, Vermont has developed along its riversides, covering up thousands of acres of flood plain.
“Downtowns are not going to move,” said Kim Greenwood. Settling along rivers is “part of our legacy.” People live near rivers because they love them, she said, but development along riverbanks increases the need to keep as much flood plain elsewhere in its natural condition. Flooding is natural, and a river will recover from it. Recovery after a scouring by earth-moving equipment takes longer.
There are indications that many Vermonters – officials and ordinary citizens alike – have learned a lesson from last September’s activities, and that in the next big flood (and few doubt that there will be one), river bulldozing will be limited to real emergency conditions. There have been no expressions of regret from Shumlin. But Markowitz acknowledged that before Irene hit, the state “didn’t have a system in place” to deal with controlling what could and could not be done after the water receded.
Next time, she said, it will.