There is a group of vocal Middlebury residents unhappy with town efforts to dredge sections of the Middlebury River following the Aug. 28 flooding. As we all know, this flooding was the result of Tropical Storm Irene; and while hurricanes and their offspring don’t happen too often in Vermont, we shouldn’t be surprised by northeastern trending tropical cyclones. Their paths of past destruction are in the history books.
More immediately, however, opponents to dredging streambed sediments, rocks, and debris believe town officials acted too hastily to “fix” the problem. Many residents believe town officials should spend more time and money to study the river and its flooding patterns. (The more we learn about the fluid dynamics of rivers, the better we can predict future flood patterns.)
Years ago, damming and dredging were common “solutions” to prevent flooding, but subsequent studies—and subsequent flooding—have shown that s this kind of approach makes matters worse in most cases.
The sad, wet history of the community of Gilboa, N.Y., situated on the edge of the Catskill Mountains, is an example of engineering fixes that “fix” one flooding problem only to create others downstream.
Sometimes dredging can reshape a watercourse to subtly increase the velocity of future floodwater. This might happen on the Middlebury River in the future. Of course the word might is stressed here.
A Middlebury Selectboard meeting this past week included a standing room only crowd of residents concerned about the town’s intended action. Among concerned residents are local anglers who, rightfully, care about how artificial streambed activity will affect fish habitat.
There’s also this question: why homeowners in the flood path of local streams continue to be surprised by the capriciousness of Mother Nature?
While we understand why many residents don’t want streambeds touched—for fear of making a bad thing worse—those of us who live outside floodplains ask ourselves why we should continue to pay to help those knowingly living in harm’s way? (We’re talking about those annual, predictable flood paths not thrice in a century events like Irene.)
Increased costs are paid by all of us through higher insurance rates (ultimately paid by all ratepayers) and state and federal emergency funds (ultimately paid by all taxpayers).
There is probably a middle path to follow, a path that eases both aggressive dredging and starts to slowly reduce the number of homes along the path of flood-prone streams. We’re talking about those areas where flooding is a recognized, almost annual problem.
Maybe future plans should include towns buying up certain streamside residences when they come up for sale?
There are easy places to identity where this is a concern. Such acquired future public land could be left to return to the wild. Trees and other plants provide better anchors to surrounding soils than houses, outbuildings and paved surfaces.
So questions we all need to consider are should we continue to live in flood prone areas and should we continue to expect fellow taxpayers and insurance ratepayers to rush to our aid in times of trouble, particularly in places where flooding is so predictable?
These are difficult, even emotional questions that may never be answered to the satisfaction of everyone involved.
Yes, we need to help those who are homeless because of recent flooding, but we also need to encourage people to rethink the romance of living along Vermont’s wildly fickle streams.
When we let nature take its course, our streams settle down into predictable patterns governed by gravity and terrain. Where we know streams can flood—even once every 100 years—maybe it’s time to get out of the way? Playing chicken with Vermont streams seems like a losing game to me.