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Cry, cry the rivers…

An open letter to the honorable Governor Peter Shumlin from the MadDog Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

In the closing hours of preparing this letter to you, we learned of—and certainly applaud—your decision to rescind the emergency stream rules you implemented in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.

 

While the emergency rules were well intentioned and clamored for by understandably traumatized citizens across the state, their unintended consequences will, over ensuing months and (we fear) years, make themselves known and demand to be addressed—hopefully in an atmosphere of more enlightened science and less turmoil.

That is, in fact, an opportunity we have today.

As an organization that has worked for more than three decades to improve, stabilize and protect Vermont’s rivers and tributaries, we have been profoundly distressed by the devastation Irene has visited upon our rivers and upon our friends and neighbors in the towns that share the same floodplains. And we’ve been equally distressed by the long-term implications of the damage caused by some towns’ and individuals’ over-zealous responses to it, especially with regard to gravel “extraction.”

Unfortunately, its practice was not just allowed but encouraged by you in numerous public forums—and in places has resulted in what can only be described as an orgy of unrestrained assault on our rivers. While many of these actions have been well-intentioned despite their ignorance of riparian geomorphology, others have been transparently opportunistic and callous during a time when Vermonters’ overall response to this tragedy has served as a model for the rest of the nation and provided so many shining examples of the very best in human nature.

In Middlebury, for example, gravel was extracted from the Middlebury River even though it suffered no appreciable storm damage. To their credit, alarmed Middlebury citizens finally demanded that the select board both discontinue the practice and repair damage to the affected area. Unfortunately, once done, such damage is not so blithely reversed.  

All up and down the Mad River Valley there were similar over-responses, or responses executed with little or no input from ANR. A town administrator admitted allowing gravel removal from a site that had suffered no threat to the infrastructure simply because the town “needed the gravel for the roads.” As a result, downstream communities will be an even more highly targeted “event destination” in the next event.  Similarly, just south of the same site, where the Mad River as a result now runs straight, wide, deep and has moved upstream very close to Route 100, Sugarbush has amassed a stockpile of more than 45,000 cubic yards of gravel.

Sadly, the gravel that has now silted over so many fields, yards, former roadways and businesses has become a convenient (and to some extent, an understandable) target for our distressed communities. A hue and cry has gone up to dig out the rivers further to simply let the next flood pass on by. But to where? And to the greater peril of whom?

The practical effect of such dredging will be to turn our rivers into Great Escape water parks—from which there will be no escape, “great” or otherwise.

It is unnecessary for us to further reiterate the sound science cited in numerous communications to you in recent days from such organizations as the Friends of Mad River, Friends of the Winooski River, Vermont Natural Resources Council and your own Agency of Natural Resources and many others.

All support the proven science of floodplain and riverbed non-intervention; that channelization increases hydraulic velocity, compromises floodplain ability to help absorb and diminish the severity of flood events; that denuded riverbanks easily collapse and contribute to the general destructive power of such events, before creating even more lasting degradation in the form of deposited silt.

What we do want to reiterate and support to the fullest extent possible are the opportunities for infrastructure improvements, articulated with rare precision by former Commissioner of Fish and Wildlife Wayne Laroche in his September 29, 2011, editorial in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.

“Could there be any silver lining in this event? Perhaps there will be if state and town officials have the foresight to consider, choose and use better practices than they have in the past as they repair the flood damage. Band-Aids and replacement of poor designs from the past will only ensure that the next flood brings similar destruction.

“This is a golden opportunity to restore some of the integrity of our stream systems by (emphasis ours) sizing and choosing designs of culverts and bridges to better accommodate high stream flows, as well as fish and wildlife passage.  Simply avoiding the channelization of rivers by heavy equipment is a good place to start.”

Making a case for the rivers has been difficult in the face of such historic loss and the high emotions understandably generated.  Given our organization’s mission statement—“To conserve, protect and restore America’s cold water fisheries and their watersheds” —public and private responses to such attempts have often been skeptical and patronizing, rife with implications that our only concerns as an organization are elitist and selfishly focused on our leisure-time activities as fishermen.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Our primary concerns have always been for the application of sound science that contributes to the natural health of rivers. This is why, for example, our major activities include tree plantings on riverbanks in order to stabilize them against erosion in such events—and in dam removals to allow rivers to breathe freely and meander where they must in order to provide pressure relief valves that are so necessary when flood events occur. 

Sound river management practice not only supports healthy fish populations, it also supports a very important economic benefit in today’s difficult job markets by the revenue river-related recreational activities bring to the state. Ask any guide, sporting goods business owner or proprietor of the many other ancillary business beneficiaries of river-related recreational activities in the state.

So as we move from emergency response to one of hopefully greater normalcy, saner heads—and an even higher degree of scientifically proven methods—must now prevail. Not just for the protection of the rivers and fish we, as an organization, care about but for the protection and benefit of the people and communities we all care about.

 

Clark Amadon lives in Moretown and is president of MadDog Chapter Trout Unlimited.

 

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