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Does our river look better?

We keep being told about all of the “sound scientific practices” that we must follow to keep our river healthy, that for 30 years organizations have been working to “improve, stabilize and protect Vermont’s rivers and tributaries.” I have lived with this river as company for 40 years and now I am asking, “Does our river look better to you as a result?” Now it is time to face the fact that perhaps scientifically the experiment was successful but in reality the patient is dying.  

 

We keep being told that the river must flow naturally. I think we lost the “naturally” part. For decades before the 1970s, the roads were sanded in the winter and then for a short period of time in the spring machines went into the river and took out most of what we put in. Fair enough. The river bottom was smooth rock, you were actually hard pressed to find anything along the river that would constitute a “beach,” but wonderful places to swim in cool water, work on your tan, or stand while fishing were everywhere. Pretty much if you could see the river, you could find a place to enjoy it.

Then we stopped dredging. I confess that it made sense to me when we were told by the environmental groups that diesel in the river coming from when we dredged was not good for the river. I voted to stop dredging. With all the wisdom of my two-plus decades, I didn’t think about what would happen to those tons of sand and gravel that we put on the roads every winter if we didn’t take them back out in the spring. Year after year for decades we failed to remove what we put in and slowly it simply filled up the riverbed. Where else was it possibly going to go? Science tells us that if the river is deep, it will be narrow. If you fill up the depths, it will widen and become shallow. That is just what we are seeing.

We used to dive out the window of the Warren covered bridge and never touch bottom. Now you can cross the water there without getting your knees wet! We used to dive off the very high rocks at Warren Falls and the shocking part was not the impact, it was that the water was so cold it stopped your heart and so clear that you could see those old mill parts. Still, even diving from such a height you had to swim down to touch them. And who remembers the annual inner tube regatta, when dozens of us would ride from Warren to Moretown in antique bathing suits without ever getting out of the tubes. Our butts were frozen from the cold water even though it was held in August, but the water was over our heads most of the way and it only took a few hours to get through three towns! We used to canoe between towns all summer then. Now we have to pray for enough water just to run a short paddling course for the triathlon in April with no paddling after that anywhere.

One of the effects of these scientific practices we are told is to encourage good habitat for fish. I love to fish! When I moved here 40 years ago we used to dive into the cool, dark green fast-flowing water and actually look around for the fish. Then we could climb back out, grab our rods and the fishing was usually good. Now you are very hard pressed to find a “keeper” in this river. They keep stocking it, but the water is too shallow, warm and sluggish for the fish to survive. Is that an improvement that this science has brought us?

We keep being told that we must let the natural river flow where it wants to go. We lost the “natural” part when we gave ourselves permission to dump tons of sand and gravel into the river every year! There is nothing “natural” about that. So I recently spent an entire afternoon watching all the youtube videos that I could find on the subject of river systems. There are plenty, a whole afternoon of them.  They clearly show problems with digging holes in a river, but there is no mention of the repercussions of dumping tons of sand in one!

I watched the experiments scientists ran about digging holes in the river, and the residual effects of that. Not pretty or functionally useful. Clearly with the mess we have made of our river, digging holes here and there is not the answer. But what if while we have all these machines in the area we go in and remove gravel until we get down to that smooth rock bottom all over the place? Do it everywhere at once so we don’t make the holes in those videos. We could get back down to bottom everywhere at once statewide, and then we could go back to the practice of removing what we put in. Every year.

We had nearly as much rain decades ago as we have now, but we did not have flooding on the order that we have it now.  What used to be called a “hundred year flood” has happened twice in recent memory! Makes perfect sense. Where the river used to move fast over smooth rock with plenty of room to expand when necessary, now it has to slug along pushing tons of particulate matter through what used to be expandable space. Particulates slow the flow so that the water can’t get out of its own way! Finally the poor dear has to puke the upsetting junk in its system up onto the fields and into our houses like a sick child.

What is so hard to understand about this? In every natural environment you pack out what you take in! Why is this different? If we could get rid of the stuff that we have dumped annually for all these decades all at once, get back down to that smooth rock bottom we know is there, the river would be free to move as it needs to, expand when it has to and, who knows, we might even see some decent fishing again!

If I were king, I would send all the diggers we have around right now into the river to liberate that rock bottom all at once! Clean out all the gunk in one big haul. I bet we could hear the river sigh with relief from space as it became clear, deep, narrow and fast moving, rich with oxygen again. Scientific experiments have produced some miraculous improvements in our lives, but not all experiments work out well. Can anyone honestly say that our shallow, warm fish-less river is better for the treatment it has had at our hands for the last three decades? I, for one, am for getting back to looking at the river and the basic practicality of seeing how to interact with it so we can live in peace and it can be healthy.  

We need to undo the damage that we have inflicted on our river. Only then can we let the river run cool, fast and full of fish wherever it naturally needs to go.

 

Cunningham lives in Waitsfield.

 

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