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Changing Attitudes about Waterways in Post-Irene Vermont

In the immediate aftermath of last summer’s Hurricane Irene, an anecdote made the rounds featuring Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin. According to the story, Governor Shumlin was looking on as a road crew repaired some flood damage, rebuilding a destroyed bank and restoring the river to its original course. Suddenly the local environmental official arrived on the scene. The official, whom for the sake of this article we’ll refer to as “Ms. Green,” angrily ordered the crew to immediately cease and desist, due to the fact that the usual permits and permissions had not been granted to perform such ecologically sensitive work. The Governor’s reply was direct and to the point. “Ms. Green, if this work bothers you, then I suggest you go home and stay there for a while. Because I’m the Governor of this state, and I say it can continue — and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

The preceding may be apocryphal (although it does sound in character with our refreshingly plain-spoken Governor). But it does illustrate a very real point. As Vermonters continue to repair the devastation caused by Irene, we seem to have put on hold our previous hands-off policy towards our local waterways. In my immediate neighborhood, I’ve personally seen a lot of hitherto unprecedented sights, such as wholesale reconstruction of eroded land, rerouted river channels, and (perhaps most astonishing of all) the replacement of fragile riverbanks with stone revetments. This in turn raises an interesting question: Is this change in attitude a temporary measure, or does it represent a more long-term shift in how we view our local rivers and streams?

Vermont rivers: look but don’t touch!

For the past few decades, Vermont treated its waterways more or less like museum exhibits, not to be altered or affected by humans in any way except in rare, extreme circumstances. Some of this makes good business sense; the Vermont economy is heavily reliant on tourism, and our pristine rivers comprise a very important attraction to out-of-state anglers and other vacationers. Another motivating factor is ecological sensitivity — which, depending on whom you talk to around here, may have been carried to illogical extremes on occasion.

A recent example of this involves my tiny home town. A few years ago, a local flood washed away a culvert, which we proposed to replace with the same type of large, round pipe as the old culvert. However, a state official stopped by the work site and spotted a single brook trout lurking in the small stream that ran though the culvert.  He then ordered an immediate stop to the work, and insisted we replace the round pipe with a square, flat-bottomed culvert, under the reasoning that the round variety would confuse the trout and hinder passage through it. Notwithstanding the fact that brook trout are about as common as blackflies up here in Vermont — and leaving unanswered the question about how the poor trout had somehow made due with the old round culvert all the many previous decades it was in use — the square culvert cost my town an additional $50,000 we could not afford. (Even now, my neighbors still grumble about the “$50,000 trout.”)

This “look but don’t touch” approach to waterways may also be a driving factor behind Vermont’s restrictive permitting process for small-scale hydro electrical generators. The US Department of Energy has estimated that the state offers more than enough hydro generation potential to completely satisfy all its energy needs for decades to come. However, the state has developed very little additional hydro capacity in recent years, a situation that some blame on Vermont’s highly restrictive and complicated approval process.

Back to the future?

Our Yankee forebears would quite likely consider this latter-day hands-off approach as short-sighted and foolhardy. Instead, they took a much more utilitarian view towards rivers and streams, with flood management an important component. It was simply too risky to leave the local waterways entirely to the vagaries of nature, where each spring runoff might destroy your property and livelihood. Flood control was therefore a vital public concern — indeed, the Vermont village of Bellows Falls claims to be home to the oldest river canal in the US.

Our ancestors also recognized that water’s power for destruction could also be harnessed to perform work for the benefit of society. By the middle of the 19th century, virtually every town and village of any size sported at least one mill, busily grinding grain, cutting lumber, pressing cider, and doing many other tasks that made life easier. (The remnant of one abuts my property.) Until the advent of electrification, water was a primary source of power in Vermont, as it was throughout the Northeastern states. In their heyday, small mills were among the more common sights in these parts. Although nearly all these mills are now gone or have been converted to other purposes, their memories live on in the innumerable Mill Streets, Mill Brooks, and Mill Hills that dot the region.

Today, many would consider it unthinkable to place a working power mill in sight of a village center. We may rail against the monolithic power grid and the havoc it wreaks on the global environment, and rightfully so. But it does provide us the luxury of adopting an “out of sight, out of mind” perspective when it comes to considering how our electricity gets made. And this perspective has allowed us to indulge our idealized vision of villages as quaint clusters of meticulously scrubbed houses, whose commercial districts consist solely of a photogenic old-timey country store, a bed-and-breakfast, and maybe an art gallery or two. But back in the day, village centers were where common people gathered to conduct business, where things got made and work got done. It is perhaps deeply ironic that a Vermonter of 150 years ago would in all likelihood be more comfortable and familiar with the sight of a working hydro electricity generation mill at the edge of her town than we would be today. Although she may not initially understand concepts such as turbines and electromagnetism, she certainly would readily recognize the use of water power to do useful things.

Going forward

In the days immediately after Irene, I heard another story for whose veracity I cannot personally vouch. It was told to me by Matt, one-half of our town’s two-person road department. According to Matt, advisers from the Army Corp of Engineers came to Vermont and in no uncertain terms chastised local officials for their previous “let nature take her course” philosophy towards waterway management. In doing so, they would likely have been echoing the voices of Vermonters of yesteryear. As evidenced by the ongoing efforts to recover from Irene, I’d say that for at least the time being, the state has heard the message loud and clear. Whether or not this represents a long-term change in environmental attitude — and with it, an opportunity to consider and take advantage of perhaps our most obvious and natural avenue to complete energy independence — very much remains to be seen.


Dick McCarrick
Dick McCarrick is an analyst with Foresight Science & Technology.
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2 thoughts on “Changing Attitudes about Waterways in Post-Irene Vermont

  1. The Army Corps of Engineers is partly responsible for the devastation after Hurricane Katrina, IMHO. The channeling of rivers, the elimination of wetlands that could have mitigated storm surge, etc. Are they merely mechanical engineers, or do they EVER take any courses on how Nature works?

  2. I live in Rutland County, Vermont, in a hard hit community.

    Irene was devastating, but unfortunately the immediate response to dredge and berm rivers was dead wrong. The State has shown that 40% of post-irene river work made future floods MORE dangerous, meaning more roads, bridges, and homes will be destroyed. We do not have enough money to repeatedly alter rivers ever 10 years. It is best to steer clear of them.

    Most river engineers recognize that creating straighter rivers, ultimately causes more damage. Villages are worth saving, but cutting off floodplains (or building homes in them) only makes those floodwaters more dangerous downstream.

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