LINCOLN — Lincoln officials removed rocks from the New Haven River last week without state authorization in order to get materials to shore up roads undermined by flooding after Tropical Storm Irene.
Town officials said they had been trying to get a hold of state officials for four weeks without success, and they moved ahead with the work so that necessary repairs could be finished before snow flies.
Selectboard Chair Barbara Rainville explained that the town had few options when it came to fortifying roads and shoring up riverbanks. She had waited close to a month for River Engineer Chris Brunelle of the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to offer guidance and authorization. And with what she said was a dearth of materials available, the town turned to the river for resources.
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“I had been trying since Wednesday after the flood … to schedule a time for (Brunelle) to come,” said Rainville. “He was just spread way, way too thin and didn’t have an opportunity … and we probably didn’t pursue it as far as (we) could have.”
The town’s activity in the river triggered concern among some townspeople. When Lincoln resident and seasoned angler Alex MacDonald expressed concern about the situation, he said that Rainville was very receptive.
“I contacted … Barbara … and urged her to suspend work in West Lincoln in the New Haven River until Chris Brunelle … could visit the town and give us some guidance,” MacDonald told the Independent. “Barbara had similar concerns and work was suspended just upstream of the York Hill Bridge. Work did continue in South Lincoln where one lane had washed out.”
Last Thursday, Brunelle arrived in Lincoln and offered guidance.
“The work on River Road (in Lincoln) was done before Chris came,” said Rainville. “We probably didn’t do it the way he would have done it. But … the balance between what we needed to do and what was available … it was OK. It wasn’t something absolutely horrendous.”
When asked about this incident, Mike Kline, the ANR’s state rivers program manager, deferred to Brunelle who works on the ground in Addison County. Brunelle did not return calls to the Independent by press time. He is one of only a handful of engineers across the state dealing with hundreds of river recovery incidents.
“I was just concerned that we were going to see a repeat of what was done in East Middlebury, which I consider to be a very wrong approach to dealing with a river,” said MacDonald, who explained that the work in the New Haven River wasn’t as extensive.
“I feel like these town managers are in a bind because they’ve got to get these roads back and yet they haven’t had the engineers coming to help them.”
Rainville certainly felt like she had nowhere to turn as the town was looking to repair River Road, portions of which were undercut by flooding.
“When you’re trying to shore up a road, you need big rock,” said Rainville.
The problem facing Lincoln, she explained, was that those resources weren’t available on the market.
“It’s my job as I see it to balance the needs of the infrastructure of the town with the natural resources of the town,” she said. “If the river has rock that we need because we can’t get it anywhere else, then we have to use the rock … We can’t let our roads disintegrate … We wouldn’t have had to think about harvesting rock if rock was available.”
The boulders were used to shore up portions of River Road — a road that Rainville said comes under federal jurisdiction because it is the main thoroughfare in and out of town. She said a federal agency authorized the town’s road repairs on River Road,. The authorization that the town lacked, however, was taking materials from a state waterway.
But with winter creeping closer, Rainville said she wanted to get the work done while the town still could. The work was finished, and since Brunelle came to Lincoln, the town has agreed to work with the state before making further changes to the rivers.
“We’re going to spend the winter studying the hydrology of the area and figure out what’s best to do,” said Rainville. “Clearly there’s some action that needs to be done.”
In response to the recent work in the New Haven River and the Middlebury River, MacDonald proposed a possible solution to Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol.
MacDonald explained that the state might require excavators to take classes on river dynamics known as fluvial geomorphology.
“The attendees (of such classes) could be taught what the experts know: that armoring and dredging are not automatically the first choice of repair and often it is best to leave the rivers and riparian structure, and especially river structure, alone,” wrote MacDonald to Sharpe. “This is not a slam against (excavators) because how would they know the science?”
Sharpe liked the idea.
“We haven’t been in the rivers, excavating and getting stone and gravel out in a number of years,” said Sharpe. “So when we had this tragedy of Irene and had to get into rivers, the operators didn’t really have any training … about what should or shouldn’t be done … But having some sort of training process and certification for operating in the river might be an appropriate way to deal with this before getting into a crisis situation.
“That’s what I’m going to propose in a bill and we’ll see where it goes from there,” he added.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]