EAST MIDDLEBURY — John and Theresa Anderson bought their home off Grist Mill Road around seven years ago. Among its many assets: A backyard spacious enough for a horse ring and a border with the Middlebury River.
The river, however, has now become a mixed blessing.
A series of soaking storms — punctuated by Tropical Storm Irene last year — have at times turned the placid river into a raging juggernaut, careening against its banks and spilling into portions of the East Middlebury community.
The Andersons estimate the river has shorn away a 300-foot-long, 60-foot-wide swath of their backyard during the past few years. The horses can no longer run there.
“We knew what we were getting into as far as the erosion of that corner (or our property),” John Anderson said. “But we didn’t expect it to happen this fast.”
Anderson is one of several East Middlebury neighbors along the Middlebury River who have become increasingly alarmed by the picturesque waterway’s changing course and growing rage. Some of those neighbors believe the state and community could alleviate that river’s destructive powers by removing debris — including gravel and timber — that has accumulated during the successive storms.
“Periodic maintenance would help limit the collateral damage the river is causing,” said East Main Street resident Todd Desabrais.
But some state and local officials are arguing it’s in the neighbors’ best interest to complete a long-term management plan for the Middlebury River instead of affixing what they said could be some Band-Aid solutions that nature could quickly undo.
The Middlebury River Task Force has been studying the issue, a process members say will involve studies to determine, among other things, the river’s water load capacity. The panel has also been looking at the merits of establishing a Fluvial Erosion Hazard zone that would, among other things, delineate the river’s area of influence. This zoning designation surrounding rivers, supporters said, has been adopted in 18 other Vermont communities, including Ripton and Brandon. It is a designation that Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington said could allow the town to better compete for state funding for river management through the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
“We are trying to get the sequence right, here,” Dunnington said, noting the committee is also putting together a disaster preparedness plan for the river.
But some of those who live along the river are concerned that another disaster might occur before the committee’s planning is completed.
“I don’t see what they have to study; it’s right there in front of them,” said Al Hobbs, who also owns property in East Middlebury next to the river.
Hobbs said he has noticed a lot of gravel building up within the river, a phenomenon he said is choking off outlets for the water and forcing it into a narrower channel that is flowing with greater velocity. That has meant higher high water marks near his house.
“We have a little levee behind us, and (the water) has gone to the top of the levee,” he said.
Middlebury got into hot water last September when it quickly excavated debris out of a portion of the river following Tropical Storm Irene. State environmental officials put a quick stop to the work while it was in progress, citing environmental concerns.
But some residents contend that work has proven effective, and want it to continue in the river through East Middlebury village, up to the Route 7 bridge.
“Right now, when it rains, the water can go anywhere it wants,” Hobbs said.
Greg Wry lives off Cone Road, located near the river and not far from Route 7. He has noticed many fallen trees in the river. A nearby berm built a few decades ago to help contain the river has “disintegrated” by around a dozen feet during the past few years, according to Wry.
“It is washing away, little by little,” Wry said of the berm, which he fears could soon be breached following another substantial storm.
“Something should be seriously done before there is another Irene,” he said.
“We pay pretty heavy flood insurance here, and we are not getting much for it.”
Bob Wells lives off Ossie Road and is a member of the Middlebury River Study Committee. While his property is in no imminent threat from the river, he sympathizes with his neighbors who are spending some sleepless nights whenever it rains. He believes the town should move to extract debris from the river, citing the recently passed Act 138.
That new law, he noted, states that a town’s governing board can apply for permission from the Agency of Natural Resources to remove in-stream material if it is deemed to pose a threat to life or property. If the ANR fails to approve or deny the application within 45 days, it is deemed to be granted.
“We have to take some of this material out,” Wells said. “I don’t think it will ever remove itself out of here.”
Wells has appealed directly to Gov. Peter Shumlin to get some momentum behind removing gravel and debris from the river.
“The neighbors are at a point of frustration where they feel their hands are tied and feel their property is in jeopardy,” Well said.
Amy Sheldon is a member of the Middlebury River Task Force and owner of Landslide Inc. She is a watershed scientist and natural resource planner.
Sheldon said that while she understands why neighbors are anxious about the river’s current movements, dredging is probably not the best solution right now. She said the Middlebury River has not undergone such a process since 1989.
“That river has been meandering since way before we were here; it’s a normal process,” Sheldon said.
Middlebury recently received funding to do an engineering analysis of the reaches of the river in East Middlebury, to quantity if there have been changes.
“It’s impossible to go out and look at it and say that the cross-sectional area has changed,” Sheldon said.
Left to its own devices, she said the river would become a braided, forested channel.
“But because we keep disturbing it, we never give it a chance to get to that place,” she said. “As you disturb the system, you trigger these changes.
“The less we disturb the channel, the more likely it is to have an equilibrium.”
State rivers Program Manager Mike Kline said he believes the Middlebury River Task Force is on the right track.
“It’s great that the town is looking at the big picture,” Kline said. “It provides the greatest opportunity for us to get in there and try to solve a whole number of issues. It creates the opportunity for a more long lasting solution that an ongoing maintenance and Band-Aid approach.”
In the meantime, he encouraged neighbors and town officials to call the ANR to get engineers to evaluate areas of sediment buildup.
He said Act 138 does not give towns any new authority to remove river debris.
“What Act 138 did, with respect to debris, is that it made it clearer what exactly the agency is regulating,” Kline said. He said the new law better defines exactly what is “in-stream material.’”
The definition includes all sizes of sediment, bedrock and large woody debris.
“It just made it clearer what it was we were looking at,” Kline said. “During Irene and other storms, there has always been some confusion as to what it is we’re looking at in the stream.”
So the Middlebury River continues to giveth and taketh away. The river’s most recent change of course has taken it further away from the Andersons’ property. That’s because gravel build-up shut down the channel that flowed past their backyard.
But who knows where the next storm will take it.
The Andersons said there are pros and cons to excavating the river and developing a long-range plan. They are prepared to live with whatever direction is taken on the river.
“Our house is in a safe place right now,” Anderson said. “The rest is really details.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.