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Heavy rains boost lake to record levels

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Posted on May 2, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



ottercreek6911.jpg
OTTER CREEK, SWELLED with spring runoff and rain, roils below the falls in downtown Middlebury last week. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

ADDISON COUNTY — Late last week, county residents living near streams, rivers and lakes watched with bated breath as water levels climbed in some spots to record-breaking heights.

On Thursday, levels in Lake Champlain topped out at 102.36 feet above sea level, then began to slowly decline. Following more rain in the area late that night, water levels hit 102.64 on Friday. Those levels were far above the flood stage of 100 feet, and they exceeded the previous record lake height of 102.1 feet, set in 1869.

Heavy rains in the later part of the week boosted river levels across the region. Lake Champlain, which is fed by those rivers, was already high due to snowmelt over the past few weeks.

On Thursday morning, as lake levels climbed, authorities shut down the ferry that runs between Charlotte and Essex, N.Y., due to high water on the New York side. In the early afternoon, the state announced it had closed a low-lying stretch of Route 125, between Route 17 and the causeway in Addison. That evening, the state announced that a portion of Route 73 between Brandon and Route 30 was also closed. High water also forced closure of other roads in Ferrisburgh and Starksboro.

“It’s a mess,” said Chrissie Wheeler, co-owner of 10 Acres Campground in Addison. “We have a pond and a creek, and now they’re combined.”

Wheeler’s property lies between the Route 125 road closure and a piece of Route 17 that, on Thursday afternoon, was hovering close to the water level, and Wheeler said she feared closure of that road.

“We’ve owned the campground seven years, and this is the worst I’ve seen it,” she said.

While low-lying sections of Route 17 remained open as of Friday afternoon, David Blackmore, a district administrator for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said that his office is keeping a close eye on the road as water levels rise. As of Friday, the Lake Champlain ferry that runs between Chimney Point at the end of Route 17 and Crown Point, N.Y., was still running, though there was no access from Route 125.

Blackmore said it could take some time for the lake levels to go down, and until then, Route 125 will remain impassable.

“The road is going to be closed for several days, or possibly even weeks here,” he said.

While rainfall data collected by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reported three-day rainfall totals below 1.5 inches across the lower areas of Addison County, other areas of the Lake Champlain watershed reported upwards of four inches.

And Tom Estey, Starksboro road commissioner, said the town had gotten at least enough rain to wash out five sections of road in the town. Washouts on Mason Hill Road and Big Hollow Road rendered both impassable, and Estey said the crews began working on the roads at 3 a.m., and had restored town roads to at least one lane by 3 p.m. with the help of road crews from Addison, Cornwall and Bristol.

Estey on Thursday estimated the damage at $105,000 so far. He has submitted his damage estimate to the state, which will add the number to damage reported in other towns.

Mark Bosma, the public information officer for Vermont Emergency Management (VEM), said that as river levels subsided Lake Champlain has become the focus of the agency’s attention.

Following reports of heavy damage in northern areas of the state, he said he was not yet sure what statewide damage totals for last week’s storms would look like, since most towns were still assessing damage.

If the statewide damage estimate reaches $1 million, he said, VEM will submit a claim to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which could declare the event a disaster. That would free up federal funding for the state to use.

If the event is not declared a disaster on the federal level, Bosma said the burden of repair costs would likely fall to individual towns.

“Some state money could possibly be found, but there’s nothing earmarked for it,” he said.

For the most part, VEM, VTrans and lakefront residents were keeping a close watch on lake levels going into the weekend.

“It’s all up in the air right now,” said Blackmore.

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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