MIDDLEBURY — When East Middlebury resident Charlie Hohn — a field naturalist who specializes in water movement — took a walk along the Middlebury River last week, he was troubled by what he saw: two excavators in the river clearing a wide channel.
The heavy equipment was used for infrastructure repairs in response to Tropical Storm Irene, said Middlebury Director of Operations Dan Werner. The work began on Sept. 1 and continued through Sept. 13.
In addition to bulldozing some of the state’s most fertile trout habitat, Hohn and other East Middlebury residents, including Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry, are concerned that the channeling of a half-mile portion of the river from Lower Plains Bridge to below the Grist Mill Bridge has accelerated the stream’s velocity and increased the future risk of severe flooding downstream.
“When you speed up a river and lower the river and you have loose cobble like this, then erosion can increase and it can eat backwards toward the retaining wall (that protects the village of East Middlebury),” said Hohn. “I know that in other cases this has happened. Generally the more you speed up a river, the more erosion there is.”
At a town selectboard meeting Tuesday night — where more than 50 area residents addressed what some called the town’s overzealous work in the river — town officials agreed to stop alterations pending further study.
“We (are) in a position to stop and look at what has been done, to assess what is really not good about that, and what would be appropriate steps looking forward with a longer vision,” selectboard chairman John Tenny told the large crowd.
Werner amplified that point in an interview Wednesday morning.
“I don’t think there will be any additional work to the river until next year if that,” he said. “There needs to be a balance to protect property and what’s best for the flood plain.”
Werner explained that the town of Middlebury undertook this work to redirect the flow of water away from the retaining wall, located just east of the Grist Mill Bridge, so that the wall could be refortified.
Long-time resident Jack Brown, who was born in East Middlebury in 1939 and owns a local woodshop, was happy with the result he saw.
“I’m generally pleased that something’s being done,” Brown said. “The water’s sitting lower by my house … to me that’s a good thing.”
But not all East Middlebury residents agree.
“One of the reasons I got involved early as a citizen is because I saw how they had channelized and dredged the river and armored the bank into what looked like an aqueduct,” said Commissioner Berry. “It dramatically increases the velocity of water and threatens properties downstream, and I happen to be downstream.”
Those concerns have caught the ear of David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
“In general, what we have learned is that a lot of the work that’s been done in response to past floods — where large segments of rivers are straightened and deepened and armored up — has the net effect of increasing the flood damages in the future,” he said in a Tuesday interview with the Independent. “In addition to affecting some important and sensitive ecological habitat and environmental values, it has a dollars-and-cents impact.
“Also what we’ve learned is a lot of those impacts while they might not be felt in the communities where the (streamwork was done) they may simply be moving the problem further downstream, causing another community a new set of problems.”
Werner indicated that this “stream maintenance” of the Middlebury River was a short-term fix that would be followed by a more complete fix.
“There needs to be a comprehensive solution for this section of river from (Route) 125 to downstream of the Gristmill Bridge because for well over 100 years, humans have lived next to there and we’ve decided as a society that we want to protect that,” he said. “The problem is that the river no longer has access to the flood plain in that region.”
While townspeople, conservationists and state officials agree that a more comprehensive approach to keeping the river from flooding East Middlebury is necessary, many are still left asking: Why was this work done by the town of Middlebury with such haste?
Several days after the Aug. 28 storm, Hohn and Berry watched the Middlebury River return to its normal state. On Sept. 1, the town got to work to repair infrastructure.
In the course of these repairs, heavy-duty excavators were used to dredge, flatten and armor this section of river — a move that Berry, the New Haven River Anglers’ Association (NHRAA) and others call “excessive” and unlawful.
After surveying the scene last week, state biologist Shawn Good wrote to his director at the Department of Fish and Wildlife:
“The in-stream work I observed appeared to be excessive and beyond what was needed for emergency response for flood recovery and property protection. The stream channelization, bank armoring and mass removal of streambed material upstream and downstream of these locations did not appear to be necessary flood recovery actions.”
On Sept. 9 Berry wrote a letter — as a concerned East Middlebury resident, not as commissioner of Fish and Wildlife — to Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger.
“The town executed (the state’s) guidance in an excessively heavy-handed manner that unnecessarily compromised the natural aquatic system, and has channelized huge sections of river in a manner that will ultimately exacerbate the threat of flood damage,” he said in the letter.
“I believe the town needs to stop work immediately until officials from the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Fish and Wildlife are able to provide more direct and specific guidance.”
Finger wrote back to Berry, explaining that the town had consulted with state River Management Engineer Chris Brunelle who he said authorized the town’s approach between the Grist Mill Bridge and Lower Plains Bridge.
In an interview, Berry acknowledged that the Agency of Natural Resources — Brunelle’s employer — has been stretched thin since Tropical Storm Irene ripped through the state, but he wasn’t entirely satisfied that the town hadn’t exceeded Brunelle’s direction.
Others put it bluntly saying the effect of the work was to destroy a stretch of river known for its ecological abundance.
“The character of one of our favorite rivers is just gone. It looks like a big gravel pit,” said Brian Cadoret, president of the NHRAA.
“A couple of engineers and workers said to me when I was fishing, ‘We kind of have no idea what we’re doing here, it would be nice to have a fisherman’s perspective.’ And that was a clear sign that they shouldn’t be in the river,” Cadoret added.
Berry, the NHRAA and others have accused the town of doing more work than was authorized both in the amount of work done and where it was conducted, saying that the excavators were hundreds of feet downstream from the Grist Mill Bridge.
These concerns prompted DEC Commissioner David Mears to launch an investigation.
“We’re looking into exactly what was communicated in terms of what the authorization was and whether the town of Middlebury exceeded the scope of that authorization,” he said. “The question is whether they went beyond what was necessary to protect the bridges and infrastructure.”
Spilling into the halls outside the main conference room at the Middlebury municipal building, more than four dozen concerned citizens showed up at Middlebury’s Tuesday night selectboard meeting.
While much of the meeting focused on what had gone awry with the streambed work, East Middlebury resident Erica Murray commended the town’s efforts.
“I don’t think anyone was out there purposefully trying to ruin anything,” she said. “I think if anything they were trying to help us. It may not have been done correctly in some of your minds, but at least they tried to do something.”
Representatives from Fish and Wildlife, Trout Unlimited (a nationwide conservation organization), NHRAA and other fishing groups were in attendance and offered the town their expertise.
Selectboard chairman Tenny appeared to hear what they were saying.
“We’ve heard at least two good solid offers of expert assistance here, and we have others with expertise, so this seems to me to be a good core to bring to bear to help the situation,” he said.
Selectman Travis Forbes moved to put a stop to the project until further information comes in.
“I’m really not too pleased with how the events unfolded,” he said. “As a selectman I knew nothing about what was going on until I received an email … I think there was a serious lack of communication. And I think maybe we ought to have some meetings with the residents of East Middlebury and get their feelings on what ought to be done and how it should be done. And so I think we ought to put the brakes on for a little bit, for a couple weeks or a month, and get things straightened out.”
On Wednesday morning, Werner was looking to be more inclusive.
“There are a lot of parties that need to be involved with this: The residents who have obvious concerns, the Agency of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife and people concerned with the health of the river all need to get together and sort it out,” he said.
Reporting about the Middlebury selectboard meeting was contributed by reporter Andy Kirkaldy. Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com.