Recent Catastrophes Prompt New Thinking About Ways to Manage Vermont's Flood-Prone Landscape | Environment | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Recent Catastrophes Prompt New Thinking About Ways to Manage Vermont's Flood-Prone Landscape

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Published April 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Post-flood devastation at the Feast Farm in Montpelier - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Post-flood devastation at the Feast Farm in Montpelier

David Thurber, who manages the Vermont Agency of Transportation's 650-vehicle fleet, has an emotional attachment to the sprawling Central Garage in Berlin. He got his start there 25 years ago as a young mechanic learning how to keep the state's snowplows, dump trucks, police SUVs and game warden pickups on the road.

But after the complex was inundated twice last year, in July and December, he has come to realize that the garage is in the wrong place — wedged between Route 302 and the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River, which has spilled its banks time and again.

"There is no question that we shouldn't be here," he said last week from a maintenance bay now used for storage.

His agency is the latest public entity to decide to abandon a flood-prone property instead of rebuilding on it. VTrans plans to relocate the garage and training center to higher ground about a mile away.

"We are not going back to this property. It would be foolish to do so," VTrans Secretary Joe Flynn told lawmakers last month. "It would be risk beyond reward."

Not far away, alongside the Winooski River, the City of Montpelier has decided to pull up stakes on a farm where it raises vegetables for people who are food insecure. The July 2023 flood destroyed crops and outbuildings at the Community Feast Farm and damaged a historic but dilapidated home on the same property. The home, long eyed for preservation, will be razed; the farm operation will move to city-owned land on a nearby hill.

The VTrans garage and the farm are being abandoned not only because they are likely to flood again but also so the land on which they sit can be converted to floodplain. The low-lying sites, upstream of Montpelier, could be managed to better hold floodwaters, thus helping to keep the Winooski from inundating the city's downtown, as it did in 2023.

Although they will take years and millions of dollars to complete, the projects reflect one flood-prevention strategy — removing vulnerable structures from floodplains — that is gaining momentum. Communities are eager to protect themselves against a repeat of last year's catastrophic flooding, which the climate crisis is expected to make more frequent.

More broadly, state and municipal leaders and environmental groups are also strategizing how to string together smaller, nature-based projects that could collectively lower flood risks.

While restoring floodplains and wetlands might seem modest compared to large man-made infrastructure such as dams, they can significantly protect a watershed, said Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

After the Great Flood of 1927, the federal government built three huge flood-control dams in the Winooski River basin. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is taking a fresh look at that same area and could recommend modifying the way the existing dams operate — but is highly unlikely to propose new dams, Moore said. Regulatory hurdles and costs are obstacles. Further, the state would likely need to seize private property for new infrastructure.

"I frankly don't believe Vermonters would find that palatable in 2024," Moore said.

Dams can also be dangerous, said Lauren Oates, director of external affairs for the Nature Conservancy in Vermont. Models show that a failure of the Waterbury Dam, on a downstream tributary of the Winooski, would inundate Waterbury Village with 44 feet of water in 20 minutes — a deadly scenario.

"We don't want to create solutions that have that potential," she said.

Instead, her organization advocates for natural approaches, such as restoring floodplains, protecting forests and expanding wetlands, as far more cost-effective ways to prevent flooding. Unlike dams, such measures don't require ongoing maintenance.

Such projects need to move forward in conjunction with more robust regulations to prevent land-use practices that exacerbate flooding, she said.

She pointed to the proposed Flood Safety Act now making its way through the legislature. The bill, S.213, would require the Department of Environmental Conservation to regulate all development in river corridors. It would also consolidate regulation of dam safety and require developers to "restore, enhance or create" double the amount of wetlands they destroy.

The first step to improve flood resiliency is to stop making it worse, and the bill accomplishes that, said Oates, who previously worked for the state as a hazard mitigation officer.

"We are the bleeding patient that is not being triaged," she said.

While that bill is being debated, projects under way to restore floodplains could prove very effective, she said. She pointed to a Vermont River Conservancy project on Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro. The work will breach a berm to allow the brook to inundate 12 acres formerly occupied by a sawmill and lumberyard. Allowing the brook's waters to spread out over the floodplain will lower flood levels by an estimated three feet at the site.

Flood Me Once

David Thurber pointing out river sediment on the Central Garage's main electrical box - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • David Thurber pointing out river sediment on the Central Garage's main electrical box

Several factors played into the decision to abandon the Central Garage. The site has flooded more than half a dozen times since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn't keen to pay for rebuilding on such a vulnerable spot. The state's insurer paid out only about half of the $4.2 million policy covering the garage. The value of the trucks and other equipment maintained there, meantime, exceeds $75 million.

"We need a facility, frankly, for the next 75 years or more that will ensure the proper operation of the fleet and protect the investment for the taxpayers of the state of Vermont," Flynn told lawmakers.

The search for a new site was wide-ranging and initially focused on state-owned land. Candidates included the Knapp Airport in Berlin and a closed highway rest area in Randolph.

Ultimately, the agency selected a privately owned 20-acre parcel next to a Vermont State Police barracks near Interstate 89 in Berlin. The site is on the market for $2 million. Flynn asked lawmakers last month for permission to move forward.

The agency envisions an approximately $24 million building with 28 truck bays and room to expand, he said. Flynn called the decision to move an "inflection moment" in the state's thinking about locating infrastructure in an era of climate change.

The moment is long overdue in the mind of Dave Potter. The former state representative from West Rutland served on the House Transportation Committee when Tropical Storm Irene struck in 2011. He warned VTrans officials at the time about the risk of rebuilding on the flood-prone property.

"I guess what happened this summer was the straw that broke the camel's back," Potter said.

Montpelier officials made the same decision about the Feast Farm's 18 acres: Growing produce on the bank of a flood-prone river just isn't worth the risk. The program of the Montpelier Community Services Department was on track to harvest $20,000 worth of food for seniors and schoolkids when floods wiped out the crops and destroyed its hoop houses and irrigation systems.

Jacob Davis Farmstead - KEVIN MCCALLUM ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
  • Jacob Davis Farmstead

Hopes of finding an organization to rehabilitate the derelict Jacob Davis Farmstead have also been dashed. The 1836 Greek Revival house and barn on Route 2 was the former home of colonel Jacob Davis, a Revolutionary War veteran and a founder of the state capital.

Organizations including the Montpelier Historical Preservation Commission, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and Preservation Trust of Vermont hold conservation easements or have issued grants over the years to try to preserve the two-story building.

Preservation Trust of Vermont just won a $400,000 grant from Vermont Emergency Management to resolve outstanding debts and ownership issues on the property, tear down the buildings, and begin floodplain restoration engineering, according to Ben Doyle, president of the nonprofit.

"It's an incredibly difficult decision," Doyle said. "Here's this historic home and site that ultimately is impacted by climate change, and there is not really a way to preserve it."

The property was identified as far back as 2008 as a prime location for a smaller floodplain restoration project. A series of swales, trees and walking trails were envisioned for a 3.5-acre portion of the farm closest to the river. Despite a modest cost of $200,000, the work was never undertaken.

Now that the farm is relocating, the entire site could be restored as a floodplain, possibly funded in part by FEMA. While the work wouldn't be a "game changer," it could help to protect the Capital City, Doyle said. He also serves as the chair of the city's Commission for Recovery and Resilience.

"There are ways you can envision small projects like this all along the watershed," he said.

The Cost of Resilience

Flooding inside the Central Garage - COURTESY OF VTRANS
  • Courtesy Of VTrans
  • Flooding inside the Central Garage

While these initiatives are advancing, the proposed Flood Safety Act is encountering resistance from Gov. Phil Scott's administration, in part because of its likely cost. The Department of Environmental Conservation would have to create 16 new positions to run a river corridor management program and enhance dam safety. The tab: an estimated $5 million a year.

Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison) argues that the investment is a pittance compared to the $1 billion cost of the 2023 floods, not to mention the trauma suffered by citizens. "When you have tools in hand, like the ones proposed in the Flood Safety Act, and you fail to act to mitigate the risk, that to me really seems to fit the definition of negligence," he told colleagues.

Supporters say the state needs to take over permitting for development in river corridors because most waterways run through more than one community. Riverside development in one town can exacerbate flooding in downstream cities and towns — but local governments make permitting decisions independently of one another. Only the state can provide the holistic river-corridor management that's needed, Bray said. There are 136 separate cities and towns in the Lake Champlain Basin alone, and they're not able to coordinate permitting decisions, he said.

The bill would require hiring additional staff in the DEC's five-person dam safety division. The plan calls for relieving the Public Utility Commission of responsibility for about 10 hydroelectric dams that predate 1920, which is when the federal government took oversight responsibility for all new hydro dams as they came online, Sen. Anne Watson (D/P-Washington) explained. The bill would allow the DEC to oversee the 10 hydro dams, along with the hundreds of non-hydro dams for which it already has responsibility, all under a single umbrella. It would also change the way dam repairs are prioritized, she said.

Moore, the ANR secretary, said she agrees in theory with lawmakers' goals. Making sure new buildings aren't erected in harm's way "makes all the sense in the world," she told Seven Days. And yet, changing the rules for development in river corridors would affect 45,000 parcels statewide. That represents a "really significant change in public policy" that would take time and significant public outreach to explain, she said, adding that the bill calls for moving too quickly.

While the DEC wouldn't take over floodplain permitting until July 1, 2028, some milestones in the bill are overly aggressive, Moore said.

Oates, of the Nature Conservancy, dismissed such critiques and said the core goal "isn't even controversial." Polling indicates that seven out of 10 people in the state have been affected by floods and two-thirds support limiting development in flood corridors.

"People realize that we cannot afford to continue to develop in these areas," Oates said. "Something's got to give."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Higher Ground | Recent catastrophes prompt new thinking about ways to manage Vermont's flood-prone landscape"

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