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Towns work to remove river debris, with an eye towards the next storm

A man walks near a pile of stones and silt i a river.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
Chester Public Works Director Kirby Putnam walks near a huge pile of stones and silt that was left in the Williams River. If another flood comes before the material is removed, Putnam is afraid the water will flow down into a nearby neighborhood.

The flooding this summer destroyed homes and businesses, washed away crops and did significant damage to the state’s roads and wastewater systems.

And when all that water rushed through Vermont’s rivers and streams, it also left its mark.

It’s been about three months since the heavy rains caused widespread flooding in Chester.

And the town is still putting the Williams River back together.

When all that water rushed through Chester, it scoured away at the river bank, threatening Route 11, which runs along the river.

And so an excavator is moving large boulders — that weigh two or three tons each — to stabilize the riverbank.

But just downstream, a little closer to downtown, Chester Public Works Director Kirby Putnam said it’s a bit more complicated.

“There’s just piles on piles of tree debris, and just up around the corner, there’s another tree down,” Putnam said while standing along the river. “And here we have no good answers at the time for the funding for this size of a project and how it will even be performed, really.”

“If work isn’t done to stabilize the bank, to protect the infrastructure, to open up channel capacity, when the next flood comes through there could be even more damage. So we want to do this work before the next flood comes.”
Rob Evans, Department of Environmental Conservation

When the rain fell in July, it sent rocks and silt and enormous trees down Vermont’s rivers and streams.

Here in Chester, large trees lay sideways against the current and piles of silt and rock stick up over the flowing Williams River.

All of this river debris dammed up the flowing waters when they were raging in July, and the river, in just a day or two, carved out a new channel, which now threatens a nearby piece of private property.

Putnam said the town is working with state river engineers and FEMA but so far, there are no clear answers how to move forward.

“Where’s the best course for that river to go now?” Putnam said. “My personal opinion, I’d love to see it back in the old channel where it was. Water does its own thing though. It’s kind of hard to say if it would actually stay back in the old channel now that this has all been disturbed.”

The situation here is among the most complicated in the state, but it’s hardly the only place where local public work crews are racing against time to clean out the river.

“As of today we have issued, through my program, over 300 Next-Flood measures,” said Rob Evans, river program manager with the Department of Environmental Conservation. “If work isn’t done to stabilize the bank, to protect the infrastructure, to open up channel capacity, when the next flood comes through there could be even more damage. So we want to do this work before the next flood comes.”

Because the next flood will come.

An excavator moves a large rock while working in the river.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
An excavator moves a large rock into place along Route 11 in Chester.

Evans says each of those 300-or-so projects that are going on across the state is meant to make the river more resilient for the next flood event.

The work is meant to encourage more water to flow under bridges and through culverts and to open up spaces upriver to give floodwaters space to spread, instead of rushing through a downtown.

Evans says climate change is bringing stronger storms, more often, and dealing with all this river debris now is one way to face that reality.

“The fear is with this super-charged climate now is we’re going to see more of these statewide, larger scale events,” Evans said. “That’s the fear. After Irene a number of us said, ‘Gee, I hope we never see another one of these in our lifetime,’ but we all sensed that we likely would. And here we.”

More from Vermont Public: The connection between extreme rain and climate change in Vermont

Tropical Storm Irene forced major changes to how river and stream cleanup proceeds following a flood.

After Irene, local road crews sent machinery into the rivers, sometimes causing further damage.

In response, the Legislature passed new rules that give the state more oversight in cleaning up debris after a storm.

Towns must now get permits to do river work, and projects have strict standards to limit any work that increases river velocity or decreases flood storage capacity.

“The state learned a lot from Irene,” said Ben Rose, the Vermont Emergency Management Recovery and Mitigation Section chief . “And in some ways this is what we’ve been training for for the 11 years since.”

Rose said as bad as this summer’s storms were, it could have been worse.

There are probably hundreds of sites across the state, Rose said — from Grafton to Strafford to Killington — where bridges and culverts that were upsized after Irene held up during this year's flooding.

And the work that’s happening now, Rose said, is being done with a weary eye toward the next storm.

“We’ve done better this time,” said Rose. “The response was more coordinated. The inter-agency process and communication is baked in a lot more now. And this was more rain than Irene, but the damage is less because of how we built back after Irene."

Rose said in some parts of the state crews will be working right up until the cold weather sets in.

And for the more complicated projects, the permitting and financing will take years.

Rose closed out the final river project from Tropical Storm Irene earlier this year, almost 12 years after the storm.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman:


Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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