Gravel dredging in Vermont rivers .... today's WTF FAQ

It is, unquestionably, the biggest hot button topic in the state today.

If you want to fire up the coffee shop, stir up things at work, or get an earful from a bar full of locals, just start digging in to the topic of gravel dredging in Vermont's rivers.

In case you've been in the Red Sox dugout for the last 30 days, here’s how it went down. Vermont got hit by a hurricane. Vermont roads/homes/businesses got hammered. And so, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin “lifted the ban” on gravel dredging in the state’s rivers as way to speed and ease the cost of recovery.

I was there at one of the Governor's stumping stops, a week after the storm, covered with mud and sweat and fiberglass insulation like everybody else. Shumlin hopped up into the back of a flatbed in miked-up and neatly pressed shirt, and encouraged the crowd to “dig deep” in the river.

At the time, a few eyebrows went up. But people were busy doing the work that needed to be done, and the thought of a little digging in the river didn't freak anybody out, so things moved on.

Today, however, it’s a different story. Excavators and large-haul dump trucks are parked in riverbeds around the state. Gravel is being scooped out by the ton, banks are getting reinforced, and in many cases it’s happening in places which were totally unaffected by flooding during Hurricane Irene.

"It'd be one thing if this was going to prevent future flooding, but it's only going to make things worse," said one observer. "They're building gravel walls between the rivers and their natural floodplains, and that's only going to force the river to find new places to jump the bank."

The Burlington Free Press was the first to shine a spotlight on the issue (LINK), detailing a public meeting in Middlebury when a group of anglers stormed the session, demanding an immediate halt to things. Nothing did happen, of course, other than a stream of flaming comments that followed the BFP story … blasting the “treehuggers” for “putting the needs of fish ahead of people.”

It’s a funny day in Vermont when the hippies and the hook-and-bullet crowd are united around a common theme. But it’s happening.

From a common sense perspective, digging gravel out of Vermont rivers makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. There’s no doubt that a metric shit-ton of gravel made it’s way into local riverbeds following the big storm. So much so, in fact, that our local waterway -- the Mad River -- seemed practically motionless after the storm: it looked more like a big string lake than a meandering river.

And so, to prevent Vermont rivers from choosing new paths in the wrong places, a little digging seemed like a good idea. Plus, roads and foundations needed fill, and getting gravel in the state is already a bit of a pain in the ass, according to some. And that same pro-digging contingent often maintains that the fishing might even get better if Vermont digs deep in their rivers. It used to fish better, they say, back in the day when gravel dredging was allowed. So why not open things up again?

But there’s a distinct difference between spot dredging and a widespread free-for-all. And that line has clearly been crossed.

There is no statewide strategy for the digging, no oversight, and no end in sight. One letter circulating calls for the State to "get things under control" by providing strategy and statewide expertise from the Agency of Natural Resources River Management team.

Others, however, are less kind. One agency I spoke with said that the opportunity for a legal challenge is severely complicated by the fact that the whole thing appears to be illegal already .... and it's tough to get a law changed when the legalese you're looking for is already in place.

The path to a solution runs through the Governor's office. The opportunity for the digging was created when the Governor opened the door …. and only he can close it.

To email Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin .... send a note to GovernorVT@state.vt.us


Vermont: Still open, still awesome

There's a line in the river mud. On one side is the importance of spreading the word about "ravaged Vermont," hopefully inspiring people to help out.

On the other side, though, it's critical to remind people that Vermont is still here, still awesome, and still worth the trip.


Irene, day 8 ... Hancock

From the road in Hancock, in many places it looks like Hurricane Irene just happened.

Trees and shattered branches still line Rt. 100, and the massive chunks of road that have been eaten away are, at best, sparingly marked by cones.

In Granville and Hancock, there was one Dumpster available for flood debris. And it was overflowing. There was word at the Town Hall that another container was coming, but no one there at the time knew when it might get there or where it would be coming from.

A few people I spoke with were under the impression that putting debris in bags was the way to go. Their understanding was that large garbage bags would cost $4 each to remove, which had them nervous about throwing too much out.


Irene, day 7 ... the Street Party

On Saturday night, there was a party. A big one.

Hosted on Bridge Street, the symbolic epicenter of relief efforts in the Mad River Valley, the party ran from 3 pm till who knows when. There was free barbecue, unlimited cookies and ice cream, adult beverages and all the music you could ever want. Dancing, smiling, laughing. What a great thing to see.

It was a free event, made with the volunteers in mind. Thanking them for their hard work. But there was also a flavor of New Orleans in there. It's just mud, after all. And after a week of shoveling and hauling crap and making piles, why not take advantage of a closed road to host a big throwdown?

At one point, driving around, looking at the devastation, I wondered about the future of the Mad River Valley. Would people still want to come here after all that had happened? Would they still keep it on the short list of their favorite places in the world?

But then, when I saw the weekenders mixing with the dusty and dirty locals at the Bridge Street community party ... the shirtless rescue workers, muddy chainsaw volunteers, and broadly smiling local families who'd spent the last week reeling ... I realized that this is exactly the place that people want to be.


Irene, day 6 ... Moretown

MORETOWN - By itself, the mud can come in waves of five feet. It looks like the riverbed of the Snake River, or the Gunnison, but it's right in people's front yards. The river has abandoned it, though, and as it dries it's just full of riverstones and specks of e coli and who-knows-what-else (which is why facemasks have become standard gear for all the work crews, all the time).

Down with the chainsaw crews, the mud isn't just an obstacle, it's also a wicked dulling agent. It's not lack of gas, chainsaws or operators that slows things down, it's the thin layer of river mud that dulls the blades within minutes. On the thick logs and the thin ones, the dried mud takes a blade from sharp to almost useless long before the muscles wear out.

The house work itself has become pretty straightforward. Because in the race against mildew, everything that was below waterline must be removed, the houses all have a similar look. All the drywall lower than four feet has been removed, including all the insulation that was behind it -- a nasty blend of dusty dry and wet oatmeal that has to be scraped out by hand before it gets shoveled into buckets and wheelbarrows.

You're also seeing floorboards ripped up, and basement walls too. Gotta get that mud and mildew out of there, whatever it takes.

The damage in Moretown hit the main street residential district very hard. Numerous homes were hammered, cars were washed away, and some dramatic stories have emerged. Some friends were hit by a flash flood while driving and had to climb through their sun roof to escape. Others tales of barefoot evacuation included leaving homes for the nearby emergency shelter (ie, the Moretown School), but then the shelter itself was cutoff and evacuated with the vague goal of "just go to higher ground." Good thing for that mountain bike trail behind the school.

Moretown volunteer organization was excellent today. Which is a theme for the week. As eager and good natured and seemingly untiring as volunteers have been, it's the structure of the relief effort that has makes all the difference. All done by friends and neighbors, pitching in to help out.