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State will not intervene in Mad River bank erosion problem in Waitsfield Village

12/22/2006

By Lisa Loomis

There will be no immediate state aid forthcoming for either the town of Waitsfield or Waitsfield Village riparian landowners who want to stop the erosion of their land.

Barry Cahoun from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources was clear in his responses to the Waitsfield Select Board and the private landowners seeking relief - there is no funding available and he is not inclined to waive or bend the rules on gravel extraction to help defray costs of armoring the banks, which are eroding.

Cahoun appeared before the select board on December 18 along with riparian landowners Chris Pierson and Ann Marie Harmon. Also present were two local residents, Kari Dolan and Shayne Jaquith, members of Friends of the Mad River and also ANR employees.

In the past five years, Pierson has lost 35 feet of riverbank land as the Mad River has carved a wider channel into his land in Waitsfield Village. He owns the Fuller House south of the Bridge Street Marketplace. This fall Pierson asked Cahoun to help and also asked the town for its help in either securing funds to armor the banks or applying political leverage to the ANR so that the rules on gravel extraction might be bent. Pierson wants to be able to offset the cost of armoring the banks by extracting and selling gravel (or using that gravel for armoring) from a significant gravel deposit that has built up in the river near his property.

Cahoun said that state regulations prohibit the mining of gravel for commercial gain and very specifically prohibit gravel extraction beyond a certain number of yards except where it can be shown that allowing gravel extraction will significantly improve public safety, prevent flooding and protect against erosion. He said that he is not convinced that the criteria for allowing gravel extraction are met.

Cahoun said that the state of Vermont was working with Friends of the Mad River on an inventory of stream bank conditions along the length of the Mad River aimed at identifying areas where the river can be allowed to follow its own natural course and follow its own naturally occurring changes.

Friends of the Mad River is currently involved in the study, funded by a grant from the Agency of Natural Resources, but that study is not expected to be completed before next year. Something needs to be done to the riverbanks immediately upstream of the Waitsfield Covered bridge before even more serious erosion occurs, or in a flood situation, the covered bridge abutments could be undermined and flooding could damage the residences and businesses along that stretch of river.

Cahoun offered testimony to the effect that the history of humans interacting with and tampering with the natural flows of Vermont's rivers has had disastrous results, specifically flooding. He said that, where towns and individuals had been allowed to straighten the courses of rivers and mine gravel, rivers have responded by flooding and deeper channelization. He said that rivers need flood plains and need to be able to overflow their banks to deposit silt on flood plains as well as relieve pressure during high water conditions.

Select board member Charlie Hosford acknowledged that humans had tampered with the flows of the river, but asked Cahoun if there was no public health and safety imperative that requires some action be taken to prevent further erosion of the village stream banks.

Cahoun said that the state recognized the importance of what currently exists and the public safety issues, and said that is why the state okay removal of part of a dam in front of Pierson's property and also okayed the bank armoring project all along that section of the Mad River.

"The greater opportunity for collaborate projects between the state, towns and private partnerships is in redefining the relationships that communities have with rivers. Since the mid-1800s communities have defined rivers as where they are and seen water as staying in the river and felt that residents get to use the land along the river as their own. Rivers were straightened and ditched and more. Then in 1927, 1936, 1978, 1992 and going up to 1998 we started getting all these major floods. We no longer allow rivers to get out into their floodplains. Those lessons have allowed us to rethink and redefine what is an appropriate relationship and what is appropriate land use and patterns of development near rivers," Cahoun said.

Pierson persisted, asking why gravel could not be removed just upstream from where the armoring needs to happen, and Cahoun said that 75 percent of the current problem in Waitsfield Village is due to excessive gravel mining in the 1970s. He said the reason the riverbed is down is from gravel mining.

"But does the fact that these potential flooding situations threaten our road network have any bearing on the permit conditions for the state?" Hosford asked.

"Our highest priority is on stabilizing the most amount of riverbank possible so the river can reach its own equilibrium. If I were in Chris's shoes, I would not waste money having an excavator come in and move gravel from the river. I'd just armor the bank and leave the gravel alone," he added.

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