Dog River hazard mitigation project completed

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo The new Water Street Park in Northfield features a picnic shelter, trails, whimsical birdhouses and flower gardens.

NORTHFIELD — After seven years, a successful hazard mitigation project in Northfield is finally complete. The site, along the Dog River, has been an endeavor for Friends of the Winooski Executive Director Michele Braun. At the time of Tropical Storm Irene, Braun was the land-use planner for Northfield and had just finished an update to the town’s hazard mitigation plan — in July 2011. “One really key thing is that every Vermont town has to have a hazard mitigation plan, which identifies priority actions a town can take to mitigate its hazards,” said Braun. “We had just finished that plan, in which I’d identified Water Street as a big problem, with houses in the floodplain, and that if we ever had the opportunity we should really buy them out, because it was not a good place to live.” The new Water Street Park is the former site of seven homes and a misguided 1970s-era attempt to control flooding by dredging, which ultimately was the cause of more damage and erosion. Because Northfield had already officially established Water Street as an area that was a priority to fix, Braun said that boosted the funding application in the aftermath of Irene. Eighteen houses were eventually bought back for the project. “Northfield floated right to the top,” said Rob Evans, river corridor and floodplain manager for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation Watershed Management Division. Evans sits on Vermont’s Hazard Mitigation Committee reviewing applications for funding run by Vermont Emergency Management, which administers the FEMA mitigation grants. He says the process is very competitive, even with small floods, due to projects outnumbering funds, “So projects get ranked and scored. Northfield got extra, what we call, ‘proactivity points,’ because of proactive measures they took prior to Irene. They adopted robust floodplain river corridor protection bylaws. They were thinking about this stuff before it happened.” Both Braun and Evans use a snake metaphor to describe the power of a river that’s been altered artificially: grab a snake by the head, or by the middle, and the resulting thrashing strength gives you an idea of the force of water’s reaction when heavy rains fall. When Irene dropped up to 11 inches on parts of the state at rates of one to two inches per hour, the Dog River at Northfield Falls reached 12.26 feet, six inches above the previous record, before the U.S. Geological Survey gauge stopped recording. Six hours earlier it was below two feet deep at the measuring point. Evans stressed that the state is dealing with at least one emergency declaration a year, even though they may not be historical events like the flood of 1927 or Irene. Water is a powerful force and each small event can further exacerbate existing problems for rivers in unnatural states. “When you have a deep river channel, you have an energized river system shunting floodwater and debris downstream, damaging properties and infrastructure and also carrying sediment to the lake and a lot of places in between,” he said. Restoring river corridors like the one near Water Street in Northfield often means reconstructing a river’s natural floodplain, an area that allows for water to expand in wetter times rather than gaining momentum as it is funneled downstream by deeper channels created by dredging or artificial berms or levies. And it provides not just protection for surrounding neighborhoods, but also protects the health of larger bodies of water in the state, like Lake Champlain. “Excessive erosion due to channelized rivers is a major source of nutrient-laden sediment to receiving waters,” Evans wrote in a follow-up email. “Reconnecting rivers to their floodplain restores the natural and beneficial floodplain functions of floodwater and sediment storage, which works toward our goal (of) managing our rivers towards their least erosive state.” Floodwater that can slow down and have its energy dissipated as it flows into its floodplain means debris and sediment are safely deposited in the floodplain buffer, not carried downstream. Evans also points out that, at certain times of year, ice will also make its way into the floodplain rather than being forced down channels and creating jams. The Water Street project is not just an example of fulfilling the funding priorities for Evans’ office —restoring the floodplain and protecting it  — it is also an example of many people and organizations coming together to create a usable park for the community. There are mowed recreation areas, a pavilion with picnic tables, running, biking, and walking paths, pollinator gardens, native trees, and even some glacial erratics (stones left behind in Vermont forests by glaciers) found and donated by a Norwich University professor. Braun lists a number of participants, including Northfield Middle & High School teachers and students, Norwich University, the Northfield High School class of 1957, Patagonia, National Life Group and scores of volunteers. “That’s a wonderfully cool thing about this project,” she said. “It’s all in — from sixth-graders to Norwich University cadets, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Rob’s office has been amazing, the Department of Housing and Community Development has been amazing, everybody has made this happen. The community has really embraced this park.”

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