MONTPELIER — In the disastrous days after the remnants of Hurricane Irene sent stones and mud surging down swollen waterways, workers in Vermont and New York were given special permission to dig in river and stream beds without written permits.
A month after the storm, the emergency rules in both states are expiring, to the relief of environmentalists and scientists who fear river-altering projects like channel-cutting and rock removal could end up making future flooding worse.
After Irene tore through the Northeast on Aug. 28, Vermont allowed oral instead of written consent for emergency work and New York waived normal permit rules for work that addressed “an imminent threat.” Officials in both states said the extraordinary steps were necessary to quickly help small mountain towns left crippled, isolated and fretting about weakened culverts and bridges.
“In the first month we were dealing with communities that had extreme emergency situations. They needed to get into the river before the next rainfall to clear debris otherwise they were going to lose another culvert or another bridge,” said Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz. “But now were dealing with issues — while they’re important and pressing and we need to resolve them before the snow flies — we have time to take that deep breath.”
Markowitz said Friday that verbal authorizations will only be allowed now in emergency cases where there is imminent danger. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s post-Irene emergency declaration is expiring Saturday, but the same northern counties affected by Irene were included in an emergency declaration after Tropical Storm Lee hit a week later. That declaration expires Saturday, Oct. 8.
Local highway crews have defended their work, saying they are working as quickly and carefully as they can, trying to balance the sensitive environmental needs against public safety and transportation. State officials say the work is being checked.
Bill Reynolds, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Transportation, said waterway experts on staff help state crews perform repair work to roads and bridges in an environmentally sound way.
But environmental groups that tracked the digging and bulldozing over the past month said some of the work cutting channels, extracting gravel and “armoring” banks with heavy stones has not been adequately supervised.
In New York, a coalition of environmental groups, business owners and others are pressing Cuomo’s administration to remove heavy equipment from streams and rivers and stop what they call re-engineering of the waterways, particularly in the Adirondack Mountains where several mountain brooks turned into torrents after Irene hit.
Dan Plumley of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve said the work, though well intentioned, is turning several Adirondack river and stream sections into waterways akin to large, concrete storm canals found in urban areas.
Kim Greenwood of Vermont Natural Resources Council said it might sound counterintuitive, but all the rock removal and channel-making over the past month might be worse than leaving the rivers be.
“When you dig the gravel out of the stream it makes the velocity faster and the stream has lost access to its flood plain, so it can’t dissipate that energy,” said Greenwood, the group’s water program director. “It’s like turning a fire hose onto the channel instead of having a fire hose with a pressure release valve.”
Greenwood said work on waterways should be done judiciously and with the knowledge that changes made on one stretch could cause problems downstream — a point of view supported by scientists who study waterways.
Craig Milewski, a professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences at Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, said remediation must consider water speed and the natural twists and turns that a waterway uses to slow itself down.
“Meanders are there for a reason,” he said. “It’s a stream’s way of trying to reduce or manage the energy of the stream. When you straighten the stream, you reduce the stream’s ability to do that. You may think you’re fixing a specific area but it may have effects downstream and even upstream.”
Markowitz said Vermont environmental officials agree with the environmentalists and are proceeding judiciously and carefully.
Hundreds of oral approvals had been given in Vermont in the past month, Markowitz said. By and large, people got it right, she said. But in some cases, engineers have found work exceeded what was permitted, meaning it needs to be redone. She stressed there is still a ban on dredging and that people caught mining gravel will be prosecuted.
In New York, anybody doing work is asked to notify the Department of Environmental Conservation as soon as possible, preferably before work starts. The emergency declaration included rules to prevent or reduce erosion, sedimentation and turbidity. Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the department, said the state is inspecting specific streams when they get complaints about remediation.
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