Lauren R. Stevens: Get ready for next Irene

Monday October 15, 2012


After Tropical Storm Irene, state agencies al lowed work to be done in rivers without the customary conservation commission or other local oversight. This meant that road crews and even private landowners drove backhoes in the Hoosic and its tributaries, destroying whatever habitat the storm had left and straightening or wall ing rivers to make them more dangerous. Road crossings were put back the same inadequate and undersized way they had proven to be. Homes were rebuilt in the same floodways and flood plains they had previously occupied.

Yet the climate is already changing. Disasters, like Aug ust 2011’s Irene, which wiped out fish and the bugs they feed on in our rivers and wiped out riverside roads, bridges and settlements, are likely to be more frequent, challenging gov ernments and communities. We should weigh both community functions and river functions as we respond.

Such were some of the take-home messages from the Hoo sic River Watershed Asso ci ation’s (HooRWA’s) State of the River Conference, "Irene + 1," held in Williams town in September. The purpose was not to fault the amazing job that emergency responders and road crews did after Irene, but to begin to plan how to handle future storm damage in Berkshire, Benning ton and Rens selaer counties, which comprise the Hoosic watershed.

Jerry Jenkins, author of "Cli m ate Change in the Adiron dacks: The Path to Sustain ability," parsed what happened locally: it isn’t possible to know if global warming caused Irene, but a recent series of unusual weather events define the in fluence of a changing climate. James G. MacBroom, a leader in the field of water resource engineering involved in post-Irene reconstruction in eastern New York and southern Ver mont, and consultant to proposed flood control improvements in North Adams, noted that some of the fixes required later fixing. Communities need to make their own plans, he said, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lacks manpower and money to deal with massive destruction.

HooRWA’s monitoring coordinator, Kelly Nolan, told of unsuccessful attempts to take biological samples post-Irene, because the creatures had been scoured out. Carol Zingarelli, a Spruces resident, and Rev. Carrie Bail, founder of Higher Ground, re counted the inundation of the mobile home park and the ongoing community effort to respond. Bill Botzow, Vermont state representative, noted the difficulties governments have with river issues, such as, most of the land required for flood plains is in private hands.

Some conclusions are easy. We must remove people, such as those who have returned to The Spruces, from harm’s way. Flood chutes, such as those in Adams, North Adams and Hoosick Falls, need to be improved so that the can hold more water and slow rather than speed passage. Flood plains needs to be reinstated, as has been done on the Roar ing Branch in Bennington.

Berkshire Environmental Ac tion Team’s program of organizing watershed associations to analyze stream crossings for water and wildlife passage, and reporting the results to state highway departments, needs to be broadened to the rest of the watershed. Post-storm oversight of mechanical activities in rivers must be reinstated.

Easily said, but vastly complicated by the combination of human and ecological issues involved. At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist,
Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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