Lauren R. Stevens: Ideal role for Spruces
In order to judge what should happen at The Spruces Mobile Home Park in Williamstown, it helps to consider what did happen on August 28, 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene flooded the park.
Down in the Hoosac Valley we didn't get that much rain, five inches in North Adams, the equivalent of about a 50-year storm. Yet the water roared through the Williamstown USGS gage [sic], actually located in the western end of North Adams, at nearly 13,000 cubic feet per second, the record pace set in the 1950 flood. How come so much water from comparatively little rain?
Far more rain fell at higher elevations, in the Deerfield Valley and in the Catskills, and some 15 inches to the north of us in Vermont. Some Green Mountain towns experienced a 500-year event. The South Branch of the Hoosic, coming up from Cheshire, wasn't unduly enlarged, whereas the North Branch, coming down from Heartwellville, Vt., was on a rampage. North and South join at MoCA; their combined flow entered The Spruces at its upstream corner. Had we had the rain in our valley that fell on our neighbors, the damage would have been even more severe.
Although 2012 was a relatively dry year here, Hurricane Sandy having touched us lightly, since 1970 precipitation in our area has been above average and increasing. While it is not possible to attribute the increase solely to climate change, it is consistent with what scientists predict as an effect of the warming in our part of the world. We can anticipate more rain in the future, and with it, not necessarily more storms but heavier ones.
Furthermore as winters grows milder, more of the annual precipitation will be in the form of rain rather than snow. Snow gathers on the ridges to be released gradually through the spring as melt-water. With warmer winters we are more susceptible to winter flooding, as well as that of autumn storms.
At the Hoosic River Watershed Association's State of the River Conference, "Irene+1," in September, Vermont state Rep. Bill Botzow noted that when we assert a public interest in private land, such as for conservation, recreation or agriculture, we generally compensate the owner. We do not, however, have any system in place to compensate private holders of flood plains, such as The Spruces, even though their land performs the public good of holding and slowing flood water, thus protecting adjacent properties.
In Irene, for example, the Burnett farm in Adams, North Branch Nursery in Stamford, Bonnie Lea Farm and Williams College's Cole Field in Williamstown, all performed their function as flood plains and all suffered damage. Being open fields, however, no lives were at risk and structural damage was minimal. At The Spruces, nearly 200 homes were destroyed and 250 lives would have been at risk, had not the town evacuated the inhabitants.
Williamstown may win federal and state flood emergency funds to purchase The Spruces, compensating the private owner, restoring the 125 acres to full use as a flood plain, establishing activities compatible with occasional flooding such as agriculture and recreation, compensating the owners of the remaining mobile homes and beginning to create a larger pool of affordable housing elsewhere in town.
All involved should be so fortunate. At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.