Three years after Irene: fish hatchery among the lingering scars

By John Herrick

The Roxbury Fish Hatchery stood up to decades of storms since it was built in 1891, but when Tropical Storm Irene’s heavy downpours flooded the Flint Brook in 2011, some 70,000 nursling fish were swept downstream within hours.

When fully operational, the hatchery sent 25,000 pounds of mature fish into Vermont waters each year, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But now, the state-owned hatchery (located 15 miles north of Randolph) is operating at 2 percent capacity, nurturing only rainbow and brook trout. That has led to a 30 percent reduction of fish in the state’s waters, a state official said. The loss of the hatchery is one of the remaining scars from Irene’s wrath.

Flint Brook is diverted to feed several ponds within the facility where the fish are raised before being placed into the wild.

Adam Miller is a fish health biologist for the state. He said the state will rebuild the hatchery in its current location, but is waiting for federal reimbursement approval before beginning construction of the $4.5 million project.

Miller said the facility’s new engineering design meets water discharge standards required under the federal Clean Water Act.

However, he said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which would provide a 90 percent federal match for the project, says the facility’s design standards do not meet those required for reimbursement.

The state is appealing FEMA’s decision.

Miller said the hatchery is needed to restore native fish populations and maintain the state’s recreation and tourism economy, which is driven in part by anglers coming to the state to fish and purchase licenses, lodging, bait and tackle.

“People aren’t able to catch the fish they used to,” he said.

Irene left other lasting marks on Vermont. The storm’s floodwaters damaged infrastructure, homes, buildings, farmlands and riverbanks. The storm cut off power to tens of thousands.

The total cost of the storm is $850 million in combined state, federal and private money that went toward recovery efforts through 2013, according to the state.

Sue Minter is deputy secretary for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. For about 18 months after the storm, she served as the state’s Irene recovery officer.

She said the storm dropped eight inches of rain in about three to six hours. But the rain itself was not the chief cause of the damage, she said.

The heavy precipitation landed on Vermont’s steep mountain slopes, Minter said, and funneled into rivers and streams in the valleys below, where historically roads and settlements were built.

The rivers gained power and took with them bridges, cars, fuel tanks and buildings. “Houses in some cases were ripped off of their foundation and were ripping down the river,” she said.

About 530 miles of state roads were damaged, thousands of culverts washed out, 34 state road bridges were closed, and 13 communities were cut off because of infrastructure damage, Minter said.

Next time

The state expects more such powerful storms. According to a University of Vermont study, heavy precipitation is becoming more common and is expected to increase over the next decade, especially in mountainous regions of the state.

“I don’t know that we can ensure that it won’t happen again. The best we can do is to reduce our vulnerability,” Minter said.

Since Irene, the state has developed training and standards designed to better prepare the state in the event of another natural disaster.

This includes collaboration between state agencies, such as river scientists and road builders; quicker emergency response communication and training programs; and new staff dedicated to seeking federal funding for natural disaster damage, Minter said.

The state has an accelerated bridge repair program that Minter says has proven to save money and time. The state also has new construction standards for roads along rivers intended to reduce erosion.

Minter said the state is also seeking to relocate vulnerable residents from flood-prone areas. FEMA has approved the purchase of 112 individual structures in 36 communities statewide, according to the state. However, 29 buyout applications are still pending with FEMA because more documentation is needed. There are no home buy-out denials under appeal, a state official said.

Minter said the Federal Highway Administration has reimbursed the state for many of the highway repair projects. But through FEMA, she said towns and municipalities have difficulty qualifying projects for public assistance funding – one of several pots of money the agency gives to communities for damage repairs.

“We’ve had some disagreement with FEMA about what is the appropriate resilient infrastructure,” she said.

The Agency of Natural Resource developed new construction standards for river crossings. The new Stream Alteration Permit guidelines aim to prevent sediment build-up at the front of culverts – which are pipes or boxes that allow water to flow under roads. The state says poorly designed culverts are one of the reasons roads wash out.

But FEMA says these new guidelines are among those that do not meet their uniform codes and standards required to be eligible for public assistance funding. The state is appealing several reimbursement denials.

Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation chief with the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, said there are about 3,400 project worksheets for damages across the state.

He said there are about 175 large projects that still need to be closed out and about 100 underway or awaiting construction. But about two dozen projects are under review with FEMA. He said these are the more tricky projects.

“We’ve done pretty well. We’re coming out the other end,” Rose said.

Despite setbacks with federal funding, Minter said Irene brought neighbors together to help one another.

She is one of the state’s representatives on President Barack Obama’s White House Task Force on Climate Change. She said there are severe weather events occurring nationally – drought, wildfires, tornadoes, and powerful storms and flooding.

“These weather changes are affecting people across this country,” Minter said. “The one silver lining is that people are experiencing that power of coming together in crisis that we in Vermont had.”

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