By Julia Purdy
PAWLET—On Aug. 28, 2016, a community watershed event titled “Five Years Vermont Strong—Tropical Storm Irene, Five Years Later: Where Are We Now?” was held in Pawlet to remember the devastating impact of Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28-29, 2011, and revisit the lessons learned. The theme was flood resiliency and preparedness for the next catastrophic weather event, a phenomenon that has occurred in Vermont on a regular basis for at least the past 150 years.
Flower Brook, which rises in Tinmouth and flows through Danby and Pawlet on its way to the Mettowee River, provided a case study for how flowing water interacts with the terrain and human activity.
The setting for the event was at Edie’s Green in Pawlet village, a grassy field bordered by Flower Brook. The location is dominated by a massive, cone-shaped pile of sediment.
Approximately 55 visitors attended the event, according to Hilary Solomon, district manager of PMNRCD and an organizer of the event.
Scattered around the field were a white lecture tent, Mach’s Brick-Oven Wood-Fired Pizza wagon, tables for Rutland Area Farm and Food Link and Wonderfeet Kids’ Museum from Rutland, a pie table, a barbeque, and a flume table provided by UVM’s Sea Grant program. Matt Wilson, an Americorps volunteer who works at Champlain Valley Native Plants Restoration Nursery on the Green Mountain College campus, brought a trailer with native trees for sale to plant as buffers along streams. The bluegrass band Spruce Knob Uprising provided gentle background music as visitors browsed the tables.
The flume table offered an interactive illustration of how water flows through various terrains. The table is basically an inclined open box on legs, with a spigot at the upper end and a drain at the lower, filled with plastic, sand-like grains. Scattered among the grains were tiny vehicles and buildings, which could be placed anywhere. By controlling the flow of water entering at the head of the table,
Ashley Eaton demonstrated how fast-moving water undercuts stream banks, topples buildings and buries cars. The same water floated the plastic grains downstream as “sediment,” depositing it in a bucket under the drain. The exercise illustrated the behavior of streams under various conditions and how unobstructed flood plains can slow and absorb large volumes of water and sediment rather than funneling it all downstream into settled areas.
Presenters included Ethan Swift, who explained how Vermont towns have historically been built in flood-prone areas, spoke about building flood resiliency and river corridor protection within towns, and gave examples from Brandon and Middlebury. “There is no one silver bullet,” he said. “It’s about achieving a balance. We’ve learned that our rivers are not static.”
The sediment pile that formed a backdrop for the event was bulldozed off Edie’s Green in the Irene clean-up and added to in 2015 when the millpond at the dam was cleaned out. Tropical Storm Irene sent a wakeup call throughout the state that the built environment, roads, utilities and everyday life are increasingly at risk and that foresight, smart planning and community action can reduce—but not eliminate—the threat of another Irene.
By Julia Purdy