BRATTLEBORO -- Culverts are the kind of thing you pay no attention to until something goes wrong.
Credit Tropical Storm Irene for a new awareness about the utility and function of the thousands of culverts -- ranging from 18 inches to 24 feet -- that are hidden beneath roads around the county.
"One stick can plug up a culvert," said Rodney Watkins, Windham's highway foreman for the past 23 years.
That stick can serve as a dam, causing leaves to bunch up against the mouth of the culvert and before you know it, water has washed out a road, he said.
Though most of the damage caused to roads by Irene was due to the massive amount of rainfall in a small amount of time, there is no doubt that debris washed into culverts made matters even worse.
More than one year after the storm, communities are still picking up the pieces and highway crews are still repairing roads and culverts.
In Windham, culverts were replaced on Toad Road and Popple Dungeon. In Townshend, a new box culvert was installed on Dam Road to replace one that "got wiped out by Irene," said Kurt Bostrom, highway foreman.
To help towns keep track of their culverts and compile data on their conditions, the Windham Regional Commission recently initiated a data collection program that aims to itemize and map each and every culvert in Windham County.
"This is a pilot program for us," said Jeff Nugent, a mapping specialist with WRC.
With a GPS device in hand, Sarah Linn, a geographic information systems specialist with WRC, has been tagging along with highway foremen as they attempt to drive each and every road in the county.
"Most of the time, the road foremen know where they are," said Linn. "They don't miss much."
WRC is mapping culvert locations using GPS, creating an online database which towns can use to evaluate the conditions and determine how best to fit repair and replacement into a capital budget.
Windham has 359 culverts, ranging in size from 18 inches to six feet or more in diameter.
"Windham has almost as many culverts as people," said Nugent.
About 1,000 culverts around the county were washed out by Irene, said Nugent.
"The rain events we've been designing our bridges and structures for are not big enough," he said.
Following Irene, he said, many towns are considering upsizing their culverts.
"All we're doing is helping them to organize the information."
"The inventory is a good way for the Selectboard to know the conditions of our culverts and get a sense of how many there are," said Mary Boyer, chairwoman of Windham's Selectboard. "They're a sizable expense for small towns."
"Now I can point to the map and show people where there might be an issue," said Watkins.
Bostrom said because Townshend's road crew consists of him and two others, they are more reactive than proactive. With WRC's help, he said, small towns can hopefully stay ahead of the game and maintain the conditions of their culverts before something bad happens again.
"We can't do everything all of the time," Bostrom said.
In small towns such as Windham and Townshend, which has 734 culverts, it's important that people don't rake leaves and sticks into drainage ditches, said Watkins.
He also encouraged them to help the road crew out by keeping an eye on culverts near their homes and making sure they don't get jammed up with debris.
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.