Saturday April 13, 2013

Most people don't pay much attention to what's under the road they're driving on; they're more focused on the road itself. That all changed after Tropical Storm Irene wiped out dozens of inadequate culverts throughout the state and left many roads impassible and the communities that rely on them cutoff and stranded.

We learned from that experience that the old corrugated metal culverts used throughout the state were not big enough or strong enough to withstand the deluge. So, many of the destroyed culverts were replaced with new open bottom, concrete arch box culverts that span the full width of the stream, in compliance with Vermont's Stream Alteration Permit requirements and modern rivers engineering practices.

These new standards were put in place before Tropical Storm Irene, and not just to withstand record-breaking floods. The more modern culverts are also better for wildlife. A well-designed culvert allows fish swimming upstream to pass through by ensuring the water flow isn't too fast and there's not a big drop from the culvert edge. A dry shelf may be added for wildlife such as bobcats.

A study conducted by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department of aquatic organism passage through culverts provided some sobering results. Of 1,501 culverts surveyed between 2004 and 2007, less than 6 percent were found to provide full passage of aquatic organisms. Many populations of stream-dependent species have been diminished or lost completely because of these barriers, according to the agency.


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However, replacing so many culverts throughout the state can be cost prohibitive, especially with budgets so tight. In that respect, perhaps Tropical Storm Irene was a blessing in disguise.

Like many other communities throughout the state, Townshend replaced the old 14-foot diameter culvert on Dam Road with the larger, concrete design. The new box culvert will be much more likely to withstand future extreme flooding events, and will maintain stream equilibrium - essentially the flow of sediment through the culvert - as well as the passage of aquatic organisms.

Initially, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had ruled that the costs of upgrading from the smaller corrugated pipe to the box culvert were not eligible for Public Assistance Funding, which would have forced the town to cover the $100,000 funding gap created by the upgrade.

With help from state officials and Vermont's congressional delegation, Townshend appealed that decision and last month FEMA changed course and agreed to pay for the upgrade. This ruling could be a precedent that would allow dozens of Vermont towns to qualify for funds to receive full reimbursement - at 90 percent of project costs - from FEMA for similar projects.

As U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch said in a joint statement, the FEMA decision is "a welcome change of heart Rebuilding to these higher standards now will save lives, and lots of money in the long run."

For those outdated and inadequate culverts that can't be replaced with FEMA money, there are other potential revenue sources that can be used to upgrade Vermont's infrastructure to withstand the next major flood. The Federal Highway Administration recently announced funding for 19 pilot projects throughout the country to rebuild infrastructure to withstand severe weather events expected with climate change. Hopefully, this pilot program can be expanded to cover more projects in the future.

Another potential resource is the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is concerned about helping wildlife expand their range into cooler regions to adapt to climate change. By adding climate change adaptation and fish and wildlife benefits to their highway projects, local and state agencies can stretch their highway budgets further by tapping into federal wildlife funds, according to a recent Associated Press report.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service is really interested in trout habitat, designing culverts so fish can move to cooler waters," Connie Prickett of the Adirondack chapter of The Nature Conservancy, told the AP. "They bring matching funds to communities."

We realize that budgets are tight everywhere - locally, statewide and at the federal level. Obviously these upgrades won't be completed all at once, but we need to at least get started on some of them. Given all the dire warnings of climate change and predictions of more extreme weather events, it would be wise to make these investments now rather than pay out more in disaster recovery later.