FEMA won't fund culvert plan for Vermont roads washed out by Irene
MONTPELIER -- The Obama administration launched an initiative Wednesday aimed at helping local communities better prepare for the impacts of climate change, but one of Vermont's key recommendations to the president was not included.
The state wants to use FEMA public assistance money to help rebuild culverts and bridges so streams pass under the roads instead of washing them out.
But according to FEMA, the state's engineering plans for these projects do not meet its current uniform "codes and standards" and therefore don't qualify for public assistance money.
The state has for years asked the federal government for simpler and more flexible federal funding assistance to help communities repair and prepare for damages caused by heavy downpours and flooding.
In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the state has been rebuilding roads, bridges, buildings and culverts damaged and destroyed by floodwaters in an attempt to make them more resilient to the forces of nature. Meanwhile, heavy downpours have continued to damage the state's infrastructure since the 2011 storm.
Gov. Peter Shumlin and other state officials are part of the president's task force, which is charged with recommending ways states can better prepare for natural disasters linked to climate change.
But the early action initiatives announced Wednesday do not address a concern the state has with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's public assistance funding - one of several pots of money the agency gives to communities for damage repairs and preparation.
The state this year adopted new Stream Alteration General Permit guidelines, which govern how new projects that impact streams - like roads, bridges and culverts - must be built.
FEMA says the state cannot qualify for public assistance money because the guidelines do not apply "uniformly to all bridge and culvert replacement projects," according to a June 16 letter to the state.
Ben Rose, the recovery and mitigation section chief for Vermont Emergency Management and Homeland Security, has been working with towns and FEMA to secure funding for projects.
Rose said the new state standards include replacing smaller pipe culverts with bottomless ones that allow water to flow through smoothly.
The larger culverts cost more upfront, but Rose said they will save taxpayers money in the long run.
"We want to build stuff that's going to withstand the next flood," he said.
Undersized culverts - particularly smaller pipe culverts - cause streams to dam and hold back sediment. This sediment later clogs the culvert, sending water over the top of the road and gushing down the other side, eroding the shoulders of the road.
Michael Kline, manager of Vermont's river program for the Agency of Natural Resources, said he has seen this time and again in Vermont. The new model, he said, relies on site-specific characteristics of stream crossings that will prevent sediment buildup.
"One size does not fit all," Kline said.
Kline said Vermont is an early adopter of this performance-based engineering technique, and "we are in a difficult position of bringing some of our federal partners along with us."
ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz is one of several state officials who made recommendations to the Obama administration over the past year and was in Washington this week, along with Gov. Peter Shumlin and Sue Minter of the state transportation department. She said making FEMA funding flexible was "very specifically one of the recommendations."
When FEMA rejected the state's request to qualify certain projects for public assistance funding, Markowitz said "we were frankly very surprised."
She said it shows that their "conversations with the Washington, D.C., staff are not trickling down well enough" to the regional offices.
Markowitz said the president will release more policies around climate change resilience this fall.
Shumlin and other state officials are part of a task force making recommendations to the president. On Wednesday, the 26-member State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience held its fourth and final meeting. The group has been working on recommendations since November.
In May, the Shumlin administration made several recommendations to Obama's principal environmental policy adviser during a tour of a flood-torn section of the state still recovering from Irene.
Among the Obama's early action initiatives are:
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