Press-Republican

August 13, 2012

Efforts to look at solutions to Lake Champlain funding begin

International panelmeets to study disaster

By JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

---- — NORTH HERO, Vt. — The decision on what should be done to reduce or prevent the impact of Lake Champlain flooding began in earnest with a pair of public meetings.

More than 50 people gathered at the first session, held recently in Quebec and hosted by a task force studying the impact of the spring 2011 floods on Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River.

Then, a second public session was held the next evening at the North Hero, Vt. Community Hall with about 20 in attendance.

“Our charge is to develop a plan of study to address specific issues (related to Lake Champlain flooding) and to identify what kinds of studies are necessary to eradicate the cause of spring floods,” said Jennifer Thalhauser, a New York representative for the work group and project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

WHY A STUDY?

The work group, created by the International Joint Commission that oversees water-related issues between the United States and Canada, includes regional representatives from agencies

in New York, Vermont and Quebec. It will not make recommendations for alleviating flood-related problems in the basin nor will it carry out any actions to offset the causes of flooding, Thalhauser noted.

She said the most consistent question at the Quebec session was: “Why is there a need for a plan of study?”  

“We feel that it is essential in taking a more holistic approach to what happened in 2011.”

BUILDING A FRAMEWORK

The spring floods of 2011 broke all-time lake levels as Lake Champlain topped 103 feet. The extent of the flooding along its shores and along the Richelieu was compounded by the its duration, as high water levels remained for six weeks or more.

The combination of a large snow pack in the Adirondack and Green mountains, extensive rain during and following the snowmelt and human-made changes to the flow of the Richelieu River were all pegged as contributing factors.

“We want to address what gaps in data there are, what data we need and what data we have,” said Thalhauser, one of seven work-group representatives at the session last Wednesday. 

“We want to develop a document that gives a framework on how to move forward.”

COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

The report generated by the work group’s study will also review a cost-benefit analysis for moving forward with any kind of flood-mitigation plan, she added.

“We are at the very beginning of this written report,” she said. “We felt it was important to collect information from the public and then meet with experts (from across the region).”

The group will develop a draft report by October, at which time it will hold a second series of public meetings before revising and submitting a final document to the International Joint Commission in December.

WHY SO LONG?

At that point, the commission will forward the report to federal, state and provincial authorities, outline what steps might next be taken to address future flooding concerns in the Lake Champlain Basin.

“We can influence policy, but we can’t make governments do things,” said Ann Chick, who represents the International Joint Commission and has moderated similar activities across the U.S.-Canada border. “Generally, our recommendations are followed, but it is done on a convenience basis.”

One Vermont resident who began the public-comment period asked the group why it had taken more than a year to start looking at the 2011 flood.

The group began preparing strategies in May, Thalhauser noted, and the International Joint Commission took some time before that to organize the best way to move forward with a preliminary study. Last week’s meetings was the first step in collecting information from the public, she added.

NO HUMAN CONTROL

Mike Winslow, staff scientist for the Lake Champlain Committtee, advised the group that any future mitigation plans should not include any kind of human control of the lake level through the manipulation of locks on the Richelieu River or the construction of dams on the river or lake.

Those options were discussed during a similar study following flooding in the 1970s and do not need to be rehashed now, he said. Non-structural solutions should be the focus of this report.

Michelle Brown, from the Nature Conservancy of the Adirondacks, emphasized the need to study the basin’s hydrology as a whole, including the streams and rivers that flow into the lake. She also stressed the need to plan for future precipitation patterns caused by global climate change.

Steve Wright, who actually lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, dozens of miles from Lake Champlain, advised that the simplest of measures should be taken: to protect the vegetation and soils along the waterways of the basin.

“What actions come out of this report, we do not know,” said Jean-Francois Cantin of the Meteorological Service of Canada. “It is our job to prepare a way to look at the ecosystem from a scientific perspective, to reach a common understanding of what happens (during flood events).

“If we don’t have that understanding, it is difficult to reach an agreement on actions (to be taken based on the report’s findings).”

NO EASY ANSWERS

One Champlain Islands resident asked the workgroup if there was anything that could be done right now to prevent the severe flooding of 2011. His home had been cut off by floodwater, and he was told then that there were no easy solutions to the flooding problem.

“No,” Cantin said of current options to control flooding. “It all depends on how much (water) is coming into the lake and how much is going out.”

Email Jeff Meyers: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com

TO LEARN MORE

The International Joint Commissions Workgroup on Lake Champlain flooding is accepting comments from the public. To submit comments or to learn more about the project, visit www.ijc.org and click on “Boards.” The International Lake Champlain-Richelieu River Plan of Study Workgroup is listed under “Current task forces” and “study boards.”