It had been more than a month since Tropical Storm Irene when I returned to kayak my favorite whitewater rivers in Vermont: the Middlebury and the New Haven. The massive flows from Irene moved some small rocks around, but in most places the overall character of the these rustic rivers remained the same, even after the storm. Sadly that is not true about sections of the rivers near roads where in the name of “repair” bulldozers literally flattened the rivers, excavating giant boulders, dredging gravel, and leaving the once vibrant river an unrecognizable shell. Rapids that used to be complex, multi-tiered stretches, supporting important habitat had transformed into homogeneous flat spots.
The untouched segments of river far from the road looked very different from the dredged and flattened stretches that destroyed not only a magical recreation space but crucial fish habitat as well. The contrast was stark and disturbing. The river tamed unwillingly and transformed into little more than a pipe, losing its resilience, beauty, and health. I thought again how important it is to protect these valuable and magical places.
Returning to these spots reminded me of the beatings we continue to inflict on our local waters: from stormwater and nutrient pollution to the destruction of fish habitat as we recover from Irene. Our precious river ecosystems deserve better. We can learn from their ability to heal after a hurricane. We can stop treating our rivers like pipes and sewers and tell our friends, neighbors, and elected officials “enough is enough.” It is crucial that we do not ignore science and continue to reverse decades of recovery in our rivers. We can contact our local town officials and request that they take a step back and seek expert advice before digging into your local river. The more actions we take as individuals, the more we can collectively do the work that will allow our rivers to heal.