In The News

‘A tremendous success’: Senator Welch visits Birge Street restoration project

Jun 17, 2024

U.S. Senator Peter Welch, D-Vt., looks at some poems written by students from Green Street School during a tour of the floodplain restoration project along the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro on Friday, June 14, 2024.
Kristopher Radder / Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO — With the East Coast’s first official heatwave rolling into town, people looking for ways to cool off have a new place to hang out and it’s not too far from downtown Brattleboro.

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., toured the 250 Birge Street Restored Floodplain project, formerly known as Sawdust Alley, with 2,000 feet of water access along the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro, which was funded in-part through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance Grant program.

“The only people who can really do the job and make the right decisions are the local community leaders,” said Welch, adding there is legislation in the Senate to provide even more technical assistance to small towns that don’t have the administrative staff to research and apply for grant funding.

“We really appreciate that we have a senator that understands climate change and the fact we are going to see more devastation in our communities,” said Town Manager John Potter, crediting Welch with “finding ways to help us avoid it in the future.”

Used as industrial sawmill and lumber storage site for 120 years, the parcel had been filled with imported gravel, elevating the land well above the river.

More than 5,000 truckloads of fill were removed from the site by Adams Excavating, putting the level of the site below the level of vulnerable homes on Williams Street.

The Vermont River Conservancy bought the 12-acre parcel in 2017 and coordinated with the town and state and federal agencies to raise the funds necessary to remove more than 40,000 cubic yards of gravel, take down a berm along the brook, clean out the vegetation, restore a small wetland, and replant with bushes and trees that can withstand occasional flooding. The trees and other vegetation are also meant to catch any flood debris before it can make its way farther downstream.

“The new park will provide recreation access for scores of families in the adjacent neighborhoods for fishing, wading, and the simple enjoyment of a peaceful walk, increasing quality of life and helping Brattleboro to attract and retain top talent,” states the VRC’s website.

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said if this floodplain and the one recently rehabilitated at Melrose Terrace in West Brattleboro, had been in place in August of 2011, Williams Street, Frost Street and Flat Street would not have been flooded by the downpour of Tropical Storm Irene.

“Think big … like this,” said Campany, a member of the state’s hazard mitigation committee, which has nearly $90 million in federal and state funds to help communities mitigate flooding. Campany said now is the time to get in touch with WRC about applying for those funds.

Welch serves on the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee, which released a new report last week that found flooding damage costs an equivalent to 1 to 2 percent of U.S. GDP, or $180 to $496 billion, each year.

And according to a study conducted by Water Safe Cities, every dollar invested in flood resilience saves $318 in damages.

“Damage costs are highest in North American and Asian cities,” states the report. “These regions are where infrastructure and urban property are most at risk and where the damage is the most expensive, owing to their high valued assets.”

While flooding events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity due to global climate change, cities around the world are tackling “catchment management programs,” such as the Birge Street project, to protect their communities.

Funding for the project came from FEMA, the Vermont Emergency Management’s Resilient Community Fund, the Vermont State Housing and Conservation Board, the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA’s brownfields fund.

Elizabeth McLoughlin, vice chairwoman of the Brattleboro Select Board, credited Planning Services Director Sue Fillion and Zoning Administrator Brian Bannon with ushering the project through to completion.

“They have done an outstanding job,” she said.

Erin De Vries, the VRC’s conservation director, said eventually the town of Brattleboro will assume ownership of the parcel. Until then, the town and VRC are working on a management plan to maintain the parcel.

De Vries said folks from around the region are already visiting Brattleboro to see how they can apply the lessons learned in their own communities.

“This is a tremendous success,” said Welch.

Story Written by Bob Audette, Brattleboro Reformer

Story Link: