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Trees at root of river debate

October 17, 2010

WOONSOCKET – The federal stimulus package was supposed to save jobs, but in this city it's helped trigger a debate over trees growing along the meandering banks of the Blackstone River.
The Army Corps of Engineers says they must be chopped down and, in many cases, uprooted altogether to protect low-lying portions of the city from flooding. But some champions of recreational tourism and economic development say the government should rethink the plan.
“I'm not sure it's a great idea,” says Robert Billington, director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. “That river is becoming highly recreationalized and it really adds to the character of the river to have those trees in place.”
At issue is a two-pronged plan to shore up the neglected Woonsocket Flood Reduction Project, using some $5 million in money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The project includes the Woonsocket Falls Dam and over two miles of earthen levees, concrete flood walls and pressure conduits along the banks of three rivers, all built by the Corps between 1956 and 1960 after epic floods decimated parts of the Social Flatlands, causing some $22 million in damages.
The improvement plan consists of two phases, including refurbishing the “tainter gates” above the Woonsocket Falls Dam which are used to control the level of the river. This phase of the project, which will include the repainting of the dam and the catwalk, began about a month ago and will cost approximately $3.5 million.
The second phase involves the trees and is expected to begin any day, in the vicinity of Kennedy Manor, according to Tim Rezendes, the project engineer. The Corps envisions removing all “heavy wooded vegetation” along the slopes of some 9,000 linear feet of earthen levees and concrete walls along the Blackstone, Mill and Peters rivers. Trees with trunks greater than four inches in diameter will be uprooted altogether and the levees backfilled with fresh earth.
The Corps has already awarded two contracts worth about $1.5 million to remove and dispose of the vegetation to the Upton, Mass.-based firm, Jennifer M. Cook, Inc.
While the friction over the tree-trimming plan is new, the Corps' plan isn't. The agency began reviewing the integrity of its levee systems around the country since storm surge from Hurricane Katrina all but obliterated parts of New Orleans five years ago, crashing through man-made levees – essentially earthen berms – not very different from those that gird the Blackstone.
“The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina has brought the issue of levee safety to the forefront of public debate in recent years,” the Corps said in a statement announcing the project recently. “The findings of subsequent Corps investigations into the performance of the flood damage reduction systems such as those at Woonsocket clearly point to a need for a periodic, comprehensive and risk-informed approach to levee safety.”
The concern, Corps officials say, is that trees will serve to destablilize the levees in hurricane-like conditions, catching the wind like umbrellas and causing them to topple over, rootball and all. Floodwaters are also more likely to find a path through berms that are already crisscrossed by underground root systems.
This “one time major vegetation” eradication will include the spraying of herbicide to tamp down growth after the initial cutting, the Corps says. After that, the Corps plans to return to the levees on an annual basis to keep the greenery in check.
Billington said he doesn't think local conservation and tourism advocates know more about flood protection than the Corps, but he says the community has begun to look at the Blackstone in “a new way” in a recent years. The river has become a mini-engine of recreational-based tourism, and the trees that line the banks are among the things that make it attractive.
Albert Valliere, chairman of the Main Street Riverfront Initiative, agrees.
He says members of the panel are worried that the Corps will “denude” the banks of the river as it flows through the downtown area, where the next leg of the popular Blackstone River Bikeway will soon be built.
“The Main Street Riverfront Initiative wants to sit with the Corps of Engineers and talk about this,” he says. “Unless they can convince me it's an engineering thing that's necessary for the welfare of the public, I would say 'Can't we do something that's a little less aggressive?'”
Tim Dugan, spokesman for the Corps' New England District, says the agency is aware of the concerns about the trees, but the Corps does not intend to curtail any of the cutting.
“Our primary goal is not aesthetic,” said Dugan. “We want to have a sound engineering project. That's the bottom line. Anything else is secondary.”
Dugan said the trees and other vegetation were supposed to have been removed from the levees on a regular basis, but the work never took place. Dugan did not say so, but the city has owned the levees for most of the time they've existed.
The Woonsocket Flood Reduction Project was turned over to the city shortly after it was built. But Hurricane Katrina, in addition to raising concerns about the integrity of such projects, laid bare the difficulties Woonsocket and other cities were having in financing the proper maintenance of such infrastructure.
About two years ago, U.S. Senator Jack Reed spearheaded a bill in Congress to restore ownership of the project, as well as the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence, to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps' review of the Woonsocket Flood Control Project also prompted another agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to redefine the flood zone in the Social Flatlands. The move drew dozens of commercial and residential property owners into the zone for the first time, forcing them to purchase flood insurance, which generally costs about $350 a year on the open market.
“The Woonsocket project was decertified under the National Flood Insurance Program administered by FEMA in May 2007 because the agency determined the project no longer provides projection from the base flood level,” Dugan said. “As a result, property owners behind the project are now paying for flood insurance.”
Dugan said FEMA may revert to the old maps once both phases of the project are complete, relieving those property owners from the burden of carrying extra flood insurance.
Meanwhile, Rezendez, the project engineer, said crews are hoping to finish the first phase by January. The work is plainly visible to all passersby through Market Square, who can see an orange crane, with a boom three stories tall, sitting on a barge-like deck floating just north of Woonsocket Falls Dam.
Workers are presently cleaning the tainter gates and will later replace their rubber seals to prevent them from leaking. Crews will build a steel cofferdam to reroute the river around each of the gates before the heavy-duty maintenance begins.
But passersby won't be able to see crews at work much longer. Within several weeks, the entire dam will be encased in “a cocoon” of canvas while the dam is sandblasted and repainted, Rezendes said. The enclosure is designed to prevent polluting paint dust from getting into the river.
The Corps awarded Watermark Environmental Inc. a $3.45 million contract for this phase of the work in August. The R. Zoppo Corp., a subcontractor, will be in charge of installing the cofferdam.

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