Residents in the flood-prone communities surrounding the proposed 28-turbine, 96-megawatt Stiles Brook wind project are unhappy about what the project will do to the aesthetics of nearby ridge lines. But they’re more worried about what it will do to the risk of flooding.
“All of the things about property values, noise and all that are really concerning to us,” said Windham Select Board Chair Frank Seawright. “But uppermost in our minds is the concern about flooding the people downstream. The point that needs to be hammered again and again is that this is not a town-wide concern, it’s region-wide. It goes all the way from here to the Connecticut River.”
Geoffrey Goll, a water resource engineer with Princeton Hydro in New Jersey, visited Grafton in March for a presentation on the 21-turbine Lowell Mountain project.
“You are still going to get the same effect (with the Stiles Brook project),” said Goll. “If they use level-spreaders, water is still going to flow down the hillside. Even the wet-ponds at Lowell, not only did they not hold water but at the discharge pipes they were also eroding the soil downstream. The same thing is going to happen here.”
Seawright explained that the south fork of the Saxtons River originates almost entirely on the Stiles Brook tract on which Spanish developer Iberdrola proposes to build the turbines and roads. From the elevation of about 2,300 feet, the water then flows down to the center of Grafton where additional water sources meet. That’s where flooding tends to occur.
“And on average that happens about every seven years,” said Seawright. “What they are proposing to do won’t make that happen any more often, but it will intensify the floods by removing the roots and trees and stuff that hold water back.”
Watchdog reported on how the level-spreaders – trenches designed to spread water out evenly while it runs down the mountain – and other infrastructure at Lowell have essentially failed to maintain water flow as it existed before construction.
Roll said his company was hired in 2011 by Energize Vermont to review the project’s application and calculations before construction.
“We reviewed those and did our own modeling and it was our position that the way the site was modeled would not be an accurate representation of what would actually happen on the mountain,” said Goll.
Since then he feels vindicated.
“On Lowell, the wet-ponds that are built on the ridge line [to collect storm water], the majority of those wet ponds are actually dry. In order for those ponds to function, they need to be full of water,” he said.
Goll stressed that any kind of major infrastructure requires a comprehensive storm-water management system that must be maintained. “If they have 60 or 70 different type of storm-water management structures along this, I believe it’s going to be over 10 miles of road, then they will have to be managed in perpetuity by human intervention,” he said.
Goll’s concern is that regulatory agencies don’t have a great track record when it come to enforcing the terms of the certificates of public good that are used to green-light such projects. In Watchdog’s report on Lowell Mountain, Annette Smith, president of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, accused regulatory agencies of “passing the buck” when it comes to maintaining its storm-water infrastructure post-construction.
The recent history of major floods in the two towns serves only to increase concerns about Stiles Brook. Grafton Select Board Chair Skip Lisle recalls at least four major floods in recent decades. Hurricane Irene was the latest to expose how bad things can get.
“There were large sections of many of our roads disappearing, damage to houses, in one case a house washed away,” he said. “Really, really significant damage.”
Lisle said that makes the area probably the worst location for what would be the largest wind farm in the state.
“If you have to have these in Vermont, then try to choose the watersheds that have been historically the least vulnerable to flooding,” he said. “And in addition, put these things in places where they are not close to people because there are a lot of other problems associated with them,” alluding to the sounds and vibration that accompany large wind farms.
Goll echoed Lisle on the risk of flooding.
“Grafton historically, based on the shape of their valley, has been subject to massive flooding,” he said. “I can see that they would be very concerned about building something that is maybe the equivalent of two or three Walmarts.”
Lisle said that the primary way to reduce flood damage is by reducing the peak flows by retaining as much of the rainwater or snow melt on the existing natural landscape with vegetation for as long as possible.
“What an industrial wind development essentially does, almost anywhere it’s going to be built, is it replaces hundreds of acres of spongy forest with large impervious gravel roads, impervious cement turbine foundations and platforms,” said Lisle.
Seawright argues that a vocal minority with a vested interest are pushing for the project.
“It’s not that they are altruistic and think this is going to stall out global warming,” he said. “They want the money. Without a doubt, that’s what it is.”
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