Burlington: Hidden City

Published 05/19 2014 12:52PM

Updated 05/19 2014 10:30PM

BURLINGTON, Vt. - It's an all too common sight, Burlington streets turning to rivers after heavy rain. It's the same spots, always getting hit the hardest. 

A recent National Weather Service study done by John Goff plotted where summer flash flooding occurred in the city.

Many of the reports were clustered around one feature, an old ravine.

With the help of Queen City history buff and former city councilor Gary de Carolis, we travel back to the 1800s to find out why.

Back then, Burlington was a rapidly growing timber port, but it was very much a city divided by a massive ravine.

"The ravine was typically 75 to 100 feet deep," Carolis said. "That's probably closest to its natural state, and it just kept cutting across South Union street, the Fletcher Free Library was literally dead center in the middle of it, and it just kept going right over."

Up until the 1860s the railroad ran right through the ravine, passing under bridges like the one near College Street Congregational. But then the railroad was rerouted around the city.

And for a few reasons, officials decided the ravine had to go.

"One was sanitary. People were starting to dump all kinds of stuff into that ravine and it became a health hazard," Carolis said.

Old Burlington Free Press articles report some of that "stuff" included tomato cans and dead animals.

Aside from the health risks, officials felt eliminating the ravine allowed for more development in the growing city.

"If you notice on the second floor is the front door, and it is an example of how the city shaved the ravine down over time to just lessen the severity of it, exposing the basement, leaving the front door on the second floor now," Carolis said.

What couldn't be leveled, was filled. But that fill was mostly sawdust and wood and can't fight the power of water hundreds of years later. When it pours, runoff still tries to find the lowest point which is still the remnants of that ravine.

"It created all kinds of infrastructure problems for the city, Fletcher Free Library, our sewer system," Carolis said. "We paid and we keep paying a price for that down the road here."

What's Being Done

On South Winooski Avenue, the city is now making major stormwater improvements.

That's because the intersection of Main and South Winooski sits on top of the old ravine and is a notorious flood spot.

City planners say it's not just the old topography leading to the problems here. Heavy rain is becoming more intense and more hard surfaces are being built.

"That's where we've created pavement or rooftops, which cover up the natural soaking ability of the ground, prevent it from getting in which means it has to run off," Burlington Stormwater Program Manager Megan Moir said. 

To fight that and prevent flooding, the city is spending $192,000 to install bigger storm drains around this one intersection.

"For many, many years not enough money has been invested in stormwater infrastructure and really because of the change in climate we're seeing that we're going to have to start making modifications in order to keep up with mother nature," Moir said. "We are currently developing a hydrologic  model of the city which will enable us to really figure out exactly what the mechanisms are, and also test our solutions."

Dan Albrecht, who is part of the Chittenden County Regional Stormwater Education Program, says to limit stormwater runoff today we can once again look to the past. 

 "When you think about how things were before there were trees here, there were meadows, native plant species, there wasn't groomed lawns here two hundred years ago," Albrecht said.

Albrecht says reclaiming that former landscape, at least in your yard, is possible by using a rain barrel, or creating a rain garden.

"It's a small thing, but it helps spread the message to really be aware of, oh the rain, it's hitting the pavement, where's it going, what can I do."

Going forward, a group of UVM students will continue to study the impact of the ravine on flooding in the city.

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