All Eyes on the Rivers: Vermont Watches for Ice Jams

Chunks of ice clogging rivers' flows have caused serious flooding in past springs

A series of summits on how to prepare for and respond to the possibility of severe ice jams starts next week in central Vermont. The jams can clog a river's normal flow and cause water behind them to rise and jump the riverbanks, leading to damaging flooding.

The Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security said in a news release that the upcoming summits aim to update city and town officials on the local flood outlook, and to review state resources that are available before, during, and after a flooding event or other disaster.

Five ice jam meetings are scheduled, according to the news release:

  • Monday, March 9 at the Vermont Emergency Operations Center, 103 South Main Street, Waterbury – 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Tuesday, March 10 at the Rockingham/Bellows Falls Town Office, 7 Square – 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Thursday, March 12 at the Mendon VTrans District 3 office, 61 Valley View, Mendon (just off Route 4) – 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Friday, March 13 at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife facility in Essex Junction, 111 West Street – 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Monday, March 16 at the Lyndon Public Safety Building in Lyndonville – 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

"We held a series of these last year, and they worked well; people [from ice jam-prone communities] got a lot out of them," Joe Flynn, Vermont's emergency management director, told New England Cable News last week. "These [summits] were scheduled ahead of time; we have nothing indicating that there will be an unusual amount of spring issues."

In Montpelier, where the Winooski River is notorious for ice jams, Fire Chief Bob Gowans is keeping an eye on the water. He told NECN the river level is low for this time of year, but melting snow could cause it to rise quickly, especially if an ice jam were to clog the flow of water.

"We're just hoping for a nice calm spring," Gowans said. "The rivers are pretty full of ice right now."

In March of 1992, downtown Montpelier was underwater when an ice jam forced the Winooski to jump its banks. The city experienced flooding and near-flooding from ice jams other years, too.

"This is the time of year when it happens," said Greg Hanson, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

Hanson said if Vermont is to dodge danger from ice jams, the state wants a gradual thaw: high temperatures in the 40s and lows in the 20s, without any heavy rain. In Vermont's favor this year, the snow depth is pretty normal. Still, Hanson said rapid melting of it wouldn't be good.

"The ice on the rivers has been there since the first of January, so it's really thick; there's a lot of it," Hanson added. "If we get some big river rises, it could break that up and cause ice jams."

Gowans said Montpelier is now treating the river with a blast of clean water that gushes 24/7. That water is about 40 degrees, so it softens the ice, Gowans said.

The fire chief added that the city also has a big excavator with an extra-long arm at the ready. The rig could reach out over the Winooski River and break things apart if an ice jam were to form, to make sure the water could flow more normally, Gowans explained.

Gowans said the Montpelier Fire Department will keep doing its daily river monitoring, until it is sure the city is in the clear.

"And get onto summer!" he said, smiling.

Municipalities that cannot send a representative to the scheduled ice jam summits, yet would like more information on the spring ice jam/flood outlook, can contact the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security at (800) 347-0488, the news release said. 

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