Along Lake Champlain in Vermont, Homeowners Eye Rising Waters

April 23, 2008

On the shoreline at Keeler Bay in South Hero, Vermont, spring has sprung.

Swollen by runoff from snowmelt, the blue water of Lake Champlain laps at the boulders and brick pavers, washes up under the house and covers the boat launch at Art and Laurie Huse’s waterfront home.

It hasn’t washed over the road yet, but it’s still rising. Like others who live along low-lying parts of the lake’s coastline, the Huses have been through this before. They’re not worrying — yet.

“It’s the dues we pay to live in a place like this,” said Laurie Huse, 58, looking out a picture window at the water. “It’s what we talk about in the spring, ‘I wonder if it’s coming,’ ‘Are we going under?’ But once you make the decision to live here, you have to accept it.”

The 120-mile long lake, which is bordered by Vermont, New York and Quebec, is brimming over following a winter of record snow across Vermont and northern New England. It surpassed its 100-foot flood stage April 13 and stood at 100.54 as of Saturday, high enough that the Route 2 causeway leading onto the island has lake waters up to the edge of the road on both sides.

With much snow still to melt and weather patterns uncertain, those who live closest to it are engaged in their annual rites of spring — monitoring lake levels online, moving belongings to higher ground and waiting.

“I’m not nervous, but it’s definitely high,” said Joe Solomon, 57, who owns a year-round home at water’s edge. “I haven’t seen it this high in years, and certainly not with so much more to come.”

Historically, the lake level reaches flood stage about every other year. It’s the prospect of a 101-foot or 102-foot level that sparks abject fear along the waterline. In 1993, it hit 101.88 — the highest level ever recorded — flooding cottages and turning residential propane tanks into big, floating buoys.

“We’re still seeing some snowmelt from higher elevations, but the majority of the lower elevations have seen their snow gone,” said Conor Lahiff, a National Weather Service meteorologist in South Burlington. “There’s still water from tributaries getting into the lake. We still could see continued rises, but we’re not looking for it to reach a stage where it would affect property.”

Still, owners of small cottages and other seasonal homes — about 25 percent of South Hero’s houses are not occupied year-round — have been scurrying to the island in recent weeks to check on water levels and prepare for the worst.

For the Huses, most of the preparation has long since been done.

The couple, who bought the property in 1999 and later raised it up and renovated it, have built in dozens of features to cope with the rise and fall of the lake.

The footings under the house are made of crushed stone, wrapped in porous landscaping cloth, which allows water to wash in and out without causing damage. On top of that is a concrete pad, reinforced with steel rebar. The perimeter of the building is fortified with marine-grade plywood nailed to pressure-treated 2-by-4s, to protect from waterborne logs or other items smashing into it.

The electrical system and septic system are sealed, and there’s a backup power generator on site just in case.

If worst comes to worst, says Art Huse, 58, he can go for groceries in a canoe.

“It’s a beautiful and a frightening place,” said Huse, who keeps tabs on the water level even when he’s at work, tuning into a webcam set up in a windowsill of his living room. “All winter long, we watch the snow levels and how much snow is on Mt. Mansfield, with the idea that when spring comes, that snow has to go somewhere.

“We like to see some early warm days that whittle away (snow), followed by cold, a start again, a stop, with no rain. What we dread are a sudden warm front and a slow-moving heavy rainstorm, because that means everything comes down at once,” he said.

Sometimes, the ebb and flow of the water makes for strange discoveries on low-lying properties. Like fish out of water.

Arlene Perry, 87, who has owned property down Wallys Point Road for 60 year, says one of her neighbors was mowing his lawn one day when he found a perch.

“He didn’t know if a bird dropped it, or it was just left there (by receding lake water),” she said.

“There’s good things about high water, too,” said Art Huse. “Ducks swimming on your lawn. Herons stalking fish on your lawn. Schools of fish on your lawn. I’ve gone out to mow and seen baby sunfish, baby pike, baby perch. It’s a nursery. These shallow areas act as nurseries because big fish don’t come up to them and they’re warm this time of year.”


On the Net:

Huse’s webcam:

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