EDITORIAL: This eyesore could save your life

STREAMS I’VE KNOWN mostly mind their manners. They stay within their banks and dwindle to a skein of puddles in dry times like this year. But when a storm like Hurricane Matthew blows across North Carolina TV images offer graphic reminders of the forces that etch the Earth with streambeds in the first place.

Previous rain events have missed this county in recent years. Irene in 2011 nearly wiped out some communities in the Catskills but caused glancing damage here. Superstorm Sandy the following year clobbered sections of New York City and coastal New Jersey, leaving Columbia County nearly unscathed. Our good luck is nothing more than chance.

If you accept that someday in the foreseeable future it will rain harder here than other places, it might sound odd that some Ancram residents got worked up last month about the size of a replacement culvert on their rural lane, called Pat’s Road. But the stream that passes through the new, larger Pat’s Road culvert is too small to have an official name, so maybe the reaction is not that odd after all.

Everything in Ancram is rural, which is the way people who live there want to keep it. The new culvert that angered neighbors was much bigger than they were led to expect. It’s not as if it needs toll booths but by Ancram standards it’s a major span and out of keeping with the scale of nearby public works, of which there aren’t any except for the road on top of the culvert.

One resident threatened to take the town to court and compel the officials to build a smaller structure. That’s like demanding the town shut down the road to reduce traffic–it might work but it wouldn’t necessarily be an improvement.

We’re publishing a letter in this issue from Elizabeth LoGiudice, extension educator with the Agroforestry Resource Center of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties. In it she elaborates on some the benefits of this bigger culvert reported by Diane Valden in her Columbia Paper story on the controversy.

We share the belief that the best information we have tells us to get ready for bigger, more frequent storms. And we have to take that knowledge into consideration as we invest in infrastructure improvements.

It’s also critical that as signs of climate change multiply, town and state officials act to harden public works in the safest and most efficient ways possible. In Ancram part of that duty should involve figuring out why this culvert now sits 18″ higher than originally designed.

Maybe it had to do with unexpected soil and groundwater conditions, a rationale offered as a partial explanation by the project engineer. But that leads to a question: Is it common practice to improvise substantial changes on a small bridge like this one, or is the 18″-difference between the original plan and the height of the new culvert “close enough for government work”? If it’s the latter, that doesn’t sound reassuring.

Highway repairs aren’t works of art. They aim to do what’s required to keep traffic flowing safely and reliably for as long as possible. Then move on to the next project; there is always more to do. But bridges, even ones dismissed as mere culverts, serve multiple purposes in addition to traffic flow–like flood control and pathways for fish and other aquatic life (cars can’t squish frogs traveling in culverts). Bridges add character to the landscape.

This culvert has changed the character of the landscape on a section of Pat’s Road. Those who live nearby did not seek and do not welcome it. But what they got is a structure that could have a big impact in mitigating the effect of future flooding on their properties. The fact that the culvert is larger and apparently more substantial than expected will provide an extra measure of safety when, inevitably, floodwaters rise.

These neighbors have also been given a piece of history if it doesn’t get washed away. It’s a genuine piece of early climate-change modern construction, a prime example of the tentative steps rural Americans took in an attempt to adapt to the accelerating threat.

How quaint, historians and anthropologists of some future era will say as they examine this culvert. The civilization here in the early 21st century built this cement object to last, undoubtedly as a monument of some sort. But what did their houses look like, they’ll ask, and why couldn’t they stop their world from warming?

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