Remembering historic 2011 Lake Champlain flooding

Even with the bit of rain we have been seeing, Lake Champlain still sits below average this year. But a decade ago, it was a very different scene.
Published: Apr. 23, 2021 at 4:40 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 23, 2021 at 7:45 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Even with the recent rain we have been seeing, Lake Champlain’s water levels are still below average this year. But a decade ago, it was a very different scene for many lakeside residents.

“The canoe -- they were taking a canoe or a little rowboat up from the house to the road,” said Gail Cootey, a Burlington resident, remembering the scene from 2011.

Cootey lived high enough off the lake that her house wasn’t hit by high water levels. Lake Champlain was in flood stage for 66 straight days, with water going into homes and causing major damage for many families. “I just remember being in awe,” said Terry Pomerleau, a South Burlington resident who was 22-years-old at the time.

His parents’ house was underwater to the point he taught his dog how to swim in his side yard. After all, Pomerleau says that’s about all there was to do. “There wasn’t a whole lot you could do. It was just a sit and wait until it receded,” he said. “The house had to be completely gutted right down to the framing, sprayed down with bleach. There was mold, there was issues, and completely renovated again.”

And those that made it out with no damage were still in awe of the lake’s power. “We would drive down here to check out the damage or the water, and we couldn’t believe how high it was,” said Cootey.

“The water was just coming across and taking over entire parking lots, going up against buildings, and obviously causing some property damage,” said Barry Lampke with the ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain. He remembers the flooding well, and now works right next to it. He says even a decade later, remembering that wet spring reminds us that the lake is always close by. “It is really a reminder that we are in connection with nature and we are part of a system, and we need to acknowledge those natural forces.”

The passing of a decade has healed much of the millions of dollars in physical damage, but it reminds those most impacted, that nature demands respect. “It makes you realize that you do have to respect it and work with it, rather than against it,” said Pomerleau.

Pomerleau also says since then, he has had a much greater awareness of floodplains in relation to property.

Experts say water levels rising and falling are natural, but they have impacts on ecosystems along the waterfront. Lampke says the changes in lake level affect what is called the littoral zone, or the first few feet of water around the edge of a lake or pond. It’s a critical area for nesting and growth of vegetation that can be food and protection for animals. “This is a place where there is an interface between the terrestrial ecosystem and the aquatic ecosystem, where life on land meets life in water and so as that has these natural fluctuations these fluctuations can affect nesting patterns as well as growth of aquatic vegetation,” said Lampke.

Low levels can also contribute to rising lake temperatures and stimulate the growth of blue-green algae, something that keeps people from using the lake. And on the flip side of that, high water levels can contribute to water drawing more pollutants into the lake from land. Lampke say lake level changes are natural and it’s something humans have to continue to deal with.

2011 was also the year Tropical Storm Irene blew into Vermont, another natural force from that year that sticks in the minds of many Vermonters.

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