FARMINGTON — An eroding bank beneath Whittier Road constitutes an “imminent threat,” but local officials say reams of paperwork and concerns about affecting salmon habitat may prevent them from addressing it in time.

“I cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation,” Denis Castonguay, Farmington’s public works director, wrote to state officials in a plea for help.

The threat comes as an embankment of the Sandy River is giving way beneath the onslaught of the year’s unusual weather. Over the last three months alone, Castonguay wrote on June 27, the bank has lost 9 feet, with more expected.

He described a cycle of erosion that is worsening steadily.

“Sporadic, unusually large rain events have resulted in rapid rise in river level followed by rapid drawdown. This pattern has worsened embankment blowouts,” he said.

The road is 30 feet from the embankment, according to Castonguay.

Town Manager Richard Davis said the town would like to stabilize the bank to protect travelers on Whittier Road, but that an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funds is not moving quickly enough.

In April, the town applied for money to cover 75 percent to 80 percent of the costs of a bank stabilization project that would protect the road from further erosion.

“It takes them a long time to process things,” he said.

Castonguay’s June 27 letter was written in hopes that it would speed things along. On Tuesday, however, Davis said he will present the Board of Selectmen with a letter for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to ask her for help.

“It’s time to try going the political route,” he said.

David Leavitt, director of transportation for the Farmington school district, said he is monitoring the situation carefully.

Every school day, Leavitt said, school buses make about 20 trips on Whittier Road. Summer school buses also use the road throughout the season.

“I have direct contact with Tim Hardy, the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency director,” Leavitt said. “I talk to him and the highway foreman and get their assessment. … When they think things aren’t looking good, we’ll change the bus route.”

Leavitt said that rerouting buses to avoid using the road is possible but comes with a cost.

“There would be a fairly significant financial impact, plus longer bus rides,” he said.

JoAnn Mooney, the state’s hazard mitigation officer, has been working with the federal agency to process the application.

The reason applications for federal emergency management funds take so long, she said, is that each has to be clear a long list of federal requirements.

As evidence, she noted a list of laws that any submitted project must be vetted against. The list includes 14 laws, from the National Historic Preservation Site Act to the Clean Air Act to the Farmlands Protection Act. The approval process for each item is managed by a different federal entity. Coordinating all those agencies takes time, she said.

In this case, the proposed fix to the unsteady riverbank is raising concerns about important salmon habitat in the Sandy River from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Because of this, the project could run up against objections based on the Clean Water Act, the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

“Those three are going to be the most challenging,” Mooney said.

One likely outcome, Mooney said, would be a requirement to redesign the bank stabilization project to be in line with best practices.

“If we were to redesign anything, that’s additional costs,” Mooney said. “That’s additional time.” Farmington’s leaders say that time is running out.

“The case the town has been trying to make is that this is an imminent threat; and really, if we don’t address this right away, we’re going to have more than fish to worry about,” Mooney said.

Even if the project clears all legal hurdles, Mooney said, funding won’t be assured.

“It’s a two-step process,” she said. “It’s an environmental review process, and it’s a funding process. … This is the first hoop.”

On Friday, Mooney said she expected to hear something back from the federal agency by Monday.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]

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