Vermont, October 1, 2013. Here is an idea for you to consider. What if we changed our units of local government away from the land grant towns chartered in New Hampshire and Vermont replacing town boundary lines on a map with the boundaries of watersheds? In Vermont, we would have four units of government made up of the Connecticut River, Lake Champlain, Lake Mephremegog and the Hudson River watersheds. In New Hampshire, we would have five: the Connecticut, the Merrimack, the Piscataqua, the Androscoggin, and the Saco River watersheds.
In order for you to address that question for yourself, it might be helpful to remember the working definition of a watershed. A watershed is an area of land over which all the surface water drains to a specific waterbody. You pick the water body, a stream, lake, river or ocean and then follow the land up to its highest point. All the water the flows downhill to that water body defines that watershed.
Another element to add to your ruminations is that water draws us a personal map that organizes our sense of place. People define themselves as living in the West River, the White River or the Ammonoosuc River valleys. On the Connecticut River in VT and NH, the people refer to their place as the Connecticut River valley. People on the entire western side of Vermont call their home the Lake Champlain region.
Over the last six decades, in the face of this lack of sense of place created by drawing lines on a map, watershed organizations have sprung up all over the country. These efforts have formalized what has been the historic practice of people identifying themselves by watersheds. Here in northern New England, we have joined league with other states, and even another country, around watersheds. We now have the Joint River Commissions across the Connecticut River, the Lake Champlain Commission across that watershed in two states and into Canada. When you look at nature and how she organized life, watersheds make much more sense than existing political boundaries as we know them.
Under watershed governance, all citizens would be members of a community defined by their watershed. The watershed would be the point of departure for discussions, planning or development decisions. The evaluation of the cumulative impacts of development on the natural limits of watershed areas and their continued health to nourish all the species that rely on the water and the land to exist would be the first item talked about, not the last.
New Zealand is one of several existing examples of this watershed type of organization of regional planning and permitting units of government. New Zealand has 12 regional councils that develop land use plans, permit development and control watershed uses. They are a level of government in place to support the local towns and cities.
With the watershed reorganization of government in mind, look at the Local River Advisory Committee structure under the New Hampshire Rivers Management and Protection Program. In order to enroll a river in the program a local watershed group has to nominate the river to the New Hampshire Legislature. The strength of the program is the local group appointed by selectboards must stay in place once the nomination is successful to implement their plans for the river. This process requires people to think beyond town jurisdictional lines and about their entire watershed. The local group is not regulatory but the members do sit down, review applications for development within their watersheds, and forward their advice to the permit writers.
The Connecticut River Joint Commissions (CRJC) nominated the entire Connecticut River from Canada to Massachusetts into the program successfully. CRJC has 15 members from each state with interests as diverse as environmental advocates, planners, farmers, sport fishing, local government, tourism, logging and hydropower. The other rivers in the NH program have memberships as diverse and that is the point. If you are to make progress on protecting our rivers, all the stakeholders must be part of the conversation. In the case of the Connecticut River, representatives of the selectboards from both sides of the river review the development applications in both states. The impact of development does not respect artificial jurisdictional lines and neither do the reviewers. Their review starts and ends with the river!
Vermont has a system of water law that allows citizens to raise the protection level on water through petitions to the Agency of Natural Resources. These are valuable tools, but none of the laws or regulations requires a local group to remain in place to implement a long-term plan. Vermont of course has Watershed Associations and basin planners but they are not permanently connected to the policy process that determines the future development of the watershed in question.
As a human contrivance, no governmental structure could be perfect but the watershed approach would make more sense from the point of view of Mother Nature.
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David L. Deen, River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC is celebrating 60 years as a protector of the Connecticut River.