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VT Needs to Plan for Climate Resiliency Now!

A metal bridge over the Williams River in Rockingham, Vermont.

As River Steward for Connecticut River Conservancy, I can’t stop thinking about rivers.  Since the 2011 Tropical Storm Irene, as an organization we have been racing to get projects done to protect communities before the next big flood. Projects like berm removals that allow our rivers to access floodplains so they can slow down and dissipate the energy of flood waters, projects like the removal of deadbeat dams – all of which are no longer in use and have been blocking our rivers for years – that will lower the flood stage when they are out of the way, projects like planting trees along rivers to help slow the energy of floodwaters and provide a healthy forested buffer for flood waters to infiltrate.

We all know that in July and then again in December many of our communities got hammered by floods. We still have neighbors that are waiting for help to “build back better” and we are being schooled about the expense of being reactive instead of proactive.

Fortunately, the VT legislature started this session with a healthy dose of urgency and is poised to pass some important climate resiliency legislation. Senate bill 213 (S213) will implement multiple changes that will help us proactively protect our communities before the next flood.

These changes include moving the regulation of development in the areas along riverbanks from municipalities to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The volunteers who run most of our municipalities have been burdened with this responsibility. Unfortunately, partly because it puts them at odds with their neighbors it has not been done comprehensively, if at all.  Water advocates agree that the State is the more appropriate entity to have responsibility to regulate flood hazard areas and our river corridors to provide space for our rivers to move, reduce flood energy, and store water in their floodplains. The DEC has expertise and experience dealing with accurately identifying river corridors.

There is also a strong focus on protecting and restoring our wetlands. Wetlands enable the storage of huge volumes of water while simultaneously purifying it. According to some estimates, we have lost over 30% of our wetlands and we desperately need that storage capacity back. How our wetlands are managed cannot be at the whim of a specific administration. We need comprehensive mapping to understand where our valuable wetlands are to protect them, and we need to codify in law the intention that the Agency of Natural Resources will structure their work around wetlands to achieve a net gain over time.

Some privately owned dams, that no longer have any beneficial use, often fall apart and continue to deteriorate or breach during flooding events. In Vermont and nationally, our dam infrastructure is old and decaying. S213 would make changes to the existing State’s Dam Revolving Loan Fund to provide an easier pathway to access funds to remove dangerous or breached dams instead of using State funds only to repair them.  We need additional support for our Dam Safety staff to increase inspections and provide additional funding to get unused and unsafe dams out of our rivers. Additionally, we need to move the oversight of the few hydro facilities in VT that are not regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from the Public Utilities Commission to the VT DEC Dam Safety Program  – who has the expertise and engineers needed to properly inspect dams and protect public safety.

Flood resilience costs money up front, so we need to expand the flexibility of our Clean Water Funding to increase implementation of natural resource projects for flood resiliency all over the State.  While we support the Agency of Natural Resources work to address the excess amount of phosphorus affecting Lake Champlain, we also need increased support for projects all over the state that will protect our communities from the excessive and expensive flooding that we know will be coming our way, year after year from now on.

This commentary is by Kathy Urffer, resident of Brattleboro and River Steward for Connecticut River Conservancy in VT.


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