The damage from Tropical Storm Irene was unprecedented in its broad geographic reach, but many other more localized flooding events have occured in Vermont in the last decade. The federal government has declared no less than fourteen flooding disaster areas in that time period. Communities that have fared best are those with ample natural areas – intact floodplains and wetlands – in their watersheds.
As climate changes and more storms sweep toward the Green Mountains, we need to work hard at building our flood resilience. Keeping river valley communities safe and avoiding property loss will depend on making the best possible use of natural assets we already have in place.
Land with Big Benefits
Even small areas of wetlands or floodplain forests can provide important defenses against the impacts of climate change while also combatting the root of the problem. Nearly 50% of Vermont's historic wetland area has already been lost or impaired by draining, dredging, filling or excavation. Many once open floodplain areas have also become sites for buildings and roads.
- Storing Carbon. Much like forests, wetlands pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in the ground. The State Association of Wetland Managers reports that wetlands collectively store almost as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. Wetlands are also massive storage centers for methane gas, a more potent but also more short-lived greenhouse gas. When wetlands are degraded or destroyed, they release this stored methane gas into the atmosphere.
- Reducing Flooding. Wetlands are the sponges of the landscape. When they are located next to rivers, wetlands soak up floodwater and release them slowly, dampening their erosive power. This natural process protects the river valley communities downstream and reduces the damage to bridges and culverts, homes and businesses. Similarly, floodplain forests along streams and rivers give water space to spread out and slow down.
- Filtering Water. Wetlands are nature’s filtration plants. They remove pollutants carried in stormwater runoff before they reach nearby lakes and streams. The more intense storms expected in Vermont as our climate changes could wash larger quantities of nutrients like phosphorus into these waters. Intact wetlands will soak up these nutrients, acting as a defense against increased phosphorus pollution and helping to protect water quality and prevent algal blooms. For some communities, this nature-based solution will be essential for protecting drinking water supplies.
- Helping Plants and Animals Adapt. Changes in temperature and precipitation will prompt changes in habitat that will stress some native species of fish and wildlife. Vegetation on river banks and lakeshores can help to offset the negative effects of warming stream temperatures by shading the water and creating cooler areas for coldwater fish like brook trout. Connected natural areas along rivers also form corridors that help animals migrate to more hospitable temperatures or habitats.
Conservation. ANR owns over 350,000 acres of conserved land, much of which is wetlands and floodplain forests. State and federal Duck Stamps have funded many of these acquisitions. We also partner with Vermont land trusts to promote the conservation of these important lands.
Restoration of Degraded Floodplains and Wetlands. In 2015, ANR teamed up with The Nature Conservancy Vermont and Natural Resource Conservation Service to plant thousands of trees along the banks of the Connecticut River and other rivers throughout Vermont. We also worked to restore degraded wetlands, excavating land, plugging drainage ditches, and planting native wetland plants. In fact, many of the wetlands that soaked up water upstream of Middlebury during Tropical Storm Irene were restored with the help of ANR staff.
Work with Municipalities. ANR staff meet with municipal leaders, watershed groups, local land trusts and others to help them identify their biggest natural assets and plan for protecting them. Many Vermont towns have decided to adopt local regulations that avoid development in key wetland and floodplain areas. If disaster should strike, towns that have these regulations will get the highest possible level of state support for matching federal disaster recovery grants.
Guidance for Property Owners. 81% of Vermont’s land is in private ownership. ANR works with private landowners living on lakeshores and along rivers, to share best practices for keeping their land healthy and teeming with terrestrial and aquatic life, especially as the climate changes.
What You Can Do
- Avoid losing these natural assets in your community. ANR's Flood Ready web site helps communities assess flood vulnerability, avoid building new structures in floodplain areas or in wetlands, and plan for constructing and retrofitting flood-ready buildings and infrastructure. The site provides access to maps that can help you determine the location and boundaries of important natural areas.
- Encourage your town select board to partner with the Community Wildlife Program to integrate wetland and floodplain planning into your town plans.
- Become educated on wetlands and where to avoid developing in Vermont by visiting ANR’s Wetlands Program website.
- Leave a buffer zone of natural forested area around wetlands to allow them to undergo their natural processes in addition to providing ideal habitat for wildlife.
- Buy a Habitat Stamp to support the conservation of wetlands and floodplain forests and other important habitats in Vermont.
- Volunteer with the Vermont River Conservancy or a local land trust.