ANR report examines state’s environmental resilience to natural disaster

The town of Bethel, post-Irene. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The town of Bethel, post-Irene. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A report released Monday by Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources gives Vermonters some insight as to why Irene so devastated some communities and how other communities escaped even greater crises.

“Resilience: A Report on the Health of Vermont’s Environment” examines 10 aspects of Vermont’s environmental health. As the title suggests, the report looks into the greatest threats facing the state’s environment and how resilient the various aspects are to another disaster on the scale of Tropical Storm Irene.

The report follows the tradition of the ANR’s annual state of the environment reports issued between 1993 and 2004, when the agency stopped doing the reports. Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said the year’s events led the agency to take a fresh look at the state’s environment.

“In light of the incredible year we’ve experience and in light of the incredible stresses we’ve seen on our natural environment, we decided to re-institute this tradition,” Markowitz said at a press conference in the Statehouse Monday.

While it focused on the environment at large, a majority of the report focused on Vermont’s preparedness (and – in some cases – lack thereof) for Tropical Storm Irene. The effects of Irene were spread throughout the report, with sections on reducing flood damage, cleaning up Lake Champlain and building resilient infrastructure.

“[The report] identifies the biggest threats to Vermont’s environmental health and asks important questions about what we need to do to make sure Vermont is more resilient into the future,” Markowitz said.

“Flooding will happen again,” the report says, and it’s not a matter of if, but when. Maintaining and restoring floodplains – areas where river overflow will cause minimal damage, lowering the risk to downstream communities – is a vital step in preventing flooding damage.

Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, unveils new report about the status of Vermont's environment. Photo by Taylor Dobbs
Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, unveils new report about the status of Vermont's environment. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

After analyzing 8,000 of Vermont’s 23,000 miles of rivers and streams, ANR determined that almost 75 percent of those river miles are considered “unstable,” meaning they “are more likely to produce destructive floodwaters that result in property loss, create public safety risks, and harm downstream river and lake ecosystems.”

Human development caused much of this river instability. Thirty to 50 percent of Vermont’s river miles have been artificially straightened, the report says, and levees and berms meant to contain the river had the opposite effect when Irene hit. Rising water caused the rivers to jump their banks, and a lack of planned floodplains meant the overflow was disastrous almost instantly. The report suggests River Corridor Planning, a process through which communities protect naturally existing floodplains, map areas vulnerable to flooding and limit development in those areas and restore existing floodplains.

The report also emphasized building a resilient infrastructure with safeguards against extreme flooding conditions. It cited Rutland’s use of an already-established backup water supply after its main supply pipe washed away in Tropical Storm Irene and Rochester’s well head being above the 100-year floodplain elevation as examples of resilient infrastructures. Other communities did not fare so well when Irene hit.

Pipes buried in riverbeds and attached to bridges and other vulnerable structures are “critical vulnerabilities,” according to the report. Wells, water distribution centers, and wastewater treatment centers “are often situated directly on floodplains, sometimes perilously close to riverbanks, making them vulnerable to inundation and erosion hazards.”

Precarious location is only part of the problem. Much of the state’s infrastructure is deteriorating with age, the report said, and the lack of a centralized inventory of infrastructure makes cost-effective upgrades difficult. Through the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division, ANR seeks to help communities establish such an inventory and help them efficiently upgrade their infrastructure to avoid failures.

Other issues addressed in the report included climate change, protecting lakeshores, reducing air pollution, enhancing forest resilience, conserving habitat, minimizing waste and drawing kids outdoors.

ANR’s report brings up many environmental issues the state needs to deal with, and some solutions are already at work. Infrastructure planning, citizen education and outreach, and protective legislation can all help the state’s environment, but the report looks to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for help on some issues, especially air pollution, much of which originates in up-wind states with fewer environmental controls. Multiple EPA-proposed rules that would help Vermont are bogged down at the federal level, either in Congress or the court system, preventing further assistance.

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