Markowitz: Lessons from Irene help us prepare for future floods

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Deb Markowitz, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

Like many Vermonters this summer, by July I was sick of the constant rain. My garden beds flooded. The house smelled vaguely of mildew. I was worried about the swollen rivers and flooded lakes. And, I watched the damage mount – storm after storm – to homes, to roads, to farms, and to weather-dependent businesses.

There is little doubt that Vermont is in for wetter springs as climate change unfolds. Indeed, this year, May and June were the wettest consecutive 30-day periods on record for Vermont.

The floods we experienced this past summer, like Irene, remind us that rivers flowing through Vermont communities have tremendous power to wreak havoc. They also remind us that we must prepare for our changing climate, and there are many things we can do.


The floods we experienced this past summer, like Irene, remind us that rivers flowing through Vermont communities have tremendous power to wreak havoc. They also remind us that we must prepare for our changing climate, and there are many things we can do.

We learned some important lessons from Irene. Healthy forests that absorb rainfall, and flood plains that give rivers room to spill out and dissipate energy, will temper the immense power of floodwaters before they inflict costly damage to our town centers. Vermont’s prized land use pattern – beautiful walkable villages surrounded by working farms, wetlands, and forests — is the single most cost-effective strategy we can pursue to buffer communities from the impacts of fast-moving water. And, we can inadvertently increase the risks of erosion and flood damage when we remove debris and fix damage after heavy rains.

As a result of these lessons, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) has been busy. We are developing rules in response to new legislation, to guide emergency stream projects after storms that will assure public safety and the quick repair of critical infrastructure without inadvertently making rivers more prone to flooding. We formed a new partnership between Vermont’s land conservation organizations and ANR that will target conservation efforts to protect critical natural places that make us resilient to flooding. Finally, state agencies are working together to ensure that new or repaired infrastructure is built to withstand future floods, and we are exploring policies to promote compact growth in historic town centers while preserving undeveloped floodplain areas such as working farms, wetlands and river valley forests.

We can also learn from the many communities battered by Irene that have taken positive steps to reduce their vulnerability to future flood damage. These communities have invested in conserving undeveloped flood plains, have rebuilt infrastructure to withstand future floods, have adopted local zoning bylaws to limit growth in vulnerable areas, and have used new techniques to better manage stormwater.

Here are some things that we can do in every community:

• Ensure that flood water has somewhere to go. Our farms, wetlands and fields provide a place where flooding rivers can spill out and slow down. Healthy forests also protect us by absorbing as much as 70 percent of the rain that falls on them before it flows overland to streams. Protecting these areas means less flood damage in our valley villages and homes.

• Grow wisely in our river valley towns. When we invest in development in our historic town centers, we create places where Vermonters want to live, and we also keep the fields and forests nearby intact so they can dampen serious floods. But living near rivers calls for smart, flood-savvy investments.

• Recover stronger: Build bridges and culverts to withstand flooding. Many of our culverts are too small and our bridges too low for the storm flows of today. And many roads are too close to our most unpredictable river channels. We need to better understand where our infrastructure faces serious risks so that we can plan to rebuild with resilience in mind.

• Slow stormwater before it rushes into streams. Our steep mountain hillsides send water rushing downhill not only during storms like Irene, but also during the smaller storms we’ve seen this summer. We must slow this runoff down if we want to prevent flooding disasters in the valley bottoms. By managing stormwater so it absorbs into the ground, we prevent damaging floods. This also provides water quality benefits (keeping nutrient-high sediment and contaminants out of our water bodies) and helps to recharge our groundwater aquifers.

Irene was one of the costliest disasters in the state’s history, both in terms of the human costs as well as costs to our communities, families and businesses. Using the lessons we learned from Irene we can ensure that Vermont is stronger and better prepared for the future.

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What some towns have done

The following are examples of actions taken by Irene-impacted towns to promote future resilience:

Keep development safe. Brandon (along with 18 other towns) recently passed a new bylaw to keep new buildings out of areas where the risk of erosion is very high, acknowledging that the river needs room to move and release energy.

Protect town centers. Bristol is using state and federal funding to buy 40 acres along the New Haven River to permanently protect a flood plain that buffers downstream towns and infrastructure from flooding, while also creating a great spot for anglers, and a beautiful greenway for residents and visitors.

Support homeowners. The Town of Northfield is helping 12 homeowners hit hard by Irene by buying their homes so they can relocate; their land will become flood plain once again. Londonderry, Stockbridge and many other towns are also finding creative ways to help homeowners in their towns.

Protect existing buildings. Before Irene, Lincoln used federal grants to floodproof its historic Town Hall with flood gates on its windows and doors; the building held up beautifully during the tropical storm.

Build new buildings to withstand larger floods. The state is rebuilding the Waterbury state office complex in a way that provides more space for the river and ensures that new buildings are more flood resilient.

Build infrastructure for tomorrow’s climate. Pawlet has been slowly replacing its undersized culverts for years with help from federal grants, and now culvert washouts are much rarer. Road projects have also cut back on erosion problems and maintenance costs.

Sink it where it falls. The City of Rutland and the Rutland Conservation District have partnered together to find innovative ways of managing stormwater in the city, including building rain gardens on city properties, and helping residents to disconnect their downspouts from storm drains and instead manage their stormwater on site with rain barrels and rain gardens.

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  • rosemarie jackowski

    There still are many unmet needs. It is not the government’s responsibility to support home owners – but if there was some way that a supply of generators could be made available and rented it would eliminate loss from property damage. Many have no alternative source of heat. We should prepare for the next big one, which could be during the winter. Frozen bursting pipes can do a lot of damage.

    Another issue is that of communication. During Irene even the police radios did not work. Only those with land line phones had any communication. One former town official has suggested that we go back to WW2 type sirens. It would be better than nothing.

    Also, there is a need for accurate information during any crisis. The governor had messages on the radio that told citizens to call a certain phone number, (I forget what it was – maybe 211.) When that number was called, it was answered by someone in Maine who had no information on conditions in Vermont.

    It might also help if we start thinking about burying the electrical wires. Wind, snow, and trees – that’s a crisis waiting to happen. And are the GMP repair vehicles all still garaged in Sunderland so they can’t get to Bennington during a blizzard?

  • Matt Fisken

    I’ve never heard “sink it where it falls” – only “where water runs, make it walk” which I think is the same idea.

    Rosemarie hints at the biggest challenge facing resilient communities. Many people continue to feel strongly that it’s not the government’s responsibility to arrange how we live our lives. State agencies like ANR can hopefully bridge that gap by offering advice to home owners and communities about how to plan with an eye toward extreme weather events. A lot of people are somewhat prepared, but there are still a lot of land that could be helped to better absorb runoff, which is the main lesson we’re still learning.