Rose Paul: Growing clean water

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rose Paul, the director of science and fresh water programs for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont. On Aug. 21. Gov. Phil Scott will issue a proclamation declaring Clean Water Week and The Nature Conservancy’s state director Heather Furman will be one of the featured speakers.

I have been thinking about the power of nature with fall hurricane season almost upon us. We are all too familiar with the frightening power of nature in the form of rushing waters, hurricane winds and tornadoes that can rip through our familiar landscape in moments. What does not hit home for most of us is the awesome power of nature to do good. By letting nature flourish, you can help grow clean water.

The Nature Conservancy in Vermont is investing in nature-based solutions to our water quality challenges. Nice slogan, but what does this mean? If we simply relied more on the power of nature as our cleanup crew, we can expect improvements to water quality. Wetlands are natural sponges that soak up runoff and filter pollutants such as sediments from dirt roads and farm fields. Nice wide vegetated buffers along our rivers and streams do this too. It is almost a mantra that forested hillsides provide the best water quality because forest soils absorb rainwater and runoff and allow phosphorus-laden sediments to settle out before they reach surface waters.

A year from now, the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont will release a paper on the relationship between naturally vegetated river corridors and the ability of these critical lands to soak up and prevent phosphorus from reaching Lake Champlain, a research project that The Nature Conservancy commissioned. In the meantime, you can check out The Nature Conservancy’s Water Quality Blueprint that we developed with an expert advisory committee and with financial support from Keurig Green Mountain. The blueprint identifies the places along streams and rivers that should be protected or restored to benefit both water quality and wildlife habitat. Visit to access the web-based map. This science-based tool can be used by local watershed groups, private land owners or community conservation commissions to unleash the power of nature in their backyards to help clean up our waters. The state of Vermont is using this data to inform their cleanup plan for Lake Champlain.

Fancy research and mapping tools aside, what can each of us do to unleash nature’s cleanup powers? Start with your own property. Do you border a stream, river or pond? Do you mow your lawn or plow a field right up to the edge of the water? Consider giving up some space for nature — on many properties such as farms, it may now be the law anyway, but with limited enforcement capacity in state government, you can still do the right thing to help improve our rivers and streams. You will be pleasantly surprised at the unexpected moments when wildlife makes an appearance. Perhaps you’ll see a fox or bobcat padding along the edge of your streamside willows, or you’ll hear the brilliant yellow warblers sounds singing “sweet sweet sweet, I’m so sweet” as they nest in your shrub border. Give nature an inch, and it will return a mile in benefits to you, to our water quality, and to our fellow creatures who live here too. Yes, it is possible to grow clean water and we all have a role to play.

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