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Conserving floodplains can protect Vermonters from flooding, but limits housing

A woman with a clipboard stands on the banks of a river and looks down into the water.
Lia Chien
Vermont Public
Erin De Vries, the conservation director of the Vermont River Conservancy, examines a floodplain along the North Branch of the Winooski River in Worcester.

In early July, as rivers crested their banks across the state, many people feared for their homes, crops and land. But others were glad their land was flooding.

Around Vermont, conserved floodplains protected downstream villages and infrastructure, and experts say more will be needed in the future. Yet, protecting land and providing enough housing in the state will also be a critical balancing act.

Along the North Branch of the Winooski River in Worcester just off Route 12, ferns and willow trees line the water. Behind them, lush, green vegetation provides habitat to animals and plants. But this field-like area also provides protection for us humans.

This is a floodplain, and they are crucial to slowing rain-swollen rivers, much like the ones we saw duringthe floods in July.

More fromBrave Little State: Why Vermont streams have become more powerful — and how that fuels devastating flooding

Erin De Vries is the conservation director for theVermont River Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to protect rivers and lands across the state. She said there was upwards of 4 feet of water in this Worcester floodplain during the floods.

“We could probably mark where the high watermark was,” De Vries said. “We’d be, like, underwater right now.”

This field is about 7 miles from Montpelier. And while the capital city was hit hard by this summer’s flooding, it could have been a lot worse.

Since floodplains like the one in Worcester flooded, it meant some of the water had a place to go, meaning it wasn’t rushing downstream towards homes and businesses.

“So, you know, having these floodplains to allow the water to settle down, to go and spread out is really important for that infrastructure and those businesses,” De Vries said.

And while we would like to keep large amounts of water outside of our downtowns, vegetation in floodplains gladly welcomes all that rain.

“This wetland just loved it up. All the waters now, you know, down in the groundwater are making its way there,” De Vries said.

Floodplains serve many purposes, such as providing habitat for plants and animals and promoting biodiversity. But water and sediment storage are the two key benefits. Water storage protects communities and infrastructure, and sediment storage keeps dirt and debris out of farmland.

The floodplain De Vries works on in Worcester is called a conservation easement. That means the landowner has signed away the development rights and agreed to use it solely for conservation purposes. Organizations like the Vermont River Conservancy work with landowners to educate and maintain their easements.

In Northfield, Joe Zuaro owns almost 17 acres of land along the Dog River, which flows towards the village of Northfield and Montpelier. With the River Conservancy, he’s conserved an 8.5 acre easement.

A river flows between grassy banks and trees. A small island is in the middle of the river covered in rocks and grass.
Lia Chien
Vermont Public
This basin in the Dog River flows through Joe Zuaro's backyard in Northfield, and helps collect water during floods.

“What we gained is this big huge basin here that fills with water when there's a flood. And I think that's what helped, you know, prevent it from going up further,” Zuaro said.

Zuaro’s property on the river is half a mile from the village of Northfield. And when the July floods came, his easement helped to prevent the downtown from damage.

“This is the biggest secret in Northfield,” he said. “Nobody knows how much good it's doing.”

There are certain restrictions Zuaro has to follow. He can’t put permanent structures close to the river, like solar panels, and he can’t mow right up to the river banks. But he said he wishes he had conserved his land sooner.

“We were so ignorant about it when we first moved here in 1984. You know, we felt, well, ‘We want a big field here, so mow as close to the river as possible,’ you know, but we wish we hadn't done that. We wish we had created a buffer,” Zuaro said.

Even when Zuaro and his family decide to sell their property, the land will always be protected. Easements are in perpetuity, and always belong to the land.

Conservation of natural spaces got a lot of attention in the latest legislative session. In June, Gov. Scott allowed the Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act to become law, which calls for the conservation of 30% of Vermont’s land by 2030 and 50% by 2050.

Amy Sheldon is a representative from Middlebury and chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee. She said the new conservation law will help in protecting the floodplains Zuaro and De Vries are working to conserve.

“Benefits we'll see from that, right front of everyone's mind right now, is the enhanced flood protection that forests and river corridors and wetlands and all of those areas will provide for human communities,” Sheldon said.

Green trees stand behind a field with green and brown grass.
Lia Chien
Vermont Public
The easement on Joe Zuaro's property in Northfield was flooded in early July as the Dog River crested its banks.

But there’s one problem. The more we conserve land, the less space there is for housing — something in dire need throughout the state. And finding that balance between conservation and housing is challenging, but necessary.

Trey Martin is with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, an organization that works to strengthen Vermont’s housing capacity and balance the need for conservation. He said when we think about building more housing, we need to make sure it’s not in harm's way.

“I think we need to be looking in the places that don't have special natural or environmental values,” Martin said. “And that includes thinking about homes or infrastructure that are in floodplains currently, that might have to be relocated.”

Rudi Ruddell, a watershed scientist at the White River Partnership, echoed this idea, and said spending more money initially will save us in the future.

“But if we start to do the cost benefit analysis of repeat flooding and damages that [are] escalating as our climate changes, the trade offs in choosing those harder places to develop start to become more efficient, more cost effective in the long run,” Ruddell said.

More fromVermont Public: The connection between extreme rain and climate change in Vermont

But figuring out where to put that needed housing is another question. Mary Russ, the executive director of the White River Partnership, said it’s going to require a lot of creativity.

“When you think about the true cost of housing, then we simply can't afford to develop in vulnerable areas. And yet, there's not a lot of land,” Russ said. “I feel like we can find a way. If anyone can, Vermonters can.”

And once housing is out of flood-prone areas, we need to make sure it’s accessible to the rest of our communities, and the environmental burdens and responsibilities are shared equally.

At the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Martin said equity is vital in protecting land and building homes.

“We're also thinking about, in all of the actions that we take, how to promote a Vermont where there's equitable access, where there is, you know, the access to environmental benefits is as equitable as possible, on where the environmental burdens that people carry are distributed more equitably, as well,” said Martin.

Back in Worcester, Erin De Vreis with the Vermont River Conservancy said one solution could be looking for land for housing upstream from floodplains. The state has detailed maps that show where Vermont’s rivers are prone to flooding.

“And if we look at those plans and those maps and we kind of just see it as like, this is the river lands and the river needs this in order to prevent flooding downstream communities, so we'll just keep it at that,” De Vries said. “And then we just move up and see what space we have.”

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