Vermont lawmakers ponder new fund to minimize damage from future flood disasters
The financial costs of climate change are mounting quickly in Vermont, and lawmakers next year will be looking for new ways to minimize the economic damage that natural disasters inflict.
The state has seen at least one federally declared flood disaster every year since Tropical Storm Irene, and total losses from the floods of 2023 alone will be measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Elected officials in Montpelier won’t be able to protect the state from catastrophic weather events in the future; they are hoping to prevent those events from causing the widespread devastation Vermont experienced over the summer.
Vermont Public’s Jenn Jarecki spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld to learn more about what the debate over climate resiliency might look like when the Legislature reconvenes in January. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: The flooding Vermont experienced in July and August has raised some really urgent questions about what we as a state can do to prevent the kind of widespread devastation we saw in places like Barre and Montpelier and Ludlow and Londonderry.
What specific proposals can we expect to see from lawmakers during the 2024 legislative session?
Peter Hirschfeld: There are two bills related to this issue that were introduced in both the House and Senate way back in January, well before those catastrophic floods swept through Vermont. And as you might imagine, what we saw over the summer is going to put some renewed attention on those proposals.
The bills are almost identical. And what they’d do is establish a new, state-level fund that would provide grants to municipalities to undertake disaster mitigation work. This could involve the purchase of property along river corridors, for example, to create or expand flood plains. It could also involve projects such as the widening of culverts, to prevent floods from washing out roads or threatening nearby homes.
Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims is lead sponsor of the House bill, and also the co-chair of the Legislature’s Rural Caucus. She says Vermont is already getting money from the federal government to undertake some resiliency work. But she says the bureaucratic hurdles to accessing that money make it really difficult for small communities, such as the ones she represents, to use those funds:
“We can usually access state and federal FEMA dollars to clean up in a disaster, but what we lack is a long-term, consistent source of funds to help make those upfront investments that prevent or reduce the damage from a weather event.”
The legislation calls for $15 million annually in new state funding for this mitigation program. It would be funded in part by a new tax on insurance premiums. And it’ll be a starting point for what is going to be a pretty robust debate in Montpelier over how to make sure the next disaster Vermont experiences doesn’t cause the level of destruction we saw this summer.
Gov. Phil Scott highlighted the issue of disaster resiliency at a recent press conference. What are his plans on this front, and how has his administration responded to the proposed legislation?
The governor isn’t going to support any legislative proposal that involves a new tax, whether that tax is on insurance premiums or fossil fuel companies or any other new revenue stream Democratic lawmakers might be eying to support this effort.
But that doesn’t mean the administration isn’t open to new funding mechanisms. Vermont Emergency Management is about to unveil the latest version of its State Hazard Mitigation Plan, which is an almost textbook length analysis of the threats Vermont faces from floods and erosion and heat and invasive species and other natural causes. And the draft version of that report explicitly calls for the creation of a permanent state fund to do hazard mitigation work outside the confines of federal agencies like FEMA.
Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore says the administration agrees with that goal — agrees that a state-managed fund would provide some needed flexibility that could help important projects get done. But she says the state needs to sort of fine tune its game plan for what mitigation looks like in the future before it can move forward with this kind of initiative.
And she says asking the state to run point on mitigation activities probably isn’t going to be the most effective approach in every case:
“Not all of this is maybe the work of state government, right? And that’s a place where I don’t think we have real clarity right now, which is challenging in thinking how you structure and fund a program.”
Last year, Vermont appropriated about $37 million toward disaster mitigation activities. It’s an unprecedented amount, thanks in part to money Vermont got from the American Rescue Plan Act. Moore says that level of funding is sufficient to pay for the volume of mitigation projects Vermont can reasonably undertake right now. And she says the state is at a point where it needs to have a conversation about what its goals are in the mitigation universe, and then reverse engineer the policy and funding mechanisms that allows it to achieve those goals.
This debate seems to beg the question — What would it take for this state to become truly climate resilient? What are the mitigation projects we’d need to undertake to ensure that communities aren’t devastated when flooding inevitably occurs? And, of course, how much would it cost to complete those projects?
I talked to almost a dozen people in the legislative and executive branches about this, and the answer seems to be that is nobody really knows. When Vermont tackled the issue of pollution in Lake Champlain, the Legislature and the governor and the Environmental Protection Agency arrived at a quantifiable, measurable goal for reducing the amount of phosphorus going into the lake — a hard target that the state could then create specific policies and plans to hit. When lawmakers decided to take on the challenge of reducing carbon emissions to mitigate climate change, they enacted legislation with a concrete target for emissions reductions, a target that can be analyzed and measured, which it turn forces the enactment of a specific policy plan to achieve it.
When it comes to climate resiliency though, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent measurable target. No one can say that if Vermont performs this many culvert replacements and that many flood-proofing projects, we’ll achieve a level of mitigation we can all feel good about.
Lawmakers say there’s certainly hundreds of millions of dollars in projects out there that we’d be wise to undertake. But they don’t have a comprehensive list of where those projects are, how much each would cost, or any idea at this point of how we’d pay for them.
Anyone looking for a grand plan on the future of climate resiliency from elected officials during the next legislative session is probably going to be disappointed. Almost everyone I spoke to says this is going to be a long-term and slow-moving endeavor. But there is universal agreement that the safety and prosperity of Vermont’s residents and businesses hinge on a successful climate resiliency plan. And the floods we experienced this summer will lend some urgency to that conversation in January.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: