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Vermont Public’s weekly dose of all things environment.

Out There: The promise, and problem, with floodplains

This is the web version of our email newsletter, Out There! Sign up to get our bi-weekly dose of all things environment — from creatures you might encounter on your next stroll, to a critical look at the state's energy transition, plus ways to take part in community science and a roundup of local outdoor events.

It’s Thursday, December 14. Here’s what’s on deck:

  • A major wildlife crossing
  • Changing Vermont’s signature land use law
  • Celebrating local food growers

But first,

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Vermont Public's biweekly dose of all things environment.


Restoring floodplains can mitigate the worst flood damage, but not everyone is on board

A yellow leaf under water.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Projects to restore floodplains typically only work when landowners agree to participate.

People have altered Vermont rivers to suit their needs for hundreds of years – by straightening and damming waterways and building up stream banks. That’s caused rivers and streams to flow faster and cut deeper into the ground than they used to, and led to erosion as river banks cave in and widen. All of that has made it harder for rivers to access their natural floodplains, which can help slow down and spread out water during a rainstorm. And while deeper rivers don’t flood as often, when they do, it’s more devastating.

One way to mitigate the worst flood damage is to restore rivers’ access to their historic floodplains. That can involve land conservation, cutting into river banks, and removing fill. But it often requires consent from landowners. And that isn't a guarantee. Here are some examples of projects in Vermont:

  • 🏘️ The town of Northfield bought and demolished seven homes along the Dog River after Tropical Storm Irene to reconnect the river to its floodplain. Officials say that move reduced flooding by 6 inches this July.
  • 🏞️ In West Brattleboro, about 80 people living in an affordable housing development were relocated after Irene to build a floodplain. That project helped reduce local flooding, officials said this summer. 
  • 🏗️ The town of Brattleboro started construction of a floodplain on a former lumber storage yard this August. The project, which involves removing 40,000 square feet of fill to lower the land, is expected to reduce flooding downtown by several feet.
  • 🚫 In Waterbury, lowering a farm field along the Winooski River was projected to reduce flooding in downtown by about a foot, impacted some 200 properties. But the project never went through, because the landowner wouldn’t participate. 
  • ✏️ In Barre, Gov. Phil Scott has proposed a plan to demolish or relocate around 80 homes in a flood zone, replacing them with apartments on higher ground and creating a large park that would serve as a floodplain for the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River.
  • 🚧 State officials have said they have no plans to use eminent domain for flood mitigation projects going forward.

In other news

👑🐟🦌 ‘Holy grail of wildlife crossings in Vermont’: The state wants to replace a small metal culvert that runs under I-89 and Route 2 in Waterbury with an underpass for wildlife. The project would connect over 100,000 acres of protected forest that runs along the spine of the Green Mountains, so bears, moose, bobcats, fish and other animals could freely move north and south of the roads. The state won a $1.6 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration for design costs. They have yet to secure funding for construction.

🌲 New conservation area in NEK: The land on Victory Hill in Essex County is home to mountain bike trails, spruce-fir forests, and wetlands that serve as habitat for marten, lynx, spruce grouse and brook trout. Now, around 600 more acres in the area are protected from development in perpetuity and will remain open to the public.

🚧 Proposed changes to modernize Vermont’s land use law: Act 250 passed in 1970 and established how the state makes decisions on construction projects. A recent proposal calls for major changes to the law by exempting areas of the state that already have strong local zoning regulations, in hopes of encouraging housing development in existing downtowns. It also calls for providing greater protection for sensitive habitat.

In your backyard

An illustration of a brown bird with feathers sticking up from its head.
Laura Nakasaka
Vermont Public
Ruffed grouse have little body fat so they have to eat every day to survive when it’s cold out. This time of year their diet is primarily tree buds.

Get out there

🗣️ Share your thoughts on proposed Act 250 changes: A report drafted by engineers, attorneys and housing developers came out last week that recommends major changes to Vermont’s signature land use law. A virtual public meeting for feedback on the report will be held Thursday, Dec. 14 (today), at 5:30 p.m.

🌽🥕🫑 A local food festival in Bellows Falls: There will be conversations, kids activities, films and food throughout the day Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15 and 16, at the Bellows Falls Opera House. Featuring lessons for kids on raising rabbits, crafting, and composting with worms, and speakers including Winona LaDuke, farmers, politicians, restaurant owners, and more. $34 for Friday, $21 for Saturday, $55 for both days. Kids under 18 get in for free.

🌲🌳Can you identify different tree species? Practice on a walk with a naturalistwhile learning about local geology at Eagle Mountain Natural Area in Milton, in Chittenden County. Sunday, Dec. 17 at 10 a.m., hosted by City Market, Onion River Co-op. Free, but you need to register beforehand.

🦃  Join a Winter Bird Count: It’s one the longest-running community science project in Vermont (and across the world), where people tally all the birds they see within a designated 15-mile circle. Counts take place from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5 at over 20 locations around the state. Contact your local count leader if you want to participate.

  • Each group is led by an experienced birder, and people of all experience levels can participate, either from home, if you live within a count circle, or joining other birdwatchers in the field. 
  • The data helps researchers assess the health of bird populations worldwide.

One last thing

Mount Washington has the worst weather on earth

A large mountain frosted with snow looms above a town street lined with telephone poles and shops
Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
Researchers have been monitoring weather conditions at Mount Washington since the 1930s.

That’s according to an article from JSTOR this month, featured in the newsletter Daybreak, which says the 6,288-foot peak’s combination of rain, cold, and wind makes it like no other place in the world. A couple highlights:

  • “Winds are at or above hurricane force (at least 74 mph) every other day on average in winter.” Its fastest measured wind is 231 mph, for decades the world record.
  • “The annual average temperature there is 27 degrees, with a winter average of 7 degrees, and a record low of –47 degrees.” 
  • It has the record for lowest recorded wind chill in the U.S., at -109 degrees. “Such conditions would cause exposed skin and the underlying tissues to freeze in a couple of minutes.”
  • Why the wicked weather? 

    • The surrounding geography of nearby mountains funnels wind to the peak.
    • The mountain sits in the middle of the equator and the North Pole, where the meeting of warm and cold air creates storms.

Enter your email to sign up for Out There
Vermont Public's biweekly dose of all things environment.


Thank you for reading! We’re taking off the rest of the year. See you in 2024, and don’t hesitate to reach out, we'd love to hear from you. Just send us an email.

Credits: This week’s edition was put together by Liam Elder-Connors and Lexi Krupp, with lots of help from the Vermont Public team including graphics by Laura Nakasaka and editorial support from Brittany Patterson and Sophie Stephens.

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