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Every week, Vermont Public's politics team provides a succinct breakdown of some of the biggest issues at the Statehouse.

Capitol Recap: Vermont lawmakers' new Flood Safety Act wants to bolster rivers, wetlands as natural mitigation

 A photo of a flooded town.
Town of Coventry
Coventry was among the Vermont towns that experienced historic flooding in July 2023.

Vermont is seeing more extreme rain due to climate change, and that probably means more floods. This summer’s flooding cost the state more than $1 billion — and lawmakers in Montpelier say it’s time to make Vermont towns and villages more resilient.

They have a plan to do that.

Vermont Public climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles spoke with host Mitch Wertlieb for this week’s edition of the Capitol Recap. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: So Abagael, this bill tackles flood resilience in three major ways: it looks at wetlands, dams and rivers. Big picture question — why focus on those three things?

Abagael Giles: Yeah, so Vermont has more than 14,000 miles of river in the state. And a lot of our historic villages were built right up against them, around mills and in fertile floodplains.

Rivers like to move! And they need space to move outside those village centers. Letting them move freely through their historic corridors and spread out over their floodplains helps slow down flood waters.

More from Vermont Public: July flooding pulled nutrients, waste into Vermont's waters — and climate change is making it worse

Wetlands are key here too because they also slow down water.

And as for dams, we have more than 1,000 of them in the state, and a lot of them are privately owned. Some are in disrepair. And some are making flooding better — others are making it worse. So lawmakers want to beef up regulations and funding for dam repairs.

Until now, we’ve been managing these things in sort of a piecemeal way. Lawmakers say it’s time to think about the whole watershed — and that means looking at rivers, wetlands and dams together.

The Winooski River at peak flood stage on the evening of July 11.
Abagael Giles
Vermont Public
The Winooski River at peak flood stage on the evening of July 11, 2023.

Mitch Wertlieb: OK, so let’s talk about rivers. When someone wants to build something near a river right now … how does that process work? 

Abagael Giles: No surprise — it’s complicated. In some instances, the federal government has rules for building near rivers, but in Vermont, it’s on towns to enforce those rules. And all this means there are some big gaps.

This bill looks at two ways that rivers move — one is by spilling their banks into their floodplain. The federal government has historically regulated this and says buildings in these places have to be built to withstand this kind of inundation flooding.

Now, there’s another kind of flooding, which is when the river moves. This flooding is fast. It’s often dangerous. It carries houses away. And the area where the river moves is called the river corridor. By some estimates, 80% of the flood damage we see in Vermont happens here. Though that figure is really hard to calculate.

Now, neither Vermont nor FEMA regulate development in the river corridor right now.

More from Vermont Public: Why do so few Vermonters have flood insurance?

The good news is after Tropical Storm Irene, we mapped our river corridors. So we know where they are. A very small number of towns in the state have voluntarily adopted programs to permit and regulate new development in these places, though doing so can be difficult politically if towns have limited staff —this is a state where some towns have volunteer zoning administrators.

That leaves most of these erosion and flood prone places unregulated. And planners I talked to say there is a lot of development that is happening in these river corridors that may never see a permit. And these are buildings that might have to be rebuilt over and over and over again.

Mitch Wertlieb: So Abagael, it sounds like lawmakers are saying: we know floods are getting bigger, and causing more damage, so we want to stop building in these places. How do they propose to fix the problem of the regulatory gap?

Abagael Giles: Broadly, the idea is to make new statewide restrictions on development in river corridors and floodplains that go beyond what the federal government calls for, because that system doesn’t work great in Vermont.

And lawmakers want the state to take over enforcement because towns are saying, "This is just too much for us."

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

Lawmakers want to make it really hard to develop in these more volatile river corridors, unless it’s in a village center. And they want to make Vermont’s standards for buildings in flood hazard areas even stricter than what the feds require now, so that any new buildings don’t make flooding worse for existing buildings around them — or downstream.

Towns would still oversee permits for new buildings in the flood hazard area — that's that kind of inundation flooding — but lawmakers are looking at what it would cost for the state to take that over too. And they want to study ways to add floodplain properties to the Current Use Program, which would let landowners who don’t develop in these flood-prone places get a lower property tax rate.

Mitch Wertlieb: Wow, sounds like big changes. So what does the bill say about wetlands?

Abagael Giles: Basically the bill says: if new development disturbs a big enough part of a wetland, the developer has to restore or build twice that area in wetlands back — or pay the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) a fee that's comparable. Right now, the general practice is to pay a fee or restore the amount of wetland you disturbed. This kind of beefs things up a bit.

More from Vermont Public: ‘I was so clueless’: Flood-prone homes in Vermont may not come with a warning

Wetlands are like Velcro in a flood. They slow water down and soak it up and they filter out pollutants and nutrients. We’ve lost about 35% of the wetlands that once existed in Vermont, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. So the idea here is to change that pattern.

A dam is seen from the air, with a reservoir stretching into the background
Civil Air Patrol
The Wrightsville Dam sits north of Montpelier and creates a reservoir from the north branch of the Winooski River. Photographed from the air on July 15.

Mitch Wertlieb: We talked about rivers, we've talked about wetlands — what does the bill propose for dams?

Abagael Giles: If you remember back in July, there was a lot of concern about the Wrightsville dam and others in the state getting too full.

This bill expands the state’s power to regulate dams in Vermont — especially for flood safety and water quality. And it creates a new way for citizens to petition to have them inspect a dam they say needs to be looked at for repair or possible removal. And it gives the Dam Safety Program the power to require dam owners to do safety upgrades. There’s another effort underway in the state government to make this happen already, but this about beefing that program up. And it creates a new fund for repairing dams and removing them.

And there’s one last water quality thing here: the bill bans docks and other floating things made of polystyrene, unless it’s coated. Those are the little Styrofoam balls you see sometimes in docks and buoys, and places like that. They turn into microplastics and are bad for aquatic ecosystems.

Mitch Wertlieb: How much would all of this cost, and where is the bill now?

Abagael Giles: Right now, the bill carries a roughly $5 million price tag, with more money needed in the future to keep these programs rolling. That includes 18 new staff. And Gov. Scott says he has some significant concerns with the bill, especially around cost.

Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore says she supports the principle behind the bill, it’s just that ANR is really strapped right now for resources because of how many new things they’re working on, largely to respond to climate change.

More from Vermont Public: Lawmakers consider requiring home sellers and landlords to disclose flood risks

Moore says when push comes to shove, better regulating development in floodplains and river corridors should be the top priority here.

Senate Natural Resources and Energy voted the bill out of committee unanimously this week, with a lot of applause from environmental groups in the state. It goes next to the money committees. We’ll have to see what they say.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.


Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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