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House supermajority supports major flood resilience bill

 A photo of water flooding underneath a bridge. Cars and an orange truck and a person in a safety vest are visible in the distance.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Water floods the intersection of Route 2 and Sunny Brook Road in Middlesex on Monday, July 10, 2023.

Lawmakers in the Vermont House on Friday passed the biggest bill of the session aimed at reducing damages from flooding in the state.

During a roll call vote at second reading Thursday, the bill passed by a vote of 111 to 26, earning the support of a supermajority of the chamber, as it did in the Vermont Senate.

Gov. Phil Scott is expected to veto the bill, and environmental advocates and lawmakers who support it are hopeful the policy would carry that momentum in a possible override vote.

The Flood Safety Act would create a new statewide permitting system intended to limit new construction in major river corridors — the area where rivers move freely outside their banks during big rain events — across the state.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont Senate sends Flood Safety Act to the House with bipartisan support

During big storms, rivers often swell and change their course in river corridors, sending floodwater barreling through new channels. The bill would restrict development in the swathe of land along their banks where they’re likely to move when this happens, with exceptions for building in existing communities and village centers.

Speaking on the House floor Thursday, Rep. Larry Satcowitz, a Democrat from Randolph, called the bill “long overdue.”

“We used to think that wetlands were wastelands with no useful function. We know better now. We used to think that floodplains were better if they never saw floodwaters. We know better now,” he said. “We used to think that dredging and armoring rivers were efficient and effective means to control them. We know much better now. This knowledge has been learned at great cost. This bill is a product of those hard won lessons.”

"This knowledge has been learned at great cost. This bill is a product of those hard won lessons.”
Rep. Larry Satcowitz, D-Randolph

By some estimates, as much as 80% of the damages Vermont sees from flooding occur in the river corridor. And while development in floodplains, where rivers are prone to spill their banks and inundate buildings, is regulated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there are no federal standards for building in river corridors.

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

Vermont has historically allowed towns to voluntarily enforce regulations on development in their river corridors, but very few municipalities do so, largely due to limited staffing capacity.

Environmental advocates and many at Vermont’s Regional Planning Commissions warn that this leaves thousands of miles of flood-prone land open for development that will have to be rebuilt over and over again, at great cost to homeowners and taxpayers.

Additionally, when rivers are allowed to move freely outside of village centers where they are constrained by infrastructure, it allows floodwaters to disperse their momentum, dampening their impact downstream.

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

Climate change-fueled flooding is already costing taxpayers exorbitantly. Last summer’s floods cost the state north of $1 billion — and by some estimates, Vermont could see billions more in flood related damages by the end of the century.

Further research from the University of Vermont suggests those impacts are disproportionately borne by lower income households and mobile home park residents, making flooding an environmental justice issue in the state.

The bill also creates new funding and regulatory oversight of private dams in Vermont. One million dollars would be set aside for the first year, which will fund repairs and removals.

"... this bill recognizes that it is a significant life safety and also cost expense to taxpayers to keep developing in those areas.”
Lauren Oates, the Nature Conservancy

It also bans exposed polystyrene foam in floating docks — which advocates with the environmental advocacy organization Conservation Law Foundation say is increasingly breaking off and polluting Vermont’s waterways, as more intense storms cause bigger waves and faster flows of water into the state’s lakes and ponds.

Additionally, the bill codifies in statute Vermont’s practice of requiring any new development in a protected wetland be offset by restoring twice the amount of wetland disturbed, or paying a fee to facilitate that work.

Wetlands are useful for mitigating flood risk because they slow down floodwaters and filter out pollutants. Analysis following Tropical Storm Irene found that the Otter Creek Wetland Complex saved Middlebury from more than $1.8 million in flood damages during the storm.

And as Vermont sees more extreme rain due to human-caused climate change, many in state government and the Legislature want to look to our landscape for affordable solutions.

Every major environmental group in the state supports the bill, including the Nature Conservancy, Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Lake Champlain Committee and the Connecticut River Conservancy.

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

Lauren Oates, with the Nature Conservancy, says they are most eager to see the river corridor regulations implemented.

“It’s highly hazardous, and creates about 80% of Vermont’s flood related damages,” she said. “And this bill recognizes that it is a significant life safety and also cost expense to taxpayers to keep developing in those areas.”

Speaking on the House floor on Thursday, Rep. Kari Dolan of Waitsfield told her colleagues that in a state where most of the historic development has been along rivers, protecting Vermont communities from “the misery” flooding brings is paramount.

“It is an important step and arguably the most cost effective step to temper the power of floods before they inflict damages to homes, businesses and communities,” she said.

“We need to protect our environment, we need to keep people out of harm’s way — which is a lot of the work that we’re trying to do here. But people — Vermonters — need to be able to live here as well.”
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover

Notably, the Vermont House added an amendment that requires the Agency of Natural Resources conduct a study about how exempting low-income property owners from having to pay fees associated with wetland, Act 250 and other permits would affect state revenues.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, an Independent from Dover, introduced the amendment in the House Committe on Energy and Environment. She strongly supports protections for wetlands and river corridors, but worries that fees associated with environmental regulation have a greater impact on people with more moderate means in Vermont.

“We need to protect our environment, we need to keep people out of harm’s way — which is a lot of the work that we’re trying to do here,” she said. “But people — Vermonters — need to be able to live here as well.”

Gov. Scott is expected to veto the bill, largely over concerns about the cost and staffing capacity — though lawmakers have allocated an additional 15 staff positions for it at ANR and say the funding required is all included in the Senate version of the budget.

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

House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy of Poultney echoed Scott’s concerns on the floor.

“I appreciate the sense of urgency many are feeling, however, the timelines provided in this bill, particularly related to river corridor regulation and dam safety are very aggressive and do not provide adequate time to bring Vermonters along with this significant change in public policy,” she said.

However, many Republicans in districts hit hard by last summer’s floods voted to support the policy, and several say the caucus was divided over the bill.

The policy now goes back to the Vermont Senate for final review.

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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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