By Tom Rogers
Editors note: Tom Rogers, of Stowe, works for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont.
Vermont’s increasingly destructive flooding disasters are happening because our rivers are doing exactly what we have spent more than 200 years intentionally designing them to do — rush water off the land as quickly as possible.
As the devastation to our lives, communities and economy makes it increasingly clear, it is time to reimagine what our rivers can do.
If present-day Vermonters were whisked away in a time machine to 1492, they would not recognize the Green Mountain State. The landscape was largely forested wetlands, shaped by beavers that were 10 times as abundant across the continent as they are today. A drop of rain that fell on the mountains back then would have many stops along its journey, collecting in beaver ponds (sometimes as dense as 200 dams per square mile in Vermont), winding in braided paths through floodplain forests, pausing in wetlands to deposit sediments, before finally reaching Lake Champlain or the Connecticut River.
When Europeans colonized what is now Vermont, high demand for pelts combined with unregulated trapping led to the removal of beavers from the state by the 1800s. When the fur trade was replaced by an agricultural economy, remaining wetlands were drained to make room for grazing livestock. Rivers were channelized and straightened to access the fertile soil along their banks for growing crops.
The practice of ditching and grading to remove water from the landscape continues to this day because standing water remains incompatible with roads, lawns and buildings.
It’s easy to understand the difference between a manicured city park and a forest. While a city park may have a few sparse trees among the freshly mowed grass, no one would confuse it with a forest.
Similarly, we should not confuse much of what we have in Vermont today with real rivers. Vermont’s straight and narrow depressions — cut off from their floodplains, reinforced at times by artificial stone or concrete along their steep banks, and free of natural obstacles like logs or boulders — might in many places be more appropriately referred to as “drainage ditches” than rivers, no more able to accommodate the needs of a fish than a parking lot can accommodate the needs of wildlife.
If our treatment of Vermont’s rivers was the fuel, climate change has been the match. While Vermont was experiencing historic flooding this July, Florida was experiencing historic ocean temperatures with the first 100-degree measurement ever recorded. Hotter air and warmer oceans around the world lead to more evaporation and increase the volatility of weather patterns.
As a result, Vermont is not only seeing more precipitation, but we are also seeing more of it all at once during these extreme weather events. Climate change has turned our depleted rivers from garden hoses into fire hoses, and they are pointed straight at our communities.
So what do we do now?
First and foremost, we must address the climate crisis, eliminating our use of fossil fuels and protecting forests and other natural places that sequester and store atmospheric carbon.
But just as important, we need to let our rivers be rivers again. We must return rivers to their floodplains rather than channelizing them, and restore the floodplain forests along their banks to provide space for floodwaters to go.
We need to protect and restore our existing wetlands — the sponges of the landscape — and prioritize the protection of beaver habitat to allow them to create new wetlands that soak up excess water.
We need to leave trees, root balls, boulders and natural debris in rivers to slow down floodwaters and improve fish habitat. And most immediately, we must allow our rivers to move and meander more naturally by prohibiting new development in river corridors statewide.
We already know this approach works in Vermont. During Tropical Storm Irene, downtown Rutland was devastated by flooding when Otter Creek jumped its banks. But Middlebury, located 30 miles downstream from Rutland along Otter Creek, was largely unaffected by the storm.
An extensive wetland complex, protected and restored by Vermont’s conservation community through many years of hard work and effective partnerships, soaked up the excess floodwaters and very slowly released them. These noble wetlands saved Middlebury more than $1.8 million in potential damages according to a University of Vermont study.
Rather than continuing to manipulate our rivers to rush water off the land, we need to work with nature to reengineer our rivers to slow water down and store it. As we adapt to our new climate reality, we can turn Vermont’s rivers from our greatest adversary into our strongest ally.