While, in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, we were engaged in the remarkable, and challenging, historic effort to restore our communities, Vermonters also began to ask what we could have done to avoid the flood damage. We began to discuss the possibility of preparing our communities to be “flood resilient” — reflecting the idea that we wanted to rebuild smarter, in a manner that would allow our communities to better withstand the devastation of high waters in the future.
Describing the goals of a “flood resilience” strategy is relatively easy. Flood resilience is first and foremost about minimizing flood damage to our communities. It means protecting our roads and buildings from being washed away. Being resilient means that we have designed our communities to ensure that no one will be swept downstream or stranded by high waters, and that basic health and public safety protections will remain in place.
This kind of resilience requires planning, foresight and careful attention to a host of issues including the role of our natural environment in minimizing flood damage.Everything on the Vermont landscape is connected. Every action we take on the land and in the rivers has a reaction. Deepening and straightening river channels moves the water in that river downstream faster and increases erosion. Draining wetlands, and developing and isolating floodplains, reduces the ability of the landscape to absorb flood waters. Replacing forests and farms with pavement and buildings speeds the flow of rainwater across the land and into rivers.
Each of these actions increases flood damage. We do not need to stop development, or move our towns and cities, but we must be cognizant that all development has downstream (and sometimes upstream) consequences including environmental harm.
Communities in Vermont can lead the nation in demonstrating flood resilience strategies that protect our environment and reduce flood damage. We can embrace the lessons of the 2011 floods to make changes that will reduce flood damage and enhance the quality of our lives by recognizing our streams and rivers as critical allies to be nurtured, not enemies to be defeated.
We can develop, and redevelop, our towns, villages and cities to create an aesthetically pleasing green infrastructure that enhances property values, surrounded by working and wild landscapes that absorb and mitigate flood flows. We can give our rivers room to move, restore wetlands and floodplains, and protect forests and farms, while promoting smart development in our downtowns.
This vision cannot come into being because of one person, organization or part of government. It requires planning, intensive communications and participatory, transparent leadership. Vermont is uniquely suited to this type of work and there is no time like the present. This conversation has started in Vermont; let’s move beyond talk to actual steps to an actual plan and implementation. Together we can build resilient Vermont Strong communities by tapping the independent Vermont spirit to reduce flood damage while promoting a shared prosperity based on a healthy environment.
David K. Mears is commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.MORE IN Commentary
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