Water Dialogues continue at Bennington College - Build to avoid flooding damage



Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Vermonters will have to rethink where they build in coming years, as climate change is expected to make traditional development habits too costly to continue.

This message was delivered during a presentation at Bennington College by Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, Deborah Markowitz, and state Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation David Mears. The event was part of Bennington College's week-long series of "Water Dialogues" lectures.

Markowitz and Mears focused on the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene in late August, which caused historic levels of storm damage across the state.

Mears said there are many areas in Vermont where rebuilding efforts were misguided, in that they set up for more problems later, or moved the issue downstream. He said towns, with good intentions, went into their rivers and dug channels deeper, shoring up their banks with the intent of keeping floodwater from spilling over the banks. This has the effect of making water flow faster, stronger and at a higher volume, and while it may not damage areas where the work was done, whatever lies downstream could suffer the consequences.

Over the years, he said, rivers have been altered so there is less debris in them and they are straighter. New river management techniques will be needed, he said, and will involve arranging things so rivers are better able to move.

Mears said communities need to be more aggressive about controlling development. While private property rights are important, letting a mobile home park be built next to a river may not be a wise thing to do, as when the river inevitably floods, homes are lost, as is income for the park owner.

He said farmland and recreational fields make more sense where some housing developments are now. Floodplains allow water to dissipate, robbing it of its scouring power, as do curves and bends in the rivers themselves. Forests, he said, also serve to hold stream banks down and soak up water, preventing flooding. The state is still paying for statewide clear-cuts decades ago, he said, when forests were removed and water allowed to flow unchecked.

He said there are currently no laws preventing development in a floodplain beyond insurance regulations put in place by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"If you can create land-use policies that protect these areas, you are way ahead of the game," Mears said.

He said there were a number of success stories from the Irene event. Some towns saved themselves from millions of dollars in damage through flood measures they had taken ahead of time. He said it was unfortunate such information did not get much media play, as it would be good to show people preventative measures are worth the cost.

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Markowitz and Mears said while it's not scientifically possible to point to one weather event such as Irene or a mild or severe winter and call it proof of climate change, the numbers regarding long-term trends show it is indeed happening.

"We are hoping this isn't going to happen again for a very long time, but the evidence doesn't support that," said Markowitz. "We are looking at climate change, and all the scientists agree we are going to have more intense weather events."

Mears said he is pleased the topic of climate change has become a political discussion, but lamented that is a partisan one. He said debates on whether it's happening are not are now a waste of time and pointed to the fact that insurance companies and businesses are changing how they operate to anticipate more floods. Mears said there is common ground for both sides of the ideological debate to come together; those who believe climate change is a problem because of the effect on the environment are looking at the same solutions as people who see the problem as one of flood mitigation.

"Irene is only the latest example of the changes we are going to be seeing in our environment," said Markowitz. "It's a wonderful discussion on how we as a society can't think that we are separate from the natural environment in which we live."

She said that if current warming trends remain flat, by 2090 Vermont's climate will be akin to how Northern Virginia is now. If nothing is done to mitigate it, the climate will be more like current Georgia. This is not good news for plants and animals that evolved to depend on spring runoff being at a certain time of year.

Mears said the erratic temperatures will have an impact on the maple syrup industry. He said erosion is also being seen a big contributor to the amount of phosphates in the waterways, which leads to algae growth, which in turn removes oxygen from the water and harms fish.

The Water Dialogues continue today with four presentations at the college:

* 11 a.m. to noon, Center for the Advancement of Public Education (CAPA), Solar Hot Water Heater Demonstration.

* 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., Dickinson 225, Science Workshop: The Evolutionary Diversity and Ecological Complexity of Coral Keepers.

* 2:10 p.m. to 4 p.m., East Academic Center Room 1, Global Capitalism: Water Wars.

* 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., Exhibition and Reception Usdan Gallery, Resilience and Resistance: Few Possible Futures for Living With Water.

The Water Festival at Lake Paran has been rescheduled from Saturday because of predicted rainy weather. The new date is April 28, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr


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