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What is Vermont’s New Flood Safety Act?

June 20, 2024 by Mike Kline

For more than a quarter-century, I have seen incremental legislative actions to develop a Vermont Rivers Program, which I was a part of, to help keep Vermonters safer from future flood events while preserving the natural beauty and ecosystem function of our rivers. That’s what makes this legislative session unique. Act 121 (originally S.213), is a big step forward to provide general protections to river corridors throughout the state, as opposed to the previous municipality-centered structure. As a former state river scientist in the Rivers Program, and now as a Board of Directors member at Vermont River Conservancy, I am encouraged to see river corridors becoming more of a priority at the state level, and knowing that our communities will be safer due to this act. 

Act 121 recognizes that flood damage and mitigation are often the culmination of many actions taken beyond town boundaries at the larger watershed scale, and places the state in a position to regulate at this level, offering river corridor protection across town boundaries. When new state rules are adopted, as a result of this act, they will allow flood-safe development in river corridors within village centers, but river corridors outside of downtowns will be protected, which will translate into less flood and erosion impacts. This is why the legislation is called the “Flood Safety Act.” 

Conserved lands along the North Branch of the Winooski River on July 11, 2023.

Flooded wetland in July of 2023.

The benefits of this recently passed law are numerous and will provide Vermonters with a greater sense of security as watersheds will be able to absorb the intense flooding impacts associated with climate change. The types of policies outlined in the law are similar to what Vermont River Conservancy does:

  • protect river corridors to prevent development in meander pathways and floodplains 
  • strategically remove derelict dams
  • increase floodwater storage via floodplains and wetlands along rivers. 

We are also excited to see Vermont rivers return to a more natural condition within wooded land along rivers that benefit water quality, biodiversity, and recreation for Vermonters and visitors. 

Floodplain forest covered in plush moss.

By taking this path towards greater flood hazard avoidance and mitigation, we reduce the yearly costs of floods paid for by our state, towns, and communities. Numerous studies, estimating flood depths and erosion, show millions in savings when roads, homes, and businesses stay intact and dry after rain storms, as a result of floodplains being left intact or restored. Restored floodplains, based on this type of hydrologic modeling, where the river is free to meander, are now functioning in places like Bennington, Middlebury, and Northfield. Vermont River Conservancy’s recently completed Whetstone floodplain restoration project is estimated to lower flood depths in downtown Brattleboro homes and businesses by three to four feet.

Recently completed floodplain along the Whetstone Brook.

When fully implemented, Act 121 will not only drive down the cost of floods in Vermont, but create numerous opportunities for Vermont River Conservancy and its partners to restore the natural and recreational values of our rivers. A Vermont River Conservancy river corridor easement gives the river the freedom to move. River meandering reduces erosive power and creates new floodplains and wetlands over time. River corridor protection also creates opportunities to build floodplains and remove obstructions like derelict dams. Whether the meander and floodplain restoration are “passive” (by the river, over time) or “active” (by people with yellow machines), the native wetland and woody vegetation can take root, runoff to the river is cleaner, habitat for countless species is created, and community resilience as well as use and enjoyment of the river are enhanced.

Over the course of my career, I have advocated for this type of change in collaboration with many others working to mitigate flood hazards, and  I’m excited to see how this legislation impacts communities throughout the state. My hope, and the hope of Vermont River Conservancy, is that this river corridor protection will help to return rivers and floodplains to a state that is good for both people and wildlife and that everyone can appreciate the value and beauty of their local river.

Mike sits near a waterfall, smiling.

Mike is a retired Department of Environmental Conservation river scientist, who now serves on Vermont River Conservancy's Board of Directors. Over the years, Mike developed nationally recognized stream geomorphic and habitat assessment protocols, river corridor mapping methods, river and floodplain management principles and practices, and a river corridor easement program.

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