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The Beginning of Vermont’s River Corridor Easement Program

December 3, 2023 by Mike Kline

The story of how and why Vermont created the river corridor easement starts in 2007 when a landowner sought a stream alteration permit to hard-armor banks of the river on his property. There wasn’t a house or other developed property that needed protecting, but the banks were eroding, and he thought that reinforcing the riverbank to make the erosion stop was the right thing to do.

His request came to Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation Rivers Program just as it had concluded five years of stream geomorphic assessments showing that decades of stream channelizing and armoring upstream had caused our rivers to become highly erosive and hazardous downstream. Here are some of the cliff notes from the extensive state study: When one person rip-raps their bank with granite, straightens a stretch of river, or builds up their part of the riverbank with berms of gravel, these actions make the river faster, more erosive, and more dangerous for people downstream.

Had the state Rivers Program granted the permit, they would have knowingly allowed an increase in flood and erosion hazards at downstream properties. Vermont statutes had long prohibited stream alterations that would impact other riparian owners, and now these geomorphic assessments provided the science and data supporting the case that upstream actions have downstream impacts.

A riparian area filled with flowering plants.

 Finding a new way to partner with riparian landowners

For the better part of two centuries, Vermonters worked hard to drain our valley bottom lands. It was practically deemed a social responsibility to do so. Of course, there was extensive ditching of wetlands to dry out farm fields and improve roadways, but there was also extensive channelization of streams and rivers to open up more lands and keep floodwaters contained. The straightening, dredging, berming, and armoring made streams deeper and steeper, which we now understand is a recipe for making streams more powerful and erosive when there is a flood. Trying to block access of a stream to its floodplain where waters are stored during a flood also ensures deeper flooding downstream, which can be devastating in our villages and downtowns. All of these vulnerabilities have increased with the intense microburst storms and higher flood peaks we’re experiencing with climate change.

The Rivers Program knew that it would be very unpopular for the government to simply deny a permit and abruptly abandon landowners to deal with eroding rivers. The state needed to find a way to use the time and funding (that would otherwise have gone toward armoring the river) to compensate for the use of private lands toward a broader set of flood resiliency benefits. This was when the “river corridor easement” was first conceived. The Program worked with the landowner and the local land trust, reached an agreement, and made it happen.

The winding path of a river from above.

Creating a River Corridor Easement Program

With a goal of managing conflicts between human investments and the dynamics of rivers, the Rivers Program was convinced that river corridor easements could become a great tool in the toolbox. But before they could announce a new program, they needed to codify the easement conditions that would truly protect the meandering and floodplain processes within a reach of river and secure a consistent source of funding. Over the course of several years, the Department of Environmental Conservation worked with state and federal agricultural agencies, VHCB, the Vermont Land Trust, and the Vermont River Conservancy to hammer out the details of transferring channel management rights to the easement holder. The purpose and conditions of the easement were set to ensure that these rights were exercised only to restore the natural processes within a river corridor. The Rivers Program secured funding by convincing partners that this new paradigm of allowing erosion in strategic undeveloped corridors (as part of a natural restorative process) was a win-win proposal: landowners would be fairly compensated, and communities would experience less flood damage. Funding was secured with the proposition that, when protected, river corridors would not only attenuate the flow and erosive power of floods, they would capture and store sediment and nutrients, thereby helping Vermont restore water quality and aquatic habitats.

River corridor easement with native riparian vegetation.

Vermont River Conservancy plays a critical role.

The state River Corridor Easement Program has been very popular from its beginning in 2008, protecting 3,000 acres within 120 conserved corridors, and restoring the floodplain and meander function on 70 miles of river. Vermont River Conservancy holds and stewards 49 of these Department of Environmental Conservation-funded easements and another 33 easements secured with other partners and funding.

I have expressed many times that the River Corridor Easement Program would not exist and provide the flood resiliency, water quality, and habitat benefits that it does, were it not for Vermont River Conservancy. Yes, there are other very important partners, but VRC is the only statewide organization that will hold easements on just the river corridor portion of a land parcel. Many landowners do not wish to have their entire parcel subject to the provisions of a conservation easement, but they would like to have support in conserving their river corridor.

River corridor easement floodplain.

River corridor easements create floodplain storage.

The next decade will be a period of time when the importance of climate adaptation will be increasingly understood, and accepted, by all Vermonters. Across all sectors and social identities, people will seek to understand how their communities may benefit from the role of naturally functioning wetlands, floodplains, and headwaters in providing flood storage and mitigating the impact of intense storms and drought. Natural landscape features will only provide these functions, however, if they are protected in perpetuity. Supporting the Vermont River Conservancy is an important way of ensuring the future of an organization that has been responding to a growing need and interest from every corner of the state, as our rivers change in response to the new climate.

Mike Kline sits on a rock beside a flowing waterfall

Mike Kline is a VRC board member and was the State River Scientist during the startup of the River Corridor Easement Program (now retired)

Join him in support of our rivers

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