Grassroots Resilience – Connecting Watershed Restoration Activists

This post was written by Ann Ingerson, Watersheds United Vermont Program Coordinator

Waitsfield during Irene. Photo Credit David Silverberg (CC)

Photo by Storm. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My woodlot borders a side-hill town road. New ditching and culverts over the past few years have reduced washouts during heavy rain – an unqualified success for the condition of the roadbed. But step a few dozen feet down into our woods, and you’ll find several newly-eroding gullies threading their way between the trees. When it comes to water, there’s always a downstream.

This mini-scale example illustrates one of the key obstacles to improving climate resilience – fragmented thinking. Step up in scale, and you find a serious disconnect between political boundaries and the sinuous and somewhat unpredictable path of water across the landscape. Planning, regulations and management tend to follow parcel, town, multi-county, or state jurisdictions, while impacts from massive precipitation events know no borders.

Solutions are going to require more intentional systems thinking as well as a healthy respect for the power of water. It’s heartening to see the Resilient Vermont project beginning to spawn efforts that cross jurisdictions – helping towns collaborate to identify how actions in one place affect hazards in another. We need much more of this kind of thinking, following the path of the water across traditional divides.

Severe impacts to communities, roads and rivers during and after Irene pushed improvements in state regulations that reinforce the importance of systems thinking. New river management guidance issued by Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources this spring notes that “flood recovery activities that protect public safety at one location may cause greater hazard at another location if not conducted appropriately.”

Watersheds United Vermont Members (areas overlap)

Watersheds United Vermont Members (areas overlap)

Official state policy now emphasizes natural river dynamics and the importance of leaving rivers room to move – a very positive step. Applying those principles to the practices of thousands of land managers and town planners and road commissioners, however, is a major leap. Watershed organizations throughout the state can help us make that leap.

While the state began to update its river management guidance, Irene also encouraged the state’s community-based watershed groups to reach out to their peers to share post-flood recovery experiences and best practices. A series of strategy meetings ultimately led to the formation of Watersheds United Vermont, a statewide network with a mission to empower community-based watershed groups in all parts of the state to protect and restore Vermont’s waters. We now have 22 members ranging from all-volunteer groups with a single energetic leader all the way up to multi-state groups with a dozen staff.

Some of our member groups, like the White River Partnership featured in the June 10 Resilient Vermont post, are already stepping up to bring sound resilience principles to decision-makers working across political boundaries.

Watersheds United Vermont Meeting (Spring 2014)

Watersheds United Vermont Meeting (Spring 2014)

We hope that many more of Vermont’s watershed groups can play this role in their own home watersheds, each learning from the prior experiences of their peers. Whatever your particular skills, they can use your help. For a listing of our member groups, contact information, and the watershed areas where they work, check out our website at We look forward to working together to let rivers do what they do and keep Vermonters safe.

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