Press Release: High Meadows Fund Dedicates $240,000 to Building Resilience in Vermont’s Watersheds

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 9, 2014

High Meadows Fund Dedicates $240,000 to Building Resilience in Vermont’s Watersheds

Middlebury, VT – The High Meadows Fund at the Vermont Community Foundation has issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) that represents a commitment of $240,000 towards promoting planning and action within Vermont’s watersheds. Tropical Storm Irene brought the devastation of extreme weather to the forefront in Vermont, but many Vermonters don’t know that since 2000 the state has had at least one federally-declared disaster every year. In certain parts of the state Vermonters have lived through two 100-year flood events in the past decade. High Meadows is encouraging solutions at a multi-town, watershed level.

“Through this Initiative, we seek to inspire and encourage the creative and inclusive building of resilience within watersheds,” says High Meadows Fund President Gaye Symington. “Flooding does not follow Vermont’s municipal and regional boundaries and new thinking and approaches are needed.” The first $120K will support multi-town, watershed planning and early action and the second $120K will be available for additional implementation. Applications for the RFP are due April 15, 2015.

“Building resilience requires creativity, diverse voices and hard choices, so our RFP calls for inclusive and transparent process within the watersheds,” says Symington. “But, most importantly, the Fund wants to see concrete accomplishments on the ground.” The Fund will choose projects by June 1 and expects them to last up to 18 months. More information on this new $240,000 Initiative can be found online at www.highmeadowsfund.org/rfp.

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The mission of the High Meadows Fund at the Vermont Community Foundation is to promote vibrant communities and a healthy natural environment while encouraging long-term economic vitality in Vermont. Our communities, environment, and economy are threatened by the changing climate. High Meadows helps Vermonters mitigate that change and adapt to its consequences by supporting leadership and innovation in three overlapping areas of focus: energy, land use and sustainable agriculture. For more information, visit www.highmeadowsfund.org

Vermont Advocates for National Policy Changes for Resilience

This post was written by Sarah McKearnan, Senior Policy Advisor at the Agency of Natural Resources’ Department of Environmental Conservation.

Tropical Storm Irene was transformative for our small state. The recovery was long and arduous, and Vermonters now understand that as our climate changes we will have to brace ourselves for more frequent severe storms. Out of disaster came a strong determination to fortify our resilience.

We are witnessing a similar transformation at the federal level. During President Obama’s first term, a spate of record-setting disasters – from Super Storm Sandy to monstrous tornadoes and historic droughts – prompted the President to focus on how the federal government can better support communities across America as we prepare for climate change impacts.

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AOT Deputy Secretary Sue Minter, Governor Peter Shumlin, ANR Secretary Deb Markowtiz at the White House

Last November, President Obama established a national Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, and appointed Governor Peter Shumlin to participate along with seven other Governors, county commissioners, tribal leaders, and mayors from municipalities as small as Greensburg Kansas (population 800) and as large as Los Angeles (population 4 million).

The charge to these leaders: Provide recommendations to the Administration on how to help states and cities build climate resilience. The Administration wants to know which new policies could work, how to launch new and better partnerships, what kind of climate data they are missing, and more.

In our state we’ve had to recover from at least one federally declared disaster every year for the past decade. We see many ways that federal agencies could better help us both prevent, and bounce back from, damage caused by river flooding and erosion.

For example, take our efforts to make culverts more flood-ready. Irene damaged nearly a thousand of these structures. Having learned a valuable lesson about the perils of under-sizing them, we applied for federal grants to rebuild them so they would withstand extreme weather and flooding in the future. However, the outdated federal grant rules stood directly in the way of this effort to invest a little more now to prevent rebuilding repeatedly later. Overhauling federal recovery programs to be more forward looking would help states across the country that are dealing with a wide range of climate impacts.

Vermont jumped into the Task Force process with both feet. Along with Governor Shumlin, a team of Vermont state agency leaders and staff participated. When the final meeting took place at the White House this July, our team was pleased to learn that the Administration is moving forward with early action steps before a final report lands in the Oval Office. Three action steps that come with potential funding for Vermont are:

  1. Nearly $1 billion for a National Disaster Resilience Competition. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide grants to plan for and implement forward-looking recovery and resilience actions that reduce the risks from extreme weather in the future.
  2.  Green infrastructure initiative. EPA is forming a new intra-agency collaborative to support broader use of green infrastructure across the country, with grants available for replicable and innovative projects.
  3. New mapping initiative. The U.S Geological Survey is announcing a $13.1 million 3D Elevation Program (3DEP) partnership that will bring Federal agencies and other public and private partners together to develop advanced three-dimensional data for mapping climate-related hazards.

The Task Force is now beginning its final work to produce a report for the President, due in November. The Vermont team has advocated for some key overarching priorities, including:

  1. Promote Resilient Development. Align programs in all federal agencies with the goal of building and rebuilding with resilience by developing more consistent requirements and funding incentives for building in smart places, and for protecting areas of the landscape that slow and reduce flooding, like floodplains, wetlands and undeveloped coastal shores.
  2. Improve Partnerships. Encourage federal agencies to build a stronger culture of partnership and service to communities and states impacted by disaster.
  3. Support Planning for Resilience. Support and provide incentives for long range resilience planning to prevent and prepare for climate impacts in all communities, especially in areas with vulnerable populations.

ClimateChange_CoastSmartReport013114By participating in the Task Force, the Vermont team learned of many extraordinary and innovative approaches to building resilience around the country. We could follow in Maryland’s footsteps to create a set of Coast Smart siting and design guidelines for buildings in flood zones; or we could follow Hoboken’s lead and train disaster response volunteers to help the elderly and other vulnerable people when disaster strikes.

We need to learn everything we can about preparing for climate change. As the President said so pointedly, “our planet is changing in ways that will have a profound impact on all of humankind. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel better, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

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 www.watershedsunitedvt.org. We look forward to working together to let rivers do what they do and keep Vermonters safe.

Building Resilience at the Watershed Level

listeningThis spring, the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) and Slow Communities teamed with the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, White River Partnership, and Vermont River Conservancy to host a resilience workshop in the Upper White River Watershed.

This area of the state was hit hard during Tropical Storm Irene and has been through a long and difficult recovery process. The community has made hard decisions such as permanently closing Bear Hill Road, and has worked through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) process to complete home buy-outs ensuring these flood-prone properties will not be developed again. Additionally, the region has started to consider innovative approaches like lowering roads and designing them to withstand flooding on a regular basis. For all of these reasons, these communities seemed like the right place to bring people together to strategize about long-term resilience.

In the process of developing the Roadmap to Resilience, we regularly heard that while Vermont communities are inherently linked by rivers and roads, collaborative planning is necessary to recognize that the actions of one community can affect the vulnerability of neighboring communities. In the Upper White River Watershed, we decided to design and hold a pilot workshop to find ways that we can bring communities together to identify specific measures for them to act on together.

[Using] regional networks to support watershed-scale planning and enable municipalities to collaborate across jurisdictions to set priorities and make cost-effective investments that reduce hazards for downstream communities and development. – Roadmap to Resilience

The workshop included representatives from Hancock, Granville and Rochester, as well as Green Mountain Power, the American Red Cross, and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Together, we focused on proactively identifying future vulnerabilities and short- and longer-term actions that could build the resilience of everyone in the watershed. As a result of the workshop, participants identified the potential to create an inter-municipal resilience committee, generated a list of potential next steps, and created a map of priority action areas.

MRV Watershed MapEfforts to plan and take action at the watershed scale are also emerging in other parts of Vermont. One such example is the Mad River Valley (MRV) – a region in Central Vermont that has seen major flooding over the decades, with Tropical Storm Irene being no exception. The EPA’s Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Project, administered by the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, enabled the Mad River Valley Planning District (MRVPD) to work with its community on a preemptive approach to disaster preparedness and community resilience. The EPA and MRVPD will soon be releasing a summary memo outlining recommendations to encourage thinking and action across both figurative and geopolitical boundaries, including:

  • Hazard mitigation plans should not exist unto themselves, they should cross-reference town plans and capital improvement plans;
  • The topic of resilience and disaster preparedness should be considered more broadly – on a watershed scale, for example – not just in the context of individual municipalities; and,
  • Planning conversations should include a diverse cross-section of community members, stakeholders, and constituencies (i.e., local school districts, the medical community, the American Red Cross, transportation agencies, the agricultural community, etc.).

In the Mad River Valley and elsewhere in Vermont, the key question is, what does “smart growth” mean in flood-prone communities? While the Village of Waitsfield, for example, is a model of compact development, its location in the floodplain makes it vulnerable. Because moving such a historical community is unrealistic and financially inconceivable, the communities of the Mad River Valley are working together to consider how they can make the existing centers more resilient. They’re considering practices such as protecting underdeveloped land, removing vulnerable structures when possible, adopting requirements for vegetated stream buffers, and relocating people and critical assets (i.e., healthcare facilities, town halls, fire and safety facilities; and wastewater facilities) to less vulnerable areas.

The Mad River Valley communities are also thinking about how to support new development and growth that contributes to the communities’ resilience goals. They are considering next steps such as restricting development on steep slopes, adopting stream setbacks, and proactively identifying locations suitable for development and redevelopment that are safer from flooding.

We’d love to hear from you. What is going on in your town, region and/or watershed? Please take 10 minutes to fill in this brief questionnaire and tell us about your work to build resilience in your community. This information will help us in our effort to map all of the work happening around the state. Thank you!

Authors of this post are Stu Fram, Fellow at High Meadows Fund, Bill Roper at Slow Communities and Deb Perry at ISC

6/11/14 — This post has been edited to reflect the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development’s involvement in the EPA’s Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Project

Vermont Passes Legislation with Resilience in Mind

When the gavel fell on the Vermont Legislature’s 2013-2014 biennium on Saturday, May 10th, many people were pleasantly surprised by the number of accomplishments that will touch on the lives of so many Vermonters. From increasing the minimum wage to required labeling for foods containing genetically modified organisms, the Vermont House and Senate accomplished a lot in their 4 months.
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Though resilience – and the long-term goal of making Vermont more resilient to climate change – was not explicitly on the agenda, the Legislature passed several laws that will move the state in that direction.

On the energy front, several organizations, including the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), worked with administration officials and legislative leadership to pass H.702, a net-metering bill, which was signed into law in April. This bill increased an existing cap on net-metered projects and set in place a process for making the net-metering program sustainable over time. This increases the state’s transition toward meeting its energy goals of 90% renewable by 2050 – which will result in greater energy independence and resilience to uncertain energy markets.

The Legislature’s work this session also included several bills that will help structure rules and direct our investments towards greater resilience. This reinforces one of the four recommendation categories in ISC’s Roadmap to Resilience – Align Rules and Investments for Stronger Communities.

The Legislature took several steps to further this goal, including passing a new shoreland protection program that, for the first time, established basic standards to protect water quality and habitat along the shores of Vermont’s 425+/- lakes and ponds that are larger than ten acres.

Though the call for greater attention to Vermont’s resilience came after Tropical Storm Irene devastated large swaths of Vermont in late August 2011, it is important to remember that Irene was the fourth natural disaster to hit the state that year, with spring flooding causing record 5670844111_484fa4b5bf_mwater levels in Lake Champlain. Flooding, whether in coastal lakes or rivers, is a natural process that becomes, in most instances, only a disaster because we have put our homes, our infrastructure and ourselves in harm’s way. Better managing shorelands to maintain the protections offered by natural vegetation, while limiting manmade encroachment into vulnerable areas, should not only protect water quality and habitat but also make us resilient to future high water events.

Lawmakers also took a step toward directing investments into our established town centers by strengthening several “designation” programs. With these improvements, we hope to see this established program become even more successful in supporting redevelopment of downtowns and village centers, new development in growth centers and new, walkable residential neighborhoods adjacent to those centers. Two bills in particular (H.809 and H.823) improve the process for municipalities to achieve designation, and improve the incentives for investing in those areas. This promotes smart growth development, which comes with the associated benefits of greater transportation options and energy efficiency – both important aspects of resilience. Also included were revisions to Act 250 criteria that reinforce the state’s historic settlement pattern of compact settlements surrounded by open countryside as well as decrease our overreliance on the single occupancy vehicle for our transportation needs.

There were several other success stories, including continued investment in our farm and forest economies through the Working Lands Enterprise Program and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

And, in a modest step, lawmakers passed a bill directing the Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation to identify legislative strategies tforest fragmentationo address the growing problem of forest fragmentation in the state. VNRC has long called for greater attention to the issue of forest fragmentation, and has documented the problem in detail. Whether the issue is maintaining viable wildlife populations, protecting our communities from flooding during extreme storm events, or sequestering carbon to mitigate climate change, large tracts of intact forests are at the top of the list of strategies that Vermont can pursue.

We look forward to continuing the conversation about what Vermont can do to keep our forests forests – as well as other proactive steps to make Vermont more resilient – in the next legislative session.

This post was written by Brian Shupe, Executive Director of Vermont Natural Resources Council. 

Resiliency Takes Many Shapes and Approaches

Much of the work in combating rising sea levels and flooding entails building stronger walls and barriers, so Netherland’s approach to water management and flooding by letting the water in at times really caught my attention. It reminded me about the need for creativity and the importance of learning from others. This past winter’s ice storms and the recent high winds and deluge of rain in parts of Vermont on April 15th & 16th, 2014 are reminders of what we should expect, and they reinforce the need for proactive thinking and action to make us “Vermont Strong.” The recognition of changing weather patterns and the anticipation of increasing incidences of extreme weather events was reinforced by the National Climate Assessment report released on May 6th, 2014. There’s an excellent summary of the report in this New York Times article.

As we work within the complex natural and human communities to develop effective and creative approaches to building responsive and proactive resilience, we turn to Della Rucker, who provides sobering words in this article about Economic Ecosystems and Resilience. She states, “If we are honest about the complexities of our communities, then we have to be honest aboutthe fact that there are few, if any, simple solutions.” But the magnitude of the work shouldn’t stop us from taking action. It’s too important to do nothing.

Irene Rebuilding

Rebuilding Vermont’s Covered Bridges       Photo Credit: Corbis Images

Here in Vermont, there are lots of activities and thinking underway related to building resiliency. The Roadmap to Resilience produced by ISC takes a comprehensive look at current efforts and what is needed. The State has developed a website that will be substantively updated this summer and is promoting proactive work by our cities and towns through incentives. Nonprofits such as VNRC, White River Partnership, and Community-Resilience.org (and many others) are working to support and even lead these efforts. Cities and towns are receiving advice on land use planning from their Regional Planning Commissions and VLCT. The Red Cross is playing a huge role in organizing the social sector for more efficient disaster relief efforts. The work that is happening in Vermont to recover from Irene and build resilience is also helping to inform national efforts. Last week top White House advisors toured the State with Governor Shumlin to take stock of our recovery efforts and learn from our experience.

One of the biggest challenges is finding information about what towns, cities and surrounding regions are doing to improve resilience across the state. In this implementation phase of the Resilient Vermont project, funded by the High Meadows Fund, ISC is working with Slow Communities and a diverse advisory committee to explore ways to efficiently and effectively make all of this information available to the public. Our blog posts on this website are an early attempt to provide some of this information and thinking while we seek a more comprehensive solution. We are also looking hard at the best way to ensure the disparate efforts across the state spanning from agency to local town are informed, coordinated and accessible. We’ll keep you informed as we make progress and welcome all your ideas.

If you want to learn more or sharpen your skills consider attending Local Solutions: Northeast Climate Change Preparedness Conference, hosted by Antioch University in New Hampshire on May 19-21. Contact VLCT or your Regional Planning Commission about grants to help with the cost of attending.

This blog post was written by Bill Roper, Slow Communities and Debra Perry, Institute for Sustainable Communities.

Implementing Vermont’s Roadmap to Resilience

Implementing Vermont’s Roadmap to Resilience

After more than 18 months of holding focus groups involving over 400 Vermonters to explore and uncover the best practices in climate resiliency, the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) has issued Vermont’s Roadmap to Resilience. This report outlines several recommendations for implementing system-wide changes that will build resilience in the face of extreme weather events in the state of Vermont. As the introduction to report states, “We must become resilient at every level, from individual residents, households, and businesses, to the entire community and state.” In short, these recommendations emphasize the need to not only build structures that can withstand the next extreme weather event, but they reinforce the need to support better planning, preparedness, risk assessment, and collaborative action at the community, regional, and state levels.

The report is organized around four different areas of challenge and opportunity:

Four Categories

To build a resilient Vermont, efforts at many levels and by many different people are necessary, yet this work can easily get pushed to the back burner. That’s because transforming the way things work can be hard work that requires sustained efforts and significant investments. It’s hard work – but it’s necessary. Vermonters can be sure that the future holds more frequent and more intense natural disasters – climate change projections are very clear. In fact, we’ve had 7 FEMA declared major disaster events since our state was devastated by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

The most important takeaway from the Recommendations in the Roadmap is that Vermonters should be careful not to become complacent or paralyzed. After the devastation and clean-up, it’s not unusual for many of us to move on and avoid preparing for the next disaster. However, to embrace real progress, we need to embrace true resiliency. This means building stronger networks, stronger infrastructure, and enhancing our ability to manage shocks.

The Roadmap provides many concrete steps for making this kind of progress. In his article, After Disasters, Communities Need Long-Term Solutions, Not Quick Fixes, Richard Harwood, President of the Harwood Institute, discusses what other communities have faced and suggests some proactive steps to take in reducing the risks. Similar ideas are worth reading about in VNRC’s thoughtful report, Towards a Resilient State. And if you want to study even larger efforts to proactively prepare, take a look at The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities inspiring initiative. All these commentaries, reports and actions recognize the expertise and importance of local knowledge, leadership and hard work in preparing and maintaining communities’ resilience.

To ensure that recommendations of the Roadmap move forward, the High Meadows Fund recently awarded a grant to ISC and Slow Communities  (SC) to hold two workshops that will help local communities implement the recommendations. We’ll use these workshops as an opportunity to explore long-term solutions to keep this critical statewide planning work going. To help advise these workshops, ISC and SC pulled together an advisory committee that includes individuals from many sectors such as state agencies, emergency management, municipal planning, social services, natural resource protection, rural development, businesses, the insurance industry, and climate change scientists.

With this advisory committee, we are also exploring the formation of a formal Vermont Resilience network that cuts across sectors and interests to coordinate efforts, share learning and build an approach that will help prepare and assist Vermont’s communities for future climate change challenges. We are excited to share our thoughts on this collaborative effort as it develops, and we’ll use these blog posts as a way to share information on upcoming workshops as well as general updates on long-term resilience planning solutions.

If you want to learn or sharpen your skills consider attending Local Solutions: Northeast Climate Change Preparedness Conference,   hosted by Antioch University in New Hampshire on May 19-21. Contact VLCT or your Regional Planning Commission about grants to help with the cost of attending. Another event that has sessions on building resilience is the upcoming When Governments Cooperate – State Government Municipal Day 2014 in Montpelier on March 31.

Please keep an eye out for future posts and on the Resilient Vermont home page as we’ll be sharing more with you over these next 6 months.

Thank you for all the work you are doing to help make your community and our state strong!

This blog post was written by Debra Perry, ISC Senior Program Officer and Bill Roper, President, Slow Communities.

Building Resilience

mark-johnson

 Building Resilience

Listen to George Hamilton and Senior Program Advisor Steve Adams on the Mark Johnson Show sharing ISC’s international experience in community process, specific examples of post-disaster projects, and regional responses to a changing climate.

LISTEN HERE