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

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