One muggy Fourth of July in Burlington, while at a friend’s backyard barbecue, a huge rainstorm broke. As we frantically moved inside, water poured down from the sky and soon formed a river a couple of inches deep on her road. We watched as chunks of asphalt, Solo cups and even a rogue kayaker headed downstream toward Lake Champlain.
“That can’t be good,” a partygoer said. They were right: that type of runoff pollutes our waterways and increases flood risk. So it stands to reason that the Clean Water Act (Act 64) signed into law this past June was both a major step toward cleaning up Vermont’s rivers, lakes and streams and also a critical part of improving our climate resilience.
In Vermont, climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme flooding, which in turn impacts water quality. Vermonters working to improve water quality must also work to help communities adapt to floods and other adverse impacts of climate change. Act 64 not only calls for new regulations to reduce pollutants in waterways, but will also leverage funds for on-the-ground projects like riparian plantings that improve resilience and climate adaptation through the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Clean Water Fund.
Residents of Charlotte, Shelburne and Hinesburg are not waiting until the details of Act 64 have been hammered out to clean up their waterways. Citizens in these communities have been working together with the Lewis Creek Association to develop a more proactive approach to stormwater management in the middle Lake Champlain region. Their grassroots initiative, Ahead of the Storm (AOTS), will use community education and demonstration sites to showcase new flood resilience and stormwater practices.
Since Ahead of the Storm’s inception in the fall of 2014, 15 enthusiastic landowners have already offered their properties as demonstration sites. With seed funding from a DEC Ecosystem Restoration Grant, the initiative is working with property owners to develop stormwater designs and implementation strategies that can help improve water quality and prepare for Vermont’s more extreme weather events. Plans are also underway for three showcase sites: the Shelburne Community School, Charlotte Central School and Champlain Valley Union High School. Students and staff will be involved in assessing the site, designing and implementing conservation practices, and providing and long-term stewardship.
Ahead of the Storm is a successful example of an “all in” water quality stewardship program that combines best available science, high quality technical experts and broad community engagement. Together, we document a problem, design optimal solutions and implement flood resilience projects across an entire watershed region. The initiative emerged from a partnership between representatives from municipal, church, conservation and school groups from the three towns. Ahead of the Storm capitalizes on that community buy-in so that neighbors and students learn to teach their own friends and family members about improving water quality, rather than relying on experts and outsiders.
Vermonters don’t need to wait for regulations and laws – we can take charge and make our own communities climate resilient through collaborative, grassroots projects like this one. If you care about watershed health, climate resilience, and the safety of your community, we encourage you join us in getting ahead of the storm by kickstarting a conversation or local project with your friends, family and neighbors.