Connecting Watershed Communities

Op Ed by Steve Nicholas, Vice President of Urban Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities. Cross-posted from www.iscvt.org

As we look back on the five years since Tropical Storm Irene, one of the biggest changes we’ve observed has been in Vermonters’ understanding of watersheds. Of course, practitioners who work on water issues have always looked at the landscape in terms of watersheds, but pre-Irene, local community leaders were more likely to think in terms of town boundaries or transportation corridors.

Now, we have much greater knowledge of upstream and downstream impacts. Landowners and local government leaders were able to see firsthand how our development patterns (in valleys, near rivers) drove Irene’s violent flooding, and are starting to understand their connection to the local watershed in new and expanded ways.

The renewed emphasis on tackling the pollution in Lake Champlain has also raised watershed awareness among Vermonters. The simplest definition – the geographic area drained by surface and subsurface water systems (e.g. streams, rivers and aquifers) – easily lets us envision an area that transcends town, county or even state boundaries. The Lake Champlain watershed extends from Quebec through Vermont and New York – and addressing its water issues demands collaboration from thousands of local leaders representing different stakeholders and interests like local governments, residents and businesses.

Collaboration across boundaries is the key to dealing with tough challenges, like cleaning up Lake Champlain or preparing for future extreme storms and flooding. In our work across the United States and around the world, we prioritize regional collaboration as one the most important climate adaptation tool. When we work across traditional boundaries and break out of the silos we’ve built for ourselves, we can make amazing progress.

What does this mean for local leaders? It means thinking beyond town boundaries when we look at development planning in our communities. And building regional partnerships with nearby communities to tackle everything from flood preparedness to economic development.

Many Vermonters have already recognized the need. Watersheds United Vermont, founded in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, brings together local groups focused on watershed health. Many of these groups have existed for decades, but were not connecting, communicating or collaborating. Watersheds United brings them together. Also, in 2015 High Meadows Fund sparked six new initiatives to spark “creative and inclusive building of resilience at a watershed level.”

And we must look as well at the social connections. Vermont communities prize their differences, but it is essential for us to remember that we are more alike than different. We all have rivers and streams that run through our towns, we are all at risk of flooding and extreme weather, and we all must strengthen and maintain our social capital and community connections every day. If we learned anything from Irene, it is that our vulnerable citizens – low-income, elderly, new citizens – are more at risk from a future Irene. Their lives and livelihoods are more at risk to begin with, as they often have fewer resources to withstand shocks brought on by floods.

So instead of just thinking that we live in Montpelier, accessible to Route 2 and I-89, we can shift our thinking to encompass the Winooski River watershed. When we look at the landscape this way, it is easier to look collectively at the impact of building a bridge in Montpelier or a new factory in Cabot. It is easier to connect to the Dog River, the Stevens Branch, the Mad River and the Little River – and to understand that the communities around these rivers are closely connected. And when we think of protecting our citizens, we must focus on connecting with them across communities and across the watershed.

About the author: The Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) is an international nonprofit headquartered in Montpelier, working to help local leaders tackle climate and sustainability issues in the U.S. and Asia. After Tropical Storm Irene, ISC managed the four-year Resilient Vermont Project to help Vermonters identify ways to build and strengthen community resilience. Learn more at resilientvt.org.