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.
By Bill Roper of Slow Communities
One of Irene’s biggest lessons was the power of communication and collaboration to solve big challenges. When neighbors, towns, or agencies worked together to find creative solutions, they moved mountains. It’s also true of funders, who came together in unusual partnerships to move urgent recovery work forward. And that’s why the Resilient Vermont Network focuses on bringing groups together to increase communication and collaborative problem solving – including a group of resilience funders last month.
We brought funders together because, during our extensive meetings with resilience stakeholders, funding emerged as a critical ingredient to success. Vermont’s successes in buyouts after Irene, for example, were possible because of innovative funding collaborations. Yet funders are rarely at the table to hear about progress and help find solutions. That insight prompted the Resilient Vermont Network and High Meadows Fund to invite representatives from federal agencies, Vermont agencies and nonprofits, foundations and private philanthropists to come together for an afternoon to explore resilience successes, challenges and opportunities.
In February, a group of 22 funders shared their work and identified the many opportunities and issues they see in building a resilient future for Vermont. The group focused on exploring how they, as funders, could:
The conversation covered a broad range of resilience topics including economic resilience, clean water, empowering vulnerable populations, and building local capacity. In fact, several participants observed that the conversation helped them see how much resilience integrates with their work and funding priorities in areas like children and families, social services, or local capacity building – something they had not fully appreciated before the gathering.
That sudden clarity – the ability to see the forest for the trees – is one of the reasons that communication and collaboration are so critical. They are essential tools to putting individual action into a larger context. Because resilience solutions work best if integrated, that larger awareness is a big key to success.
“When philanthropic funders turn their collective attention to a problem, they have the potential to really make a shift in the whole landscape,” notes the Institute for Sustainable Communities VP for Institutional Advancement Barbara McAndrew. “This meeting was an excellent step and I heard terrific ideas and insights.”
For the last year, the Resilient Vermont Network has been convening action groups of resilience leaders to tackle the next big resilience challenges: supporting vulnerable populations, funding buyouts, and protecting river corridors. At each stage of the game, we’ve uncovered unknown (at least to us!) initiatives to address impacts from past disasters and promote proactive planning. We’ve also learned about more challenges and opportunities to improve.
What we’ve discovered over the last year is both a testament to collaboration and a reflection of ongoing needs. For example, when we brought together a group to discuss ways of improving and increasing buyouts of flood-prone properties, we learned about several critical efforts already underway, and also a widespread need for more information about funding sources, prioritization strategies, and ways to integrate efforts.While there’s a lot to learn from the past, the February funders group focused on looking forward and preparing for what we know will come. Vermont can save money, lives and heartache through proactive thinking and action. A host of ideas emerged, from the need to better define and measure resilience, to a need for stronger capacity building and training at the local level, to opportunities for funders to leverage efforts and complete high priority projects together.
Spending money to save money – a common argument for resilience work – can be a tough sell, but all in the room agreed that we must embrace this attitude and approach.
In the months that come, the Network will watch with interest to see if new thinking or actions follow the recent funders’ discussions. And we are always interested in other ideas or work going on in Vermont, so please send us your comments. We can’t do this work without you.
Bill Roper, of Slow Communities, is working with the Institute for Sustainable Communities to build the Resilient Vermont Network.
Vermonters continue to face climate-related challenges like powerful storms and warming temperatures, all while navigating shifting economies and new policies. We must act now to protect our treasured people and places. Join us for the first Resilient Vermont Network conference and gear up for the challenge.
by Anne Goodrich, Director of Upper Valley Strong
After Tropical Storm Irene, temporary Long-Term Recovery Committees popped up across the state to help coordinate support for flood victims. Upper Valley Strong (UVS) was one. When a localized flood hit the Upper Valley again in 2013, UVS immediately jumped in to coordinate relief efforts and support volunteers and homeowners. UVS aligned with Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission (TRORC) to access individual disaster-related information and coordinate with state relief processes. Staff and committee members already had the relationships and local knowledge to quickly gather resources – shovels and wheelbarrows to dig out, new appliances for residents, and volunteers to assist. Disaster relief and recovery were efficient and fast, largely because UVS was already in place.
It was clear to UVS that the region needed a permanent group in place to maintain relationships, coordinate resources, and hit the ground running when a disaster happened. And so UVS became Vermont’s first Community Organization Active in Disaster (COAD).
COADs are growing in popularity across the Unites States. These voluntary groups consist of nonprofits, corporations, faith-based groups, and other organizations that can play a role in disaster recovery. COADs help coordinate local resources, oversee individual recovery, and support local volunteers. They also coordinate with larger groups, such as Vermont Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), and coordinate efforts with other local, state, and federal organizations. Perhaps most importantly, COADs offer disaster case management, which is required for people to receive money from the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund.
In Vermont, two regional COADs are now up and running. While Upper Valley Strong was transitioning to a COAD, the Windham Regional Commission’s Executive Director Chris Campany and Emergency Planner Alyssa Sabetto formed the Southern Windham COAD (SWCOAD) to establish a regional framework for response.
UVS has now proposed that COADs could, and should, exist in every region in Vermont, aligned geographically with Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs). UVS presented its story at the 2015 Vermont Emergency Preparedness Conference, and several RPC Emergency Planners expressed interest in forming COADs within their own region. WRC is helping to move the conversation forward, and invited Tracy Rogers, an Emergency Planner from Western Massachusetts, to speak to all interested Vermont RPC Emergency Planners regarding COADs.
Although COADs exist throughout the US, the construct of aligning COADs with their respective RPCs statewide is a unique arrangement – but it’s not without challenges. COADs require basic administrative support to “keep the engine warm,” and COADS across the USA share the same dilemma: how to sustain the organization between disasters without a funding stream. The solution, which has both benefits and additional challenges, may be connecting with RPCs. Statewide Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) funds help some RPCs support Local Emergency Planning Committees and may soon cover COADs as well. Regions that don’t receive those funds, however, have little financial incentive to create COADs in their region. Capacity is another issue: during disasters, RPCs’ first priority is to serve as liaisons with state emergency management, which means COADs still need to support their own staffs to coordinate local operations.
Despite the details to work out, the potential is great. We hope that at least 75% of Vermont RPCs will support regional COADs within the next year. These alliances between RPCs and COADs will create sustainable disaster recovery programs and enable each region in Vermont to better recover from any disasters that lie ahead.
We encourage you to learn more and get in touch if you are interested in forming a COAD in your region!
By Rebecca Sanborn Stone, Resilient Vermont Network Coordinator and Principal at Community Workshop LLC
Vermonters know all too well what disaster looks like. Whether our communities are hit by summer microbursts, paralyzed by winter ice or flooded by rising spring rivers, the results are often the same. Towns must cope with immediate threats, assess damage and clean up the mess, coordinate volunteers, and finally rebuild their roads, their buildings and their spirits. Some of Vermont’s communities come together and handle these challenges well while others struggle and squabble. It turns out there’s an important way to predict how your community will fare.
Communities that respond well in disasters have prepared and built strong social capital long before the disaster strikes. Neighbors know and look out for each other. Town leaders from different areas – emergency services, conservation, local government, social services – trust each other and communicate. People are informed and take responsibility for their own safety and well-being. They understand likely hazards, prepare for emergencies, and have networks of volunteers and resources at the ready. And they have fun, coming together for celebrations and street dances, potlucks and parades.
Social capital and preparedness are usually decades in the making, but a new Vermont pilot program, Community Resilience Organizations (CROs), is helping communities build them up. Launched in 2015, CROs helps participating towns form a diverse local team with people who are knowledgeable about all the areas important to resilience: first responders, watershed groups, social services and more. The CROs program developed a new community resilience assessment survey tool that helps teams understand the many different components of resilience, identify how their town currently measures up, and prioritize areas to improve. Teams then come together at an annual retreat to learn about creative resilience projects and strategies and plan tangible projects that will help them prepare for hazards, inform and involve the community, and build social capital. And they stay connected, sharing solutions and ideas with the other participating teams.
CROs launched in six Vermont towns in 2015: Hartford, Jeffersonville, Londonderry, Putney, Richmond and Waterbury. The projects and teams popping up in these towns are just as diverse as the towns themselves.
Looking ahead to its second year, CROs will continue to support these teams as they develop and complete projects on the ground, but also to welcome new teams to the nest. In addition to staff support, CROs has commitments from nearly two dozen state agencies, non-profits and organizations that can help provide resources to communities on the ground.
Could your community use help energizing volunteers, building relationships, or prioritizing and completing resilience projects? Get CRO’ing!
By Rebecca Sanborn Stone, Resilient Vermont Network Coordinator and Principal at Community Workshop LLC
How does Vermont measure up on resilience? What’s working? Where should we go in 2016?
The Resilient Vermont Progress Report, released this summer, evaluates progress on our statewide Roadmap to Resilience. But it’s equally important to hear stories and thoughts from people working on the ground.
That’s just what we did in this month’s Resilient Vermont webinar, focusing on the State of Resilience in Vermont. We heard “lightning talks” from three leaders representing different kinds of resilience projects, and then turned the floor over to our audience to share initiatives they are working on and their thoughts on the path forward.
If you missed it, you can watch our webinar recording and get all the details or read a snapshot of the discussion below.
Here are some important projects and resources from around the state:
There are also exciting plans underway for 2016:
1) What are Vermont businesses doing today that make them leaders in the climate economy?
2) What are some ideas to promote business, economic development, and job creation in Vermont as we work to reduce carbon impacts and develop new energy resources?
More than 125 Vermonters weighed in on these questions this fall in three forums aimed at stimulating a conversation about Vermont’s Climate Change Economy. The Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) organized forums in Rutland, Brattleboro, and Burlington to help people think critically about how we can create a stronger economy in the midst of a changing climate.
These forums were the next stage for public input in the Vermont Climate Change Economy Initiative, a program VCRD launched in early 2015. The Initiative is designed to develop a structured plan with practical actions that will reduce carbon emissions and stimulate green economic development in Vermont. The independent Vermont Climate Change Economy Council will develop policy recommendations in support of this goal, and report them to the Governor and Legislature in February.
At each forum, we heard from a panel of innovative business leaders who shared their strategies and visions for Vermont’s Climate Economy future. They spurred participants to share far-reaching, creative and inventive ideas; strong consideration for and pride in Vermont’s landscape, businesses, and farms; and a compelling vision around how Vermont can move forward and lead the way in the face of a changing climate.
The ideas ranged from economic development strategies such as creating “ecodevelopment districts” for green business incubation in Vermont communities, to marketing Vermont as a “Climate Economy Destination.” Participants touched on the importance of justice and equality as our economy grows and spoke of the importance of local community participation in renewable energy siting and development.
Participants also highlighted the importance of resilience in the face of a changing climate. We heard suggestions for Vermont communities to conduct resiliency audits and to develop local microgrids that would protect us from the impact of regional power outages. Transportation was a hot topic at all three forums, with strong support for the development of bike and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and rail transit across Vermont. People also suggested policy changes, such as lifting the net metering cap to allow for further development of renewables and divesting from fossil fuels.
Key ideas from the forums are now online in this list of 40 Ideas to Advance Vermont’s Climate Economy. This summary will be shared with the Vermont Climate Change Economy Council as it develops the platform of recommendations. VCRD also highlights the stories of climate innovators online.
This will be the starting point for VCRD’s second Vermont Climate Change Economy Summit: Ideas to Action at Vermont Technical College on February 22. The Summit will bring together scientists, business, nonprofit, and community leaders, elected officials, public policy advocates, students, and interested residents to review the platform of action and work together to move ideas to action to create jobs, build national reputation, and attract young people to our rural communities. Please save the date. Registration will open after January 1, 2016.
Continue to share your ideas with us and stay in touch by visiting our website, emailing info[@]vtrural.org, or by calling us at 223-6091.
The Vermont Council on Rural Development is a nonprofit organization charged by the federal farm bill to act as a neutral convener at both the local and policy level supporting the progress of Vermont communities.
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.
By Jared Ulmer, Climate Change Adaptation Program Coordinator at the Vermont Department of Health.
Tropical Storm Irene provided an extremely potent example of how climate change will impact Vermont. Unfortunately, storm-related impacts are only one of many ways that climate change will affect the health of Vermonters.
The good news (yes, there can be good news on climate change!) is that Vermont is already taking steps to address a broad range of those climate-related health impacts. The great news is that these steps will improve health in Vermont across the board, regardless of how much climate change affects us.
With funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Vermont Department of Health is leading an effort to identify and mitigate expected climate change impacts on health. We considered an extensive list of potential health impacts, and narrowed our focus to six priority areas:
While everyone will be affected by climate change, certain populations will be more affected than others. Older adults, young children, those with pre-existing medical conditions, outdoor workers, and those with limited socioeconomic resources will disproportionately bear the brunt. Since these populations tend to be more susceptible to health impacts in general, preparing for climate change provides an opportunity to address underlying vulnerabilities and improve health equity overall.
Having identified these health priorities and vulnerable populations, the Health Department is now working on developing and implementing strategies to address the expected impacts. Blue-green algae blooms are now regularly monitored and tracked online, providing the public, drinking water operators, and recreational site managers with information on current risk levels.
The public can also report tick activity online, which provides valuable data to the Health Department and alerts others of potential risks. Other ongoing efforts include a partnership aimed at reducing agricultural runoff and an analysis to identify urban hot spots that could be cooled through tree planting or other green infrastructure strategies.
Over the course of the next year, we will be reaching out to stakeholders to identify additional strategies and compile an action plan. In the meantime, please visit the Health Department’s Climate Change website for further information, and if you have any thoughts to share with us on climate-related health impacts and potential adaptation strategies, please get in touch with us at ClimateHealth@vermont.gov.
By Bill Roper of Slow Communities. Bill is working with ISC to build the Resilient Vermont Network and with High Meadows Fund to build its Watershed Initiative.
Climate change is part of our new reality – that’s now evident on a daily basis. Just pick up a newspaper and you’re sure to find stories of our changing climate. Here in Vermont, our landscape and weather patterns tell the story too. Our uncharacteristically long and dry summer may actually be the new normal, and when rain finally came – too hard and fast for our parched soils to absorb – we saw the flooding that is becoming commonplace in our watersheds.
Many efforts are underway to mitigate and adapt to climate change and build local resilience (such as the efforts described in our Resilient Vermont progress report), yet few of these efforts have sparked action on the watershed scale – where Vermont’s climate impacts are often most visible and most critical. I’m excited to share with you another approach that is helping Vermont communities collaborate and prepare within watersheds.
In January 2015, the High Meadows Fund (HMF) issued a Request for Proposals to inspire and encourage creative and inclusive watershed-level resilience projects. It sought projects in which multiple municipalities within a watershed would collaborate to improve their watershed’s resilience. HMF has now awarded six grants to watershed collaborations around Vermont, and projects are getting off the ground.
They selected the following creative teams to build resilience, watershed style:
All of these projects include a healthy slice of citizen engagement and aim to spark real change along their rivers, in their towns and among their residents. They offer great examples of proactive, watershed-level work and I’m excited to follow them over the course of the next 18 months. They are helping prepare Vermont for the real impacts that we know are coming, and reducing future damage to our local economies, communities, and environment. Read more about the projects and their activities.
The complexity of climate change requires work at lots of different levels and in many directions. This post touches on some of the adaptation actions here in Vermont. We are interested in other work going on… what are you doing? What would you like to be doing? How would you like to get involved?