Editorial, Legislative Report

Flood Recovery and FEMA Maps Led the Agenda

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MONTPELIER – Returning to the State House for the 2024 Legislative Session, the biggest priority on everyone’s mind was flood recovery. We heard testimony about it in both Natural Resources and Energy and in Government Operations .

Beyond the immediate needs of making those devastated by the floods whole, I’m very tuned into how are we going to prevent severe flooding from happening in the future. We know climate change is here and there are ways we can improve our water management systems so the effects of increased precipitation are reduced. 
I especially want to highlight the testimony we heard from Karina Dailey, whose emphasized that “intact fresh water systems build climate resilience.” She asked, “How do we keep fresh water systems (like rivers) intact?” To answer this, she asked us to consider the ways in which a river can change: laterally (shifting side-to-side), longitudinally (flowing down hill), vertically (connecting to ground water or aquifers), and temporally (shifting over time). When a river gets disconnected in any of these dimensions, it can be bad news for ecosystems and for humans. 
For example, when large rain events occur, rivers need to be able to spread out their excess water into their flood plains (lateral movement), but if rivers are armored (walled or lined with granite blocks) then those flood plains are not accessible. Connecting rivers back to their flood plains is an obvious solution.

When heavy rain events occur, food plains provide the extra storage space that for the additional water and they help to slow down the river, so that it has less destructive energy down stream.

Removing derelict dams can help ecosystems. Dams can raise the temperature of the water behind them (bad for ecosystems). Sediment builds up behind them, which raises the water level behind them. Dams can also cause the water level in high rain events to rise below them.

Both of these solutions are baked into the language of  S.213, which was the foundation of our testimony this week. S.213 “proposes to amend provisions related to wetlands, river corridor development, and dam safety.”
We heard during testimony that Vermont has lost 35% of its wetlands since European settlement. My colleague, Sen. White observed, during this new era of climate change, we probably need more wetlands than we had then just to deal with the new, high-precipitation weather we’re likely to experience with climate change. So one of the provisions in this bill aims to recover than we had. 
I had the honor of speaking at the Rally for Flood Recovery, where I  told the story about a project in Northfield, which connected a river to its floodplain and lowered the water in the July flooding by six inches. To quote Michelle Braun of Friends of the Winooski, “six inches may not seem like a lot, but when that’s in your living room, it makes a big difference.” 
Week two gave us lots of great testimony. Presentations taught me about the stages of river channel evolution and helped me understand how what we saw during the summer  flooding was to be expected for rivers that have been altered.

The last time FEMA came through Vermont to update their flood maps was in the 1970s,  at the height of Vermont’s river incision. So when FEMA ran their algorithm that added some additional volume of water to river channels, because of the incisions,  the “flood plain” perfectly overlapped the river channel itself in many places. FEMA maps are all about the inundation hazard area, (another way of saying a 100-year-flood area is an area with 1% annual chance of flooding. The 500 year flood area has a 0.2% annual chance of flooding. Inundation is just when the water rises. These maps do not include the area at risk from erosion, when the river decides it’s time to carve a new path or re-stabilize its banks. This was the kind of damage we saw in Cabot (and many other places) in July. 
The good news is that FEMA is updating Vermont’s flood plain maps, and they should be done in 2026 and 2027. Part of S.213 would help keep housing out of both types of  risky areas (inundation and  erosion hazard areas). Municipalities  treat those risks differently now and reguations are largely insufficient across the state. 
I think we can all agree that while we must build more housing, it should not be in these high risk areas. 

(Watson is a senator for Washington District: Woodbury, Calais, Cabot, Marshfield and Plainfield.) 

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