VLT developed new ways to address water quality in our conservation easements.
By Will Lindner
Water quality has been a hot topic in the news these days. Development, industry, farms, roads and streambank erosion add phosphorus and other pollutants to our state’s streams and rivers, and ultimately cause water quality issues such as algae blooms in Lake Champlain. Vermont’s water quality has the attention of the state and federal government along with many in the nonprofit sector.
The Vermont Land Trust, while best known for conserving land, is intimately involved with the state’s waters, too. Over the past 15 years, VLT has been developing new ways to address water quality in our conservation easements.
Nearly 90 percent of the properties that VLT has conserved have frontage along, or are located within 20 feet of, a stream or river. Conserving land can be an excellent way to protect our water resources. Undeveloped forestland filters pollutants and protects headwaters, while innovative conservation tools are being used to reduce nutrient run-off from farms.
Many of our projects include provisions that establish and protect buffers—usually land off-limits to farming—along streams, brooks, and rivers. Natural vegetation grows within these areas; plant roots absorb nutrients, such as phosphorus, and help reduce erosion.
Buffers also filter sediment, keeping the water clearer, and shade streams, two conditions that improve habitat for aquatic species. As the issue of water quality has become more urgent, buffer provisions have come into wider use. It’s expected all farms we conserve in fiscal year 2015-16 with streams running through them will have special water quality protections, such as buffers.
While farms are a focus of our water quality efforts, forests also play a critical role. Forests collect and filter snowmelt and rainfall, and integrate it gradually into streams. Well-functioning headwaters safeguard the area below from a sudden and dangerous accumulation of floodwaters.
VLT’s Director of Conservation Science Liz Thompson considers the Bolton Valley Nordic and Backcountry project, completed in 2013, one of the organization’s most important accomplishments. It protected 1,144 acres of high-elevation forestland.
“Joiner Brook is a swift-moving stream that runs into the Winooski River, and most of the watershed for that brook is contained in this parcel,” says Liz. “The Winooski is a contributor to Lake Champlain’s pollution problems, so protecting the water quality of a large tributary to the Winooski is a very good thing.”
So far, VLT has conserved nearly 400,000 acres of Vermont forestland; one-third of this land lies within the Lake Champlain watershed.
In recent years VLT has also focused on “flood resilience,” using the land’s natural characteristics to minimize the impacts of large flood events. Over the past 200 years, Vermonters have confined many rivers into their channels through techniques known as armoring.
Inevitably, says Roy Schiff, a water resource scientistwith the firm Milone and MacBroom, a river subject to such manipulation will “express that energy” at some vulnerable point elsewhere. The flooding and erosion from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 was, to a large degree, rivers rebelling against their unnatural boundaries.
In the storm’s aftermath, Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz and VLT President Gil Livingston met with agencies and organizations to explore how conservation could support flood resilience in Vermont. It led to an ambitious project: Geographic Information System tools were developed to predict the erosion and deposition potential of every river and stream in the state (26,000 miles in all).
VLT hopes to use this tool to target conservation and land management efforts so they more effectively protect water quality. The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, says Rivers Program Manager Mike Kline, is all in. It works with VLT to add river-corridor protections to limit interference with the functions of rivers and streams on VLT-conserved land. This means that the waterways will be allowed to meander within their natural floodplain.
Landowners are compensated for giving up the right to constrain the river. “We let the landowner retain the right to continue to farm and do forestry, continue to use the land, but as a guest of the river,” says Kline. “It’s all about getting rivers to a natural stability and getting floodplains functioning again. It’s fairly unique for a state and a land trust to be using these tools together.”
Conserving land goes a long way toward protecting the water that flows through it. Through these varied approaches and partnerships, we will further conservation’s positive impact on Vermont’s water quality.