The recent flooding associated with Tropical Storm Irene severely impacted many river valleys in central and southern Vermont.
In some places, vast tracts of land were underwater, but the damage to infrastructure was greatly reduced because portions of some river corridors, such as areas along the Batten Kill, had a "safety valve" in the open land along the river, as Cynthia Browning, state legislator and director of the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance, puts it.
This safety valve is one of the features that VLT, the Vermont River Conservancy, and the State of Vermont aspire to protect through river corridor easements, a new conservation approach.
Under these easements and in conjunction with the goals of landowners, human interference along the rivers is being limited.
Activities such as altering the river's course, timber harvesting, or farming are not allowed near the riverbank. These restrictions go with the river, even as it meanders. The increased safety from giving a river more space to meander also comes with improved water quality, habitat, and recreation opportunity.
This past year, two conservation projects in the Batten Kill watershed showed, among other factors, that protecting some of our floodplains from development can have a number of benefits, including mitigating flood risk.
The Batten Kill flows 50 miles from Vermont into New York, where it joins the Hudson River. To those who live in Arlington, Sunderland, Manchester, and Dorset, the river is a recreational gem and a source of economic development and pride. VLT has joined with a diverse and energetic group of partners to focus on protecting portions of this important watershed.
In Arlington, the Green River meets the Batten Kill. Just upstream from the confluence, Tom Greene wanted to add 20 acres to his already conserved 10 acres along the Green. In response, members of the Batten Kill partnership, including Donald Campbell of VLT, met with Tom and talked about what could be done to protect the river.
Traditionally, floodplains along the river served as places where the river could, during high water, bleed off potentially damaging energy and at the same time dump fertile sediment. Roads, villages, houses, armored riverbanks, and other human impacts have straightened the river. A river that is forced to run straight along human-reinforced channels carries with it great force, which can lead to much more destructive flooding.
The river corridor protection language in Tom's conservation easement goes beyond saying that landowners won't cut down trees or armor the riverbank. "If there is a 50-foot-wide buffer, that buffer moves with the river," says Shannon Pytlik of the Department of Environmental Conservation's Vermont Rivers Project. "And, the river is allowed to meander where it will. We have come to learn that not only can we not control river channels, but that trying to do so causes great damage."
Also in Arlington, Tim Peters and Elizabeth Young's 24-acre property along the Batten Kill was already protected by a conservation easement, but, knowing they would be selling their property, they wanted to do everything possible to protect the river.
Studies conducted on the Batten Kill have shown that the fishery has struggled, in part because of the loss of cover for trout along the shores. How could Tim and Elizabeth guarantee that future landowners wouldn't further compromise aquatic habitat by cutting trees or even mowing right up to the water? The new language added to their easement ensures that the buffer along the river remains.
"We have always maintained a buffer along the riverbank," says Tim. "It's how a river is supposed to be. Regardless of what happens—whether a tree falls or a riverbank is lost—future landowners will leave it as it is."
The Batten Kill Watershed Alliance, the Vermont Departments of Environmental Conservation and Fish and Wildlife, the Bennington County Conservation District and the Regional Commission, the US Forest Service, and Trout Unlimited are some of the most active organizations in the partnership in the protection of the Batten Kill.
"These two projects will serve as a model for other landowners, and it was good experience for our team," said Shelly Stiles, of the Bennington County Conservation Commission.
In addition to securing protection for the river, Donald Campbell is heartened by the synergy that comes from the partnership. "We work on the conservation piece," says Donald. "Other partners focus on outreach, education, and helping to change behaviors. All of these factors are important to the health and safety of our rivers."