Porter: Irene and Flood Protection

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(Host) One year ago, when
Tropical Storm Irene hit, the destruction wrought along Vermont’s rivers was
tragic.  But Lake Champlain Lakekeeper
Louis Porter of the Conservation Law Foundation says some extraordinary and
wonderful things happened as well – some of which have taken us some time to

(Porter) All across our state the natural landscapes that Vermonters
inherited and preserved in turn protected them from what would otherwise have
been even more devastation from Tropical Storm Irene.

In places where rivers still had access to flood plains,
the waters spread out and their force was dissipated.  This kept many buildings, roads and bridges
from being completely annihilated. And some places had culverts and bridges
sized to accommodate the larger deluges. 
They survived, while neighboring older and smaller culverts and bridges
were simply washed away.

What happened along Otter Creek shows the benefits of
protecting and preserving our natural defenses against floods.

Upstream in Rutland, where the city and the river back up
against the slopes of the Green Mountains with little access to a flood plain,
the river’s volume leapt up by nearly twenty fold in a day.  The crest came and went suddenly.

But 30 or so miles down the river in Middlebury, the story
was different. Nearly a week after Irene had passed by, water still roared
under the massive stone bridge at the heart of the town.  The crest there came days after it reached
Rutland, and instead of seeing a drastic and dangerous increase in volume,
Middlebury residents saw Otter Creek grow at a slower and safer pace. It
receded gradually over most of September.

The difference was due to acres of swamps, with tall trees
emerging from beds of cattails, and broad floodplains with comparatively little
development on the riverbanks.  These
natural features functioned, as nature intended, like a massive sponge, sopping
up, slowing down and weakening the flood’s destructive force. 

The wetlands and floodplains provided us with a valuable
service- but one that we’ve never bothered to tally in our system of economic

That’s about to change. 
Under a law passed this year, the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute
for Ecological Economics is studying how to add the benefits of systems, like
the flood protection, nature provides, to how the state measure’s economic
activity – and to subtract the loss of them as well.

"If we want to keep these ecosystem services," says Eric
Zencey, coordinator for Gund’s Genuine Progress Indicator Project, "we have to
start valuing them, and taking their value into account in our economic
decision making." 

Gross State Product, the current system of measuring the
economy,  is "literally perverse," Zency
says. And he adds "as all the damage from Irene gets repaired, the expenditure
shows up as a net gain, even though we aren’t actually making any economic

Especially after Irene, we know that the key to flood
protection lies in giving rivers room to move, keeping flood plains intact and
building roads and bridges that are ready for our new climate. We’re still
learning how to count up the real, tangible savings the wetlands provided along
Otter Creek and other flood-prone rivers, lakes, and ponds across the state.
But if we don’t, we may find we didn’t know what we had until it is gone.

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