Irene Teaches New Lessons About Managing Rivers

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The belief that climate change will lead to more frequent flooding, and the prospect that federal relief efforts will be hobbled by increasing demands was a major theme at a symposium at the Vermont Law School Friday. 

The discussion took place in the context of the response to Tropical Storm Irene and what Vermont should do to prepare for future disasters.

The symposium brought together advocates, government officials and academics.  Much of the discussion focused on managing rivers.

Vermont rivers program manager Michael Kline says Irene represents a turning point in how the state and communities approach rivers.

Even so, Kline says 40 percent of the river repairs done after Irene actually increased the danger from flooding.

Kline says only recently have officials begun questioning the decades long practice of dredging, widening and straightening rivers after floods. 

Following Irene, Kline says the state river engineers are working with towns to take a new approach to managing rivers to better prepare for future floods.

"We are beginning to look at our flood response differently so that instead of creating the fire hose effect out of our rivers, we can find out where they can dissipate some of that flood flow, where they can expend some of that flood energy," he says.

The key to that is protecting floodplains and the idea of giving rivers the room they need to overflow.  Kline says Vermont’s rivers can no longer access 75 percent of the floodplain that border them.

That’s largely because of development and the way rivers have been altered.  Better local planning can protect existing floodplains and mitigation programs could help clear out developed areas. 

Gavin Smith is a Research Professor at the University Of North Carolina. After his state was hit by two severe hurricanes it used a rainy day fund to magnify the effects of the FEMA buyout program and clear large hog farms and thousands of homes from floodplains.  North Carolina also did away with outdated FEMA floodplain maps and created its own.

Now the state is taking the next step of planning for the effects of climate change.

"Things aren’t going to get better, they’re going to get worse," Smith says. "And for us it means more flooding and it could mean more intense hurricanes.  So we’re actually trying to think through how we create new maps that look into the future."

Protecting and expanding floodplain is controversial.  It raises questions about what individuals can do with their land, how and where communities can grow, and what do about existing floodplain development. 

Chris Kilian of the Conservation Law Foundation says there needs to be public dialogue on disaster response, led by the Governor, with an eye toward creating new policies.  

According to Kilian, "It is right that there is an opportunity right now and there are discussions that weren’t occurring before Irene.  But its now time to take advantage of that opportunity and see real policy change."

Kilian says Vermont’s Act 250 development law needs to be amended to make  climate change a factor in decisions.

Officials say the state has been working with towns to highlight floodplain protection. To date, 42 towns have adopted stronger bylaws designed to avoid development in flood vulnerable areas.



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