Lauren Oates: Water Needs Conservation. Conservation Needs Water.

  • With all this talk about biodiversity, I would be remiss to not shout from the headwaters that global freshwater biodiversity collapse is occurring at twice the rate of both terrestrial and marine biomes; that here in Vermont, a significant number of our threatened and endangered species rely on healthy, connected aquatic habitat; and that with a changing climate promising more frequent and more severe flooding, attention to our freshwater systems – and the interconnectedness of those systems with our land – is essential. On a planet whose defining feature is life, here’s your daily reminder that we would all not be here, but for our water.

    When discussions about “aquatic” or “water” conservation begin, people typically go straight to securing a healthy water supply during periods of drought. This is a very Western US perspective, where water is more limited, and threats of prolonged drought and wildfires abound. Back East, as promised by the last several National Climate Assessments, and as experienced by Vermonters year over year, we have a flood-drought-flood cycle playing out, wherein some years we have an abundance of precipitation, oversaturated soils, and full reservoirs, leading to devastating flooding (as experienced in July 2023 & December 2023), interrupted by years with a dearth of snow and rainfall, leading to drought-driven dry soils, impacting agriculture and reducing availability of swimming holes for summer recreation (as experienced in 2017 & 2021). As we navigate this somewhat erratic water cycle, which impacts our communities, our local food production, our economy, and our flora and fauna, we must ensure future conservation efforts in Vermont appreciate and prioritize watershed resilience.

    In recognition of these two challenges – both the confusion over what “aquatic conservation” means in Vermont and the climate variability we’re already experiencing – Act 59 created a space for these discussions and recommendations through an aquatic inventory. While the goals of the Act are explicitly affixed to land conservation, we know that lands affect water and vice versa. How then will we try to do right by both in this statewide conservation planning effort?

    I’ve been working with a newly assembled Aquatic Systems Working Group that is part of the Act 59 effort, made up of small and large land trusts, regional planning commissions, state agency and conservation district staff, watershed groups, and academia, to figure out how best to protect our watershed in an uncertain future, homing in first on how we define healthy aquatic systems and what they look like. After much discussion, we aligned around the fundamental idea of connectivity: if our aquatic systems are connected – to each other, to the landscape – they can both support biodiversity and make our communities more resilient.

    If only connectivity were so easy! We have real work to do. According to Vermont’s ANR, roughly 75% of our rivers and streams are disconnected from their floodplains, and the state has lost more than a third of its original wetlands in the last 200 years. We have over 1,000 dams in the state, only a small portion of which are designed for flood control, and a litany of undersized culverts and bridges that exacerbate flood damages and prevent aquatic organism passage. 

    Even the headwaters feeding our streams, rivers, and wetland complexes are often chopped up by old forest roads and associated ditching, altering flows and breaking that critical connectivity. So, because healthy aquatic systems and the organisms that depend upon them for survival fundamentally require connection, and because Vermont’s aquatic systems are severely disconnected, what can be done? How do we reverse course and how can our land be part of the solution?

    These are the questions that the Aquatic Systems Working Group chewed on for several months. We inventoried all the programs and practices that directly or indirectly impact/support aquatic systems. We assessed each of these programs and practices for their efficacy at connecting conserved lands with conserved waters, as well as their key features: flood and drought resilience, biodiversity, cultural/spiritual value, water quality, and carbon sequestration and storage potential. We identified those programs and practices that are working exceptionally well, and those that, if changed, could provide significantly greater value for aquatic systems. We were also able to identify the limitations of land-based conservation efforts to support watershed health.

    To put a finer point on both the interconnectedness and disconnect between terrestrial and aquatic systems, I offer two examples, respectively. First, step over the highway guardrail with me and stand next to that picturesque Vermont river, seemingly only feet away from our parked car. We are likely standing in a river corridor, or the area that a river will inevitably and necessarily move in over time. The land adjacent to the river will experience both slow erosion over time and rapid, violent erosion during severe flooding events. See that wall of stones between us and the river below? That is called riprap, which we put in place to protect our infrastructure, like this road, from inevitable erosion. Now look on the other side of the river. See that opposite, scarred bank that tells the story of a landslide? That’s from last year’s flood. If left in its natural state, this river corridor would have been full of lush, native vegetation, with roots keeping the soil together (more successfully than that riprap, mind you!). Those thriving plant communities would be providing shade coverage for instream organisms that rely on cool water habitat, resisting erosion and slowing fast-flowing waters during flood events. With these natural processes in place, the water would be cleaner. 

    When our river corridors are developed – when we encroach on these highly erosive, ecologically significant areas – we exacerbate our community flood vulnerability and degrade critical habitat. In this sense, land conservation through river corridor easements or regulatory measures are essential tools for maintaining and supporting aquatic system health. In other words, we are damaging these natural systems, that, through conservation efforts, could be our allies in reducing flood damages and improving water supplies, while better supporting the ecological health of rivers’ natural communities.

    Now, let’s step down into the river. Look upstream to the culvert that is perched three feet above the river, creating a small, unnatural waterfall. Aquatic species that need to move upstream to reproduce cannot make that three-foot jump. So, they are trapped in warmer, downstream waters not suitable for their species. And, just behind that waterfall, you’re witnessing erosion take place in real time, which will ultimately lead to the culvert’s (and possibly the road’s) failure. Now, look behind you at that old, 100-year-old dam downstream creating a nice swimming hole. When that dam fails – and it will eventually fail – all of the sediment and water that it has trapped behind it will quickly flood into the downtown village. The riprap, the dam, and the culvert were placed with the best of intentions, but we now realize they are not helping us with our growing flood, drought, and biodiversity issues. Standard land conservation practices do not account for these instream structures causing these significant impacts. We can conserve a 200-acre parcel of land, but if that land comes with incised rivers, undersized culverts and dams, and/or converted wetlands with no plans to restore them, the aquatic system will not be fully conserved. As such, we cannot only consider land conservation tools when we plan for community resilience and biodiversity protection.

    So, what now? We are eagerly awaiting the next phase of the VCSI during which we will plan on how best to conserve Vermont. The state of Vermont acknowledges that watershed health is critical for both human and natural communities. With this in mind, the Aquatic Systems Working Group has recommended that the water perspective be wholly integrated into the planning phase for Act 59.

    Ultimately, to maintain an ecologically functional landscape that supports both biodiversity and community resilience, we must commit to reconnecting and restoring our aquatic systems and that needs to be factored into all of our land use and conservation decisions. We cannot miss this opportunity; we cannot forget about water.