ESSAY: Be Thankful for Floodplains

by Roy Schiff and Jessica Louisos

We all should be more thankful for floodplains — the flat areas next to rivers onto which the water spills during a flood. We live, eat, shop and play in our floodplains. They store floodwaters to keep us safer. They capture sediment and take up nutrients to protect the water quality of our favorite rivers and lakes. They provide habitat for some of the most unique plants and animals we know. They grow our food.

Even though we know of all the “ecosystem services” floodplains provide, we still abuse them. American Indians initially led a nomadic existence in floodplains, moving into them for food and transportation and out of them to avoid floods. A permanent existence in floodplains leads to “floods,” and flooding is now worse because our nomadic ways disappeared as we turned to harnessing mechanical power and eventually placing our village centers in these dangerous locations. Now a typical floodplain is filled with roads, railroads, homes, schools and utilities. Nevertheless, floodplains keep trying to protect us.

It is well known that floodplains reduce damages by storing water, allowing it to spread out, and ultimately reducing water levels downstream. It is less well known that floodplains store sediment and improve the stability of nearby channels, protecting many of us who live close to rivers and streams. Furthermore, floodplains play an important role in taking up nutrients to protect water quality. A project along the Lamoille River and Black Creek showed that reconnecting 80 acres of floodplain captured 1,400 cubic yards of fine sediment (the equivalent to 100 dump truck loads) and more than a ton of phosphorus in just four storms — improving the local farm fields and the downstream water quality of Lake Champlain.

Floodplains get a bad rap because people who live in them are required to purchase flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program. This federal subsidy ironically allows people to live in dangerous places and reduces the flood reduction benefits of floodplains for others in the area. It is administered by municipalities with assistance from the state. The flood insurance program is a losing proposition for the federal government and they are trying to ween people off the subsidy. This has been a painful, and seemingly unfair, chain of events for people who landed in floodplains because of societal development patterns. It is hard to find a village center in Vermont, or any state for that matter, that is not situated in some part of a floodplain.

As we go about our lives, floodplains are working behind the scenes to save us millions of dollars. A recent study by the University of Vermont showed that the floodplains along the Otter Creek saved the downstream town of Middlebury $1.8 million dollars in damage that was avoided during Tropical Storm Irene. A study in Waterbury, Duxbury and Moretown indicated that if you restore 37 acres of floodplains along the Winooski River, the reduction in damages during a flood like Irene would be $2.6 million, or a decrease of $50,000 in building damage per year over 50 years. This study calculated the value of functioning floodplains in the Lake Champlain region to be $17,000 per acre per year.

People have their favorite river, but we should also have our favorite floodplain. Most likely it is the location of your house or business. Perhaps it is your farm field or where some of your food is grown. Maybe it is the access to your favorite fishing hole. It could be the place that you see fill with water and sediment during a flood that protects the things downstream that you care about — your house, your neighbor’s house, the general store, local roads or our kids schools.

What can we do? Join the movement in Vermont to protect and restore the vital functions of floodplains. With assistance from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, towns such as Stowe have adopted local ordinances to protect river corridors to keep buildings out of harm’s way, allow rivers to move in their floodplains and provide space for floodplains to do their magic. Organizations such as the Vermont Land Trust are conserving lands to protect floodplain function along with farms and forests. Towns such as Bennington have restored floodplains near their neighborhoods to reduce future risks from flooding and erosion — ultimately keeping the public safer and reducing future recovery costs for taxpayers. Northfield is planning for a floodplain restoration project to protect its residents and improve river access in a new local park.

It’s about time that naturally functioning floodplains receive the recognition they deserve for the millions of dollars in economic benefits they provide, all while keeping us safe and providing numerous other important benefits.

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