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Building Climate Change Planning Capacity in Lake Champlain Basin Towns

By Elissa Schuett, Lake Champlain Sea Grant

On a brisk March day in Vermont the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, a museum dedicated to lake science and filled with students and families, is also crowded with municipal leaders, artists, educators, non-profit leaders, engineers, and farmers from across the state. This diverse group of people has come together to talk about climate resiliency in the Champlain Basin at the second Leahy Environmental Summit. Also in attendance are Senator Patrick Leahy and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to speak about Lake Champlain and implications of climate change.

The small state of Vermont is faced with many possible impacts from climate change, each of which requires different responses in planning and adaptation. A distinct difference between regions in the state emerged in discussions with town planners and watershed groups. 

The northern portion of the state suffers from extensive water quality issues, including excessive nutrient runoff and sediment erosion. Blue-green algae blooms in Lake Champlain are prevalent in this region. 

In the southern region of the state, water quantity is the issue of greatest concern. As extreme flood events occur more regularly, structures and roads in floodplains are destroyed and river channels shift. These also ultimately result in water quality problems in Lake Champlain, though residents more readily point to the destructive power of water as their chief concern.

Strategies for building resiliency in these two regions differ, but both require towns, watershed organizations, and other stakeholders to work together in solving the problems for the community. 

The Friends of Northern Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont are working to build a stronger network, connecting stakeholders to more intentionally plan and get boots on the ground, reducing repetition and dispersion of work and filling gaps that had not previously been identified. “Watershed navigators” are collating all of the information presently available and working together to target solutions in areas where the effect will be most impactful. 

The southern portion of the state has already developed strong networks and partnerships among state agencies and local and county conservation groups. The South Lake Regional Team headed by Poultney-Mettowee Natural Resources Conservation District is working on a framework and methodology for prioritizing and planning projects. Towns and communities in Southern Vermont can then communicate effectively and develop collaborative projects to reduce flooding, manage stormwater, and reduce soil erosion during high intensity storms.  

After the summit, Lake Champlain Sea Grant staff are following up with each of the groups to implement the plans that were developed. Sea Grant staff are also offering services to each of the groups to help them reach their resiliency goals, such as workshops, educational curricula, and facilitated meetings. Erin DeVries, the Aquatic Science Literacy Educator and Watershed Alliance Coordinator is working with communities to develop curricula for schools about climate resiliency and water quality. Becky Tharp, the Land-Use Planning and Water Quality Educator is using her expertise in green infrastructure to help groups plan for stormwater management and flood planning. The focused targeting of Sea Grant programming is helping to reach more people in a more efficient manner.

The different groups are also learning about how climate change is the driver of both water quality and water quantity issues. Extreme storms have increased in frequency in Vermont, leading to more frequent flooding. Storms are also occurring more regularly during spring months, when soil is exposed and nutrients more readily flow into rivers.

The resiliency capacity building program being implemented by Lake Champlain Sea Grant is developing a strong network of partners from across the state.

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