Vermont is facing a climate crisis that will severely disrupt the crucial operations of our cities and countryside long before the state’s goal of limiting greenhouse gases by 2050.

We can, and must, work to meet the growing threats. Luckily, our small state has a long history of rising to meet a challenge. Whether it comes in the form of land-use regulation, public-trust resources, downtown designations, civil unions or children’s health care insurance, Vermont has demonstrated its influence on the global stage.

Today‘s challenge is more urgent than ever before. We need to come together in our communities and develop climate adaptation and mitigation strategies that can be demonstrated locally and adopted globally. Vermonters, we have a situation! Bill McKibben has called it “our almost-but-not-quite-finally-hopeless-predicament.”

Unlike sea level rise and increased forest fires in other parts of the country, in Vermont and New England the climate change threat comes from too much precipitation, delivered in bursts of violent storms. Local meteorologists predict ever increasing rain and snow events to cause flooding in our downtowns and in our farm fields. Our urgent challenge means that we develop new systems to meet the growing threats while simultaneously and rapidly demonstrating strategies that drawdown our contributions to climate change.

In many Vermont towns, these sudden violent storms will result in sewage treatment plant overflows and the loss of fertile farmland. In Montpelier, the state’s capital, we have seen a shocking 16 overflow events so far in 2019 alone, making Montpelier the top contributor of breaches to Lake Champlain. The effluent from sewage treatment plants and countless cubic feet of fertile topsoil from our watersheds threaten the very life of our great Lake Champlain.

We desperately need to separate our stormwater from our sewer system and begin to identify places to construct green infrastructure projects that will slow down the stormwater flooding from our hillsides. These projects, that include rain gardens and vegetated swales, will help catch stormwater before it reaches our rivers then clean it up and let it seep slowly into the ground.

As a first step, we must build the coalitions to address the depth of the looming threats and the possibility of adaptive as well as mitigating actions to the coming changes. We need to provide our communities with information on the values of and models for small-scale green infrastructure projects along with the needed upgrade and repair of our water and sewer systems.

The Vermont State Employees Credit Union (VSECU) has recently championed an urban rain garden at its headquarters. It provides an example of the coalition building we need to meet the growing threat. The Montpelier Conservation Commission along with the landscape design firm, EcoLibrium, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and Sustainable Montpelier Coalition received a green infrastructure grant from Lake Champlain Basin Program as designers and builders of the garden. VSECU is now the proud landowner of the demonstration garden, visible near the capital.

Recently, Montpelier commissioned Stone Environmental, a local engineering firm, to develop a master plan for the city’s stormwater. That plan identified green infrastructure sites within the city, one of which was the VSECU site at One Bailey Avenue. The hope is to build neighborhood efforts which will install four more rain gardens — identified in the Stone Report — over the next two years.

The landmark innovations created over the decades in Vermont, look like pretty good ideas. And in this global world of interconnectedness, good ideas travel fast. If we continue to lead by creating innovations for adapting to the climate crisis, it is very possible that Vermonters will bring hope to our predicament, as we all learn to live sustainably on this beautiful, little planet.

Elizabeth Courtney is an author, a landscape architect, former chair of Act 250’s Environmental Board and former executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, and is working with the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition to create resilience projects. She may be reached at elizabethcourtneyvt@gmail.com.

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