BRATTLEBORO — It might seem crazy to buy land with the hope that it will flood, but that's exactly what the Vermont River Conservancy (VRC) has done through its purchase of 12 acres along the Whetstone Brook.
With permits in place, VRC and the town of Brattleboro are jointly cleaning up and restoring the land to its former flood plain status in an effort to reduce future flood damage downtown.
VRC, whose mission is to permanently protect special lands along Vermont's rivers, purchased the land at 250 Birge St. in 2017 from Cersosimo Industries, which had used the site for lumber storage.
Over the next 10 weeks, 41,400 cubic yards of soil and gravel will be removed from the site, and a 100-foot-wide riparian buffer will be planted with native trees and grasses. The resulting green space will include public access to the brook, a hiking trail, and viewing area.
Once the work is complete, the town will take over ownership of the land.
Re-creating what was natural
The project site, which runs west along the southern bank of the Whetstone Brook from the terminus of Birge Street, did not flood during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 because the land had been built up over its 120-year history as a sawmill and lumberyard. A berm along the brook further ensured that the site stayed dry. Instead, flood waters were channeled across Williams Street, resulting in flooding along Frost and Flat streets.
"Before industry filled in this site, there would have been a naturally occurring sandbar here where the brook curves," said VRC Development and Operations Director Kassia Randzio during an Aug. 30 tour of the site.
"We're now standing about 6 feet above the waterline, so there's no way this can be the kind of natural floodplain that it wants to be," she pointed out.
Restoration of the flood plain will involve removing the berm and creating two flood-plain benches - think wide steps carved from the bank of the brook - that lower the grade of the land to the brook. During storms, these measures will allow water to flow over the land, slowing and reducing its force and allowing it to soak into the ground, thus protecting properties downstream.
Building for resilience
Brian Bannon, the town's hazard maitigation coordinator and zoning administrator, is overseeing the site work.
"Over the past 150 years, we've 'harvested' the energy from our rivers for industry by straightening, channeling, and deepening them," Bannon said.
"The result is that these rivers and brooks don't act like normal rivers," he said. "They flow much faster and erode their banks much more explosively and disastrously."
As a result, Bannon said, the goal is to "reestablish a more natural channel and allow space for the river to meander."
"We've had three storms this year [of a magnitude] that used to only occur every 10 years," Bannon said. "As the climate changes, these storms are going to occur more frequently. We need to embrace our changing future and build for resilience."
Hayley Kolding, VRC's conservation manager for southern Vermont, described the natural diversity at the site: towering canopies of sycamores, elm trees, and silver maples.
"These flood-plain species not only help to stabilize the banks, but also provide nesting-bird habitat and food for wildlife," she said. "They give us shade, and keep the waters cooler."
"You can go out into the forest right now and find wild ginger and lobelia and a fern with the most beautiful name - silvery glade fern," Kolding said.
"Once the site is restored to its natural state, you will see lush green sedges, rushes, grasses, and different mosses in the little nooks between the cobble on the shore," she said.
Kolding pointed out that there is "such diversity of life" at the site, despite its industrial heritage.
"Restoration is going to 'rock it' into a much more beautiful place," she said. "It's so important to have the enduring spaces for wildlife and plant life to exist as part of our experience in Brattleboro."
When complete, the flood plain will become "a place for community members to experience nature and have a breath of peace amidst all that is happening in the world," Kolding said.
An idea hatched from destruction
The 250 Birge Street Floodplain Restoration Project started as an idea 11 years ago as Vermont was recovering from Tropical Storm Irene. After the flooding, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin challenged communities to "build back stronger than Irene found us."
Heeding this charge, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the Agency of Natural Resources, the Agency of Transportation, and the regional planning commissions from around the state, including the Windham Regional Commission, created the Vermont Economic Resiliency Initiative (VERI) to better understand Vermont's flood risk and to identify and implement projects that protect lives, help businesses remain open, and reduce costs to taxpayers for repetitive repair to infrastructure.
Brattleboro was one of five communities selected by VERI for more in-depth analysis, where citizens and experts identified the restoration of the Whetstone floodplain as a top-priority project.
Funded largely through a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the project is one of several high-priority flood mitigation projects identified in Brattleboro's 2022 All Hazard Mitigation Plan.
"We hope our Birge Street floodplain restoration is a model for other communities," Bannon said. "Climate change can be a series of disasters, but it can also be a way to rethink how we relate to our waterways and the natural world. We're embracing this opportunity and we hope everybody else does as well."
Additional funding for the Birge St. floodplain restoration came from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Other flood plain restoration efforts
The recently completed restoration of the flood plain at Melrose Terrace in West Brattleboro was another high-priority project identified in the town's hazard mitigation plan.
Tropical Storm Irene badly damaged 60 housing units at the site, resulting in the relocation of 85 households to new housing complexes at Red Clover Commons on Fairground Road.
That floodplain successfully held 4.5 acres of water in July's heavy rains, thus preventing downstream flooding of homes and businesses. Brattleboro Housing Partnerships, which owns Melrose Terrace, is hoping to redevelop affordable housing nearby, on land that is outside of the floodplain.
In Guilford, community members worked closely with VRC to purchase and restore a 17-acre former flood plain along the Green River.
The purchase of the property, now known as Green River Meadows, will prevent future development on the property that could threaten flood plain functions and increase the probability of flood damage to downstream infrastructure.
Formerly a junkyard, the site is now a community resource, with hiking trails and access to the river. The VRC and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board hold conservation easements on the land, and a local nonprofit, the Green River Village Preservation Trust, maintains the land.
Linda and Steve Lembke have been involved with the project since its inception in 2018.
"This project has been a perfect marriage of local people, state organizations, and conservation agencies. Everyone recognized the importance of this project," said Steve Lembke, who serves as a trust board member.
For more information on VRC, including information on a free, local, workshop on how we relate to the river, visit vermontriverconservancy.org.
This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.