We are currently facing the impacts of climate change. The heavy rainfall and flooding that occurred during the summer resulted in a significant amount of contaminants and sediment flowing into our lakes and rivers. Nevertheless, the contamination could have been much worse, as highlighted by Oliver Pierson in VTDigger (Aug. 13), stating “a decade’s worth of effort” made watershed infrastructure more resilient to flooding and climate change impacts. However, there is still much more work to be done. To prepare for such heavy rainfall occurring in the future, we must not only continue this work — we must accelerate it.
The focus on flood resilience often revolves around “hard” infrastructure such as roads, bridges and wastewater systems. These are large projects that require time, money and specialized skills. However, individuals can play a significant role in protecting our streams and lakes from the contamination caused by the intense runoff resulting from heavy storms. By changing how you manage your property, whether a small lot or many acres, you can help to mitigate some of the damage done by heavy storms, reducing runoff of sediment and pollution into our waterways. Changes that might seem small can cumulatively have a big impact.
Heavy runoff carries nutrients, such as phosphorus as well as other pollutants, into lakes and streams. Higher levels of phosphorus can lead to cyanobacteria blooms fouling waters and releasing toxins. The serious and widespread blooms we have seen in Lake Champlain this summer are an example of what happens when large amounts of contaminants enter the water.
There are ways individuals can help reduce this contamination. In fact, many of the helpful actions involve doing less work. If you own lakefront or streamside property, a simple and effective way to protect the water quality is to avoid mowing your lawn all the way to the water’s edge. This is because grass, with its shallow roots, is not effective at absorbing runoff. Heavy rains will flow across the lawn and carry pollutants and sediments into the water. By reducing lawn mowing and creating vegetated buffers at the shorelines, you can effectively absorb more runoff and reduce the contaminants that reach the water. In addition, planting native flowers, shrubs and trees, with their deeper roots, can help protect shorelines from erosion and reduce sediment and nutrients from entering the water. These plantings can also attract pollinators and birds. By mowing less, you can also enjoy more leisure time and observe the beauty of nature around you.
When lakes become flooded, the increased water levels can cause erosion to areas of the shoreline that are typically not in contact with the water. This becomes a particular problem if large waves hit the shoreline at these higher levels. Something boaters can do to help prevent erosion is to refrain from creating wakes of any size during flood conditions.
Even if your property is not on a lake or stream, you can still make a real difference. No matter how far from a waterbody you are, runoff from your property will find its way into streams and lakes in your watershed. By strategic plantings, addressing drainage from roofs and other impervious surfaces, proper grading of driveways and private roads, and eliminating the use of fertilizers and pesticides, you can help to build flood resilience and protect our freshwater resources. Most of all, simply do less. By not mowing vast swathes of lawn and replacing the grass with native plants, you reduce polluted runoff and protect streams and lakes. In addition, you have a more diverse landscape that supports native pollinators, butterflies and birds, plus you get the bonus of more leisure time.
Looking to create a beautiful and low-maintenance landscape that can improve our state’s flood resilience while reducing your workload? Check out the Federation of Vermont Lakes and Ponds publication, “Guide to Healthy Lakes,” for ideas and landscaping plans. You can also find additional resources, including lists of native plants and more landscaping ideas on our website. Local nurseries often carry native plants, shrubs and trees and can help with suggestions. Additionally, there are programs available that offer advice and ideas for reducing runoff. The Storm Smart program can provide helpful information about reducing rainwater runoff, while the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Lake Wise program works with lakefront property owners to protect lakeshores and develop lake-friendly landscapes.
It is essential to take swift action toward creating a resilient landscape and safeguarding our precious water resources. Interestingly, doing more may sometimes require us to work less. As the fall planting season is upon us, it is an opportune time to begin implementing some changes in your landscape. By letting native plants, shrubs and trees thrive and decreasing mowing and fertilizer usage, we can enhance the protection of our water bodies, promote biodiversity, foster a healthier environment and enhance flood resilience.