How can we be better prepared
for future floods?

Although we can’t predict when, Lake Champlain certainly will reach flood levels again. To help prevent damage both to the built and natural environments, some actions must be taken before the next major flood. Reducing construction in flood-prone areas and providing rivers with better access to their floodplains are two important steps towards flood resilience.

otter creek floodplain

Otter Creek floodplain. Photo: LCBP

 floodplain access in Otter Creek watershed during Irene graphic

Figure 26 | Floodplain access in Otter Creek watershed during Tropical Storm Irene, August 28, 2011

Scientists have studied river dynamics for decades to better understand how rivers, shorelines, and wetlands respond to natural and human disturbances. Storms and floods can significantly alter and severely degrade these natural features. Floodplains store water and sediment at the height of the flood, and mitigate flood impacts by slowing river flow and allowing sediments and pollutants to settle outside of the normal river channel. When rivers can access their natural floodplains, as Otter Creek in the Middlebury area did following Tropical Storm Irene (Figure 26), it can significantly reduce downstream flows and resulting damage. Removing hazards from flood prone areas, increasing culvert sizes to handle higher volumes of storm water, and stabilizing eroding streambanks also help to lessen flooding impacts.

Very high lake levels due to seasonal flooding cause inundation of near-shore structures and roads and degrade shoreline areas that are ordinarily out of the reach of erosive wave action. Maintaining forested shoreline buffers where possible, limiting impervious surfaces, and making existing structures more flood-resistant where appropriate will reduce inundation, erosion, and related damage to infrastructure.

Since the 2011 floods, shoreline protection zones, floodplain hazard areas, and development standards have been redefined across the region. In municipalities, post-flood responders now have more training and better guidelines to ensure that emergency responses protect long-term ecosystem health wherever possible. The proven economic benefits of advance floodplain protection has encouraged communities to reconsider building in flood-prone areas.

New data and technologies, such as highly detailed LiDAR elevation data, have enabled far more accurate flood modeling and floodplain mapping efforts, such as that now being conducted Basin-wide by the International Joint Commission. Stream gage data, together with improvements in weather and storm forecasts, allow residents, emergency responders, and resource managers to be better informed and prepared for the next big flood, so that both danger and damages can be minimized. Although information and preparation gaps remain, the region has made great strides towards flood resilience.

Hazard Resiliency

Oil Trains:
Rail lines traverse both sides of Lake Champlain, including many miles of track just a few feet from the Lake’s edge. The trains carry passengers, freight and, increasingly, crude oil from the Bakken shale fields. Estimates place the rate of highly volatile crude oil passing along the margins of the Lake, much of it in DOT 111 and CTC-111A tank cars ill-suited for this use, at up to 60 million gallons each week. Recent derailments and catastrophic explosion disasters in other areas have generated headlines and stories across the continent. These events highlight the need to improve the rail system, both tracks and cars, in order to reduce the risk of derailments, oil spills, and related tragic consequences.

Outdated Infrastructure:
The 2011 floods caused significant damage to regional infrastructure and underscored the need to update aging systems. Improvements have been made to roads and bridges in flood-prone areas by replacing washed out or badly damaged bridges and culverts with higher capacity flood-resilient structures. However, some expensive gaps remain in the flood-proofing of infrastructure for both public drinking water supply and wastewater treatment facilities in the Lake Champlain Basin. Developed areas with combined sewer overflows present a special challenge. Floodwaters in these areas sometimes exceed the capacity of storm sewer systems and are routed to wastewater treatment facilities where it is combined with sewage, exceeding the plant’s capacity and resulting in a discharge of overflow into receiving waters.

Shoreline Development:
Increasing development pressures along the shore of Lake Champlain, coupled with significant flood damage from 2011, have raised public awareness of shoreline erosion problems. Several communities now promote more rigorous property management guidelines to improve lakeshore conservation efforts. In the interest of improved flood resilience, New York, Québec, and Vermont have updated shoreline development regulations.

Sub-Lake Power Lines:
Several new projects have been proposed to bury electric power lines under Lake Champlain to connect major metropolitan areas to Canadian energy hubs. One proposed line, planned for installation in the New York waters of Lake Champlain and continuing above-ground along the Hudson River, has received all necessary permits and is scheduled to be in service by the autumn of 2017. Similar transmission lines are being proposed within the Vermont waters of Lake Champlain, to carry Canadian power to the New England power grid. Assessments and reviews of these developments tend to be conducted on a case-by-case basis, but the cumulative ecosystem effects of numerous transmission line projects remains undetermined.

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