New research suggests nature-based solutions – such as wetland and floodplain restoration—can improve water quality and increase flood resiliency in the Champlain Basin.
The study finds that Vermont can achieve 15% of its phosphorous reduction goals in Lake Champlain by restoring degraded wetlands. These investments in natural solutions are likely to be less expensive than the cost of projected future flood damage, researchers say.
The findings result from a new partnership between The Nature Conservancy in Vermont and the Gund Institute for Environment at UVM, which seeks to quantify how nature-based solutions can address water quality and flooding.
In Vermont, 35% of wetlands have been converted to farmland or lost to development. While wetlands have historically been considered unproductive lands, they – and floodplain forests – naturally filter out pollution sources like sediment and agricultural and storm water run-off.
“As a society we often try to fix environmental problems with engineered solutions, when often the most effective and affordable tool we have at our disposal is nature itself,” says Rose Paul, director of science and freshwater programs for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont. “As we struggle with our water quality issues in Vermont, we want to highlight the importance of investing in our wetlands and floodplains to address some of our most vexing issues.”
“We are excited to partner with the Nature Conservancy, using leading-edge science to help manage our natural infrastructure in ways that support Vermont’s communities and economy,” says Taylor Ricketts, director of the Gund Institute for Environment. “Further research will help Vermont leaders to identify which wetlands can provide the greatest reductions in phosphorus and flood risk at the lowest cost.”
The partnership has already produced important discoveries. In a new study in Environmental Research Letters, Gund researchers offer a new model to prioritize wetlands for restoration, and find that restoring smaller wetlands, close to stream networks, offers the greatest reduction in nutrient pollution in relation to cost. In a previous study in Science of the Total Environment, they also found that reconnecting and re-vegetating floodplains reduces stream power during floods.
Researchers now seek to pair phosphorus data and restoration costs with individual wetlands in Vermont to better prioritize and direct wetland investment decisions. Additional research will explore how much phosphorus is trapped on floodplains during high water events, which types of floodplains make the greatest contribution to flood resilience and water quality, and the cost-effectiveness of floodplain restoration compared to the cost of projected future flood damage.
“Science is leading the way in acknowledging the role of nature in addressing our 21st century environmental problems,” said Heather Furman, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont. “Our research partnership with Gund is advancing this work by helping us measure the impacts of wetlands and floodplains to support healthier and more resilient communities through conservation.”
The Nature Conservancy and the Gund Institute are committed to making their research available to the public, partner organizations, policy makers and state agencies to inform best practices and advance solutions for environmental challenges in Vermont and around the world.
The Nature Conservancy in Vermont is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on the ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We work in all 50 states and in over 65 countries. In Vermont, we have helped conserve over 300,000 acres of land, 1200 miles of shoreline, and we own and manage over 50 natural areas. Learn more at www.nature.org/vermont or follow us on facebook.com/TNCVT and twitter @vtnature_org.
The Gund Institute for Environment catalyzes environmental research, develops real-world solutions to global issues, and connects UVM with leaders in government, business and beyond. Based at the University of Vermont, the Gund Institute is comprised of 150 faculty, global affiliates, postdocs, and graduate students who collaborate widely, focusing on environmental issues at the interface of four pressing themes: climate solutions, health and well-being, sustainable agriculture, and resilient communities. Learn more at www.uvm.edu/gund or follow on facebook.com/GundInstitute and Twitter @GundInstitute.