Opportunities / Progress / Science

Restoration in the Flood: An Illustration in a Day of Contrast


It was a day of seasonal contrast. The temperature was rocketing past 80 by mid-morning, and the air shimmered as it would in mid-July. The trees were bare and leafless, and the lakes and ponds of Woodbury held a surprise – a near-full cover of ice, albeit rotten and eating away at the edges. In the shadows and under the spruce trees hid icy patches of snow. It was summer, winter, spring. It was May 2, 2018.

The hot day came on the heels of a cold April, which came after a snowy March, a warm, fever-thaw February, an arctic blast around the New Year, and before that, a record-warm October that kept the leaves on the sugar maples to brown and wither instead of turning their normal vibrant colors. Snow had grown deep in Montpelier three times over the winter only to melt. This was the end of the third melt in town, but in the colder places that dodged the thaws, it was the core of the first and only melt. While the air said July and the lakes said March, the rivers said April. The rivers were in full spring flood.

I was out on the Barton River, looking at sites where old farm fields were being converted back to floodplain wetland. These are sites that, increasingly, flood deeply and erratically, sometimes even in the summer. They were always challenging places to farm but are now near-impossible as weather whiplash intensifies. As restored floodplains they will be working landscapes of a different type, holding back the river and blunting the floods.

Plowing and haying had already been halted in this field, and the drainage ditches plugged, but invasive reed canarygrass, a dense tall grass, still dominates the open ground. The flood has reclaimed its floodplain but slicks over the top of the smashed-down canarygrass the same way a duck would if it tried to land on the perplexingly icy Woodbury pond.

2018-05-21 Restoration in the Flood

A restored wetland in Barton holds floodwaters, protecting downstream homes and businesses.

A few alders and willows in the field held back some water, and against the uniform flow almost looked to be swimming upstream like salmon. In the background, remnant floodplain forest patches held to the bends of the riverbank. Over time, silver maples and willows will root here. In 30 years, whatever floods we face will be slowed and filtered of their sediment and nutrients. As the water of 2048 travels north into Quebec, it will feed Lake Memphremagog with a flush of cleaner water for several days instead of this rush on the first hot day of May. Fish will breed in this shaded channel and perhaps someone will explore the slow-moving water in a canoe. Homes and farms on the floodplain edge will be protected. Resilience.

To learn more about wetland restoration efforts and how you can help, visit the Vermont Wetlands Program’s restoration web page.