Op Ed: Rose Paul — The power of nature works to clean waters

By Rose Paul

In the outcry over bad water quality in Lake Carmi and the continuing drumbeat to improve water quality from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain, there is one strategy often overlooked: smart investments in nature.

Scientists know that wetlands and forests are naturally designed to filter sediment and pollutants such as excess phosphorus and nitrogen.

Through the power of nature, these natural working lands trap pollutants draining off farmland, roads and pavement, before reaching our streams, while also stabilizing streambanks. The benefits are many: Wetlands and forests absorb floodwater, store carbon and clean our air. What’s more, they cost much less than traditional gray infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants and stormwater retention ponds.

Investments in nature help boost Vermont’s recreation economy, our forest-based livelihoods, our hunting and fishing traditions, and our public health.

Over the past two years The Nature Conservancy, aided by a generous corporate donation from Keurig Green Mountain, has invested in 10 water quality protection projects. We’ve helped conserve 184 acres of wetlands and over 6 miles of permanently protected river corridors, with an investment of $656,000. A recent scientific paper shows that small wetlands absorb the lion’s share of excess farm nutrients in watersheds.

Most of these projects are on farmland conserved with additional funding from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Forty percent of Lake Champlain’s phosphorus comes from farmland, and unstable rivers and streams contribute an additional 22 percent.

Project by project, we’re using the tools of river corridor easements and enhanced wetland protection to button up farmland and improve Vermont’s water quality.

The challenge and cost of working farm by farm, project by project, is daunting, but the work is imperative to cleaning up our waters. The conservancy has even developed a map-based tool to help identify the highest priority projects along streams and rivers for these natural infrastructure investments, but more work needs to be done.

Vermont would do well to set targets for wetlands and river corridor restoration in every major watershed of the state, and work intentionally toward achieving these targets.

According to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, water pollution limits our use and enjoyment of approximately 15 percent of Vermont’s lakes and 20 percent of streams.

Restoring nature’s working lands will help us achieve our federally mandated water quality improvement goals in the watersheds of Lake Champlain, Lake Memphremagog and Lake Carmi. Natural assets — those we have now and those we restore — will help us prevent these uncomfortable federal mandates from being set elsewhere in Vermont.

Vermonters have a chance right now to make a smart policy choice to invest in nature-based solutions to improve our water quality woes. The Vermont House (H.777) is considering modernizing how the Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund works to include a pairing of gray and natural infrastructure in the same project budget, at no extra cost for the natural infrastructure through a reduced loan rate.

These changes are already in place in big farming states such as Ohio and Iowa. This is an exciting idea whose time has come in Vermont, and kudos to state Treasurer Beth Pearce for identifying this as an opportunity for action.

What else can Vermonters do? Support full funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which provides catalyst funding for many of our forest and wetland protection projects. Establish and support town conservation funds to acquire town forests and conservation areas.

The Nature Conservancy’s investments in nature’s working lands, bolstered by Keurig Green Mountain’s generous and visionary corporate donations, direct the power of nature to improve water quality. Economists call this ecosystem services; the conservancy calls it “nature-based solutions.”

Protecting nature is one of the smartest investments we can make to secure a thriving, resilient and healthy Vermont.

Rose Paul is director of science and freshwater programs for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont.

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