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May 16, 2013
Stormwater: Responding to Extreme Weather and Climate Change
By Amanda Czepiel, JD, Senior Managing Editor

The big topic at this year’s New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission’s (NEIWPCC) Annual Nonpoint Source Pollution Conference is how states, municipalities, and the regulated community can coordinate recovery, build resiliency, and adapt to climate change and extreme weather events. In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in this year’s conference location of Burlington, Vermont, this focus came as no surprise.

The keynote address, “Vermont Strong: Coordinating Recovery and Building Resiliency in the Wake of Tropical Storm Irene,” was presented by Sue Minter, the Deputy Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans). She is also known as the “Irene Recovery Czar.” She described herself as the “big bad road builder in a room of environmentalists,” a statement that encapsulated the struggle that comes with balancing environmental benefit with public interest and welfare.  However, after the devastation of Irene, Minter said that all agencies are on the same page with just one focus:  mitigation, adaption, and education, and the awareness that environmental preparedness was no longer considered a side benefit of state projects. 

The theme of how to successfully respond to changing weather and collaboration among stakeholders continued in the General Session panel, “Adapting Nonpoint Source Planning and Management to Climate Change and Extreme Weather Events,” which brought together a professor of watershed science, a climatologist, a water program director of a state nonprofit organization, and a real estate broker. One message came through clearly from all participants: Irene changed everything in Vermont, but that even though public awareness of stormwater impacts has never been higher, challenges to affect change have not gotten easier and, according to Breck Bowde, Patrick Professor of Watershed Science and Director of Lake Champlain Sea Grant at the University of Vermont, our “stormwater infrastructure is designed for yesterday, not tomorrow.”

Panelist Yves Bradley, vice president of Pomerleau Real Estate, a Vermont-based commercial real estate company that manages over 2 million square feet of commercial space in the greater Burlington area, provided some great insight into how the state construction and real estate industry has changed its view: “We are faced with only one reality: to rebuild with a perspective that a flood will happen again.” His obstacles? Getting insurance for properties that are sure to flood again at some point, minimizing flood damage, getting tenants to invest in these rebuilt properties, and reusing and modernizing what they already have without increasing the problems of urban sprawl–many of the same obstacles municipalities and state agencies are facing. He said that his industry has never focused more on green alternatives, stating that “green investments” such as energy efficiency in the last 5 years have become expected in real estate, and are no longer considered nonessential.

The conclusion from the first of many water-focused presentations at this year’s NEIWPCC conference is that when it comes to adapting to extreme weather events and their effects, partnership and preparedness are the first priority.

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