BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources began working on the Deerfield River and Lower Connecticut River Basin Water Quality Management Plan before August 2011.

ANR river management experts were working on the plan before Tropical Storm Irene dumped more than 10 inches of rain on southeastern Vermont, swelling the rivers and causing millions of dollars of damage from which communities are still trying to recover.

The state river scientists have been a little busy since August 2011, and after a short delay the new river management plan has been released.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources released the plan March 17, and Windham Regional Commission Senior Planner John Bennett said town officials throughout the county are going over the report with a new-found appreciation for how communities must protect and manage land along the state's rivers and waterways.

"Many towns were sensitized to the impacts of flood waters on their towns and structures after Tropical Storm Irene," Bennett said. "There is a lot of useful information in the plan and it is important for towns to look at it closely and use it to address many of the issues that were identified after Irene."

The water quality management plan covers basin 12 and 13 in the state's Watershed Management Division, and includes many of the towns that were hardest hit during Tropical Storm Irene.

The plan looks at the health of, and considers the future management for, the Deerfield River, Green River and Whetstone Brook, and includes the towns of Brattleboro, Wilmington, Guilford, Marlboro, Halifax and Whitingham.

The plan offers a watershed-wide perspective, and encourages towns to adopt zoning policies that "protect, maintain and improve surface waters by managing the activities that cause the known stressors and address the resulting pollutants," the report reads.

This photo, shared with us by Michelle Joy on Facebook, shows Whetstone Brook flooding over Westgate Drive and Sherwood Circle, during Tropical Storm Irene
This photo, shared with us by Michelle Joy on Facebook, shows Whetstone Brook flooding over Westgate Drive and Sherwood Circle, during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. (submitted photo)

Not only did Irene make people aware of the tremendous damage flooding can do, but it changed many of the river patterns, re-created lost flood plains, left new erosion and re-distributed river sediment throughout the region.

Bennett said the plan offers an up-to-date assessment of those changes, as well as strategies for town officials to do whatever they can to mitigate future damage.

"This gives towns a handle on the status and conditions of the waters, " Bennett said. "There are a lot of proposals on how towns should assess and monitor projects to protect and restore the river basin."

One of the major recommendations included in the plan is to have towns incorporate fluvial erosion hazard corridors and flood resiliency strategies into regional development plans and municipal zoning.

The Legislature passed Act 16 after Tropical Storm Irene, a law that requires municipal and regional plans to incorporate a flood resilience component into all future plans.

Regional planners hope the law will reduce vulnerabilities to flooding and flood damage and improve response and recovery efforts when flooding events do occur.

Towns will be expected to create maps identifying local flood hazard areas.

Planners will be expected to identify specific areas that should be protected for their value in mitigating flood damage, such as flood plains, river corridors, forests and wetlands, and then recommend strategies and policies that will help protect these areas and reduce the risks facing existing development.

"Basin plans are foundational to understanding how our watersheds function, what influences water quality within the basins, and where life and property are most at risk due to flooding and bank erosion," Windham, Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany said. "The fate of our rivers and streams, and how well we coexist with them, lies with the choices we make, and it is our hope that knowledge will inform action at the individual, household, town, region, state and federal levels."

Watershed Coordinator Marie Levesque Caduto said in the days following Tropical Storm Irene road crews and response volunteers took heavy machinery into the rivers in an effort to repair the roads and try to control the flooding.

The report, she said, was written in an effort to help towns recover from that damage and make sure that similar actions are not taken again during the next flood event.

"Many of the Irene-related issues that we are now facing and working with are ones we mostly caused," Levesque Caduto said . "All of the work we did in the river, without much planning, is what we now have to deal with. We have to develop a long-term strategy, and realize that anything we do to our rivers has impacts down the line."

Levesque Caduto said with many communities still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene she hopes the report will get some serious consideration from towns, regional planners and property owners, as the state moves forward.

"I think people are paying more attention to river flood plain issues. People are more aware of where the rivers are and what they are doing," she said. "A lot of communities in Windham County got really hammered and it put an emphasis on flood resiliency work. I hope we can learn from what happened. We have always had flood plain issues, but Irene brought more attention to how we can move forward and protect ourselves better. We have to start implementing these things now."

For a look at the complete report go to: www.vermont.gov/portal/government/news.php, and scroll down to the March 17 release.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.