Forests play key role in Champlain water quality

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By Rose Paul

Lake Champlain’s prevalent algae blooms are like festering stews that demand notice and action. Most farmers are trying their best to support clean water. State agencies are working hard to reduce runoff from farms, roads and pavement, and more help is on the way with increased government funding and public attention.

There is one overlooked area that can help Vermonters achieve clean, drinkable water without great expense: our forests — nature’s great water purifiers. In the realm of public policy, we must think of our forests as an investment in clean water, and this should be integral to our public conversation about cleaning up Lake Champlain.

We Vermonters speak often of our cherished working landscape — farms that produce our food, and forests that produce wood products. We should also think about forests as working to produce our clean water. And nowhere is it more critical to do this than on our floodplains, the low-lying land next to rivers and streams often used for farming. Vermont’s floodplain forests are among our most diminished habitats, lost long ago to agriculture.

Floodplain forests play a critical role in producing clean water because they are the last stop for lake pollutants like phosphorus. The buck can stop here — forest vegetation absorbs pollutants and sediment and reduces flood damage by soaking up floodwaters. Nature’s resiliency is vividly on display in the floodplain forest ecosystem with its natural ability to create checks and balances for our excesses.

We have traditionally invested in water-cleansing infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plants, but we need to invest more in natural infrastructure to regain our lost floodplain forests. The cost of protecting and restoring our floodplains is a fraction of the cost of wastewater system upgrades or rebuilding flooded downtowns, but just as we have neglected our great lake, we have allowed our floodplain forests to decline.

We can achieve a big win for water quality by creating a system of working lands that provide people with the things they need while preserving important freshwater resources. Critical natural assets can be regained by enforcing 25-foot stream buffers along the edges of farm fields. And where the land is too wet for consistent crop production, we must retire the farmland and restore entire forests by planting trees such as silver maple that are superbly adapted to this frequently flooded environment.

Our water-purifying floodplain forests are also extraordinary fish and wildlife habitat. Trees on the banks provide water-cooling shade, food for fish and bank-stabilizing roots. It’s an ideal environment for eagles and ospreys, nesting wood ducks and orioles, and mink and otter traveling near the water.

To make a real impact on our clean water challenges, we must integrate natural solutions as well as implement agricultural best management practices to help realize significant cost savings along with the invaluable return of improved water quality. In this way, we can become a leader in land use practices that honor both our water and our land.

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Rose Paul is director of science and stewardship at The Nature Conservancy.