I am a civil engineer, a matter of considerable personal pride. And when I think about some of the significant challenges that Vermonters have met and overcome, many of the most impressive that come to mind (or at least the mind of a civil engineer) are feats in which engineering had a central role. Among them are the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1960s, the construction of the massive flood control dams and reservoirs in Waterbury, East Barre and Wrightsville following the 1927 floods, and, earlier still, the Cornish-Windsor covered bridge that crosses the Connecticut River and was the longest wooden covered bridge in the United States for most of its 150+ year history.
Our current shared effort to clean up our waterways is just as significant both in its benefit for our state and its people and for the engineering challenge it poses.
Some of our efforts to restore our water will rely on new and emerging science and technology. But many of the individual clean water projects are modest and use “technology” which has been around at least as long as the Cornish-Windsor span. We have been planting cover crops on resting farm fields, rock-lining ditches to guard against erosion, and planting trees along our river and streams for centuries. What has changed is the intentionality, magnitude and pace of this work. Together, these small projects are transforming our landscape by restoring the ability of the land to hold rainwater and snow melt.
This collective work represents a fundamental shift – altering the way we deal with the water which falls from the sky and the waste which we produce. For nearly the entire history of our country – certainly since European arrival, and in many ways stretching back even earlier – our attitude has been to swiftly and efficiently move water downhill to become someone else’s problem. From roof gutters and down spouts to roadside ditches to catch basins and storm sewers, we have spent hundreds of years building systems to capture and take rain and melting snow to the nearest river, stream or lake. And as we moved that water away as fast as possible, if we could send with it the pollutants from our yard, parking lots, roads, and farm fields – not to mention the ones we produce ourselves – then all the better.
We now know that holding rainwater back, allowing it to soak into the ground as close to where it falls as possible, is the ultimate clean water strategy. We also know now that instead of allowing dirt, grease, salt, and other waste to mix with stormwater runoff to flush it away, we need to separate and capture those materials as much as we practically can.
Ultimately, it will not be the State of Vermont, or the Agency of Natural Resources, which will determine if this is a success or not. It will be the cumulative impact of each of us looking for ways to slow water down and help it soak into the ground. It will be homeowners turning down spouts into yards instead of onto driveways and allowing unused corners of yards to grow back up into perennial plants. It will be farmers leaving streamside buffer areas untouched, ensuring water is slowed and filtered, and seeding cover crops each fall to protect the soil in the spring and increase organic matter in fields. It will be landowner associations and watershed groups restoring wetland areas, planting trees in downtowns and along streambanks to provide shade, stability and to intercept rain before it hits the ground. It will be towns investing in advanced road and ditch construction to reduce erosion and ensure longer-lasting transportation corridors. All these things cost money and take time. Most important, they will take a new attitude.
We live in hasty world and one in which engineering has catered to our impatience. Now, a Google search has replaced hours of painstaking library research and next-day delivery of almost any good – from toothpaste to a new couch – can be had, for a price.
While the work of cleaning our waters requires engineering know-how, ultimately it will rely just as much on our realization that in this part of our lives, there is no quick fix. Water can’t be rushed without grave consequence. While our work will proceed as swiftly as possible, it can’t be rushed if we want to do it well.
Building something lasting and significant takes time. It took more than a decade to build Vermont’s interstates. It took more than 2,000 men working for five years to build just the Waterbury Dam. And it will take a similar commitment and level of effort to complete the work of clean water. But one day I am confident that when the engineering marvels of our state are cataloged, our clean water system will take its place alongside the beams and footings of that elegant, graceful and effective crossing of the Connecticut.
Julie Moore is the Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the state agency with primary responsibility for protecting and sustaining Vermont’s environment, natural resources, wildlife and forests, and for maintaining Vermont’s beloved state parks. Moore was named to that position by Governor Phil Scott in January 2017. Moore currently resides in Middlesex, Vermont with her husband, Aaron, and their two children.