Lessons Learned from the High Meadows Fund’s
2015-2017 Watershed Resilience Initiative

Close-up on a stream table demonstration by Larry Kasden of the ottauquechee natural resources conservation district.

Close-up on a stream table demonstration by Larry Kasden of the ottauquechee natural resources conservation district.

A PDF version of this report is available here.   

The last six years have revealed how vulnerable Vermont is to flooding and damage from erosion. Many Vermonters live in river valleys, on winding dirt roads and mountain slopes. Our downtowns are often located along rivers, reflecting the early use of our waterways to power mills and factories. The devastating storms of 2011, both from Tropical Storm Irene and subsequent rains, showed again how suddenly any of us can lose our roadways, homes, and even our lives.

Global warming will increase the frequency and severity of heavy storms, putting Vermont at even greater risk. It is critical to consider our changing weather patterns, existing floodplains, and river corridors as we make decisions about how to manage our river corridors and make land-use decisions in our watersheds. These decisions we make affect more than our own homes. It is vital that we make these decisions together with our upstream and downstream neighbors. With memories of past storms in mind, the challenge now is to keep Vermonters active and invested in preparing for future floods and erosion.  

In response to the threat of climate change, the High Meadows Fund launched an initiative to help communities collaborate to build more resilient watersheds. For the High Meadows Fund, resilience does not just mean the capacity to bounce back from stresses and disruptive events. Resilience is also the ability to plan and adapt ahead of those events, evaluating the risks and opportunities that lie ahead. High Meadows asked teams from different communities across six watersheds to think beyond town boundaries to identify priorities and start taking action.

In 2015, High Meadows funded teams in these watersheds:

More information about each individual project can be found in the appendix to this report.

More information about each individual project can be found in the appendix to this report.

Each team brought together people from multiple towns and partners with varied experience, expertise and interests. These teams set out to plan and act as a cohesive watershed— a big challenge in a state where land use decisions are mostly made at the very local level. This work looked different for each team, according to each watershed’s unique issues and opportunities. Teams sought to educate and engage their communities in large town forums and small classroom lessons. Teams guided their towns through planning and prioritizing projects to manage riverbanks, roads, and future development. Their work has been exciting to watch and it is still evolving.

High Meadows appreciates the lessons learned and challenges faced by these six watershed-scale teams in their efforts to build resilience. Though these 18-month projects are complete, we believe the impact of their work is still developing. We look forward to learning along with these projects as their community engagement work continues to take root. In 2017, we funded a second group of projects undertaking similar work in new watersheds. Here, we describe the lessons we learned from the work of these initial teams about what it takes to do this kind of intercommunity, interdisciplinary watershed action. We hope these lessons will be useful to other organizations, regional planning commissions, state government officials, and other funders.

Diverse partnerships are critical, but require effort.

The 2015 ECHO Leahy Environmental Summit inspired watershed teams to envision resilience projects that recognized all the resources their communities offered.

The 2015 ECHO Leahy Environmental Summit inspired watershed teams to envision resilience projects that recognized all the resources their communities offered.

A primary goal of this initiative was to bring together people within communities who do not always participate or collaborate. High Meadows encouraged the teams to involve planners, conservation commissioners, selectboard members, business people, farmers, foresters, teachers, anglers and others in order to identify and prioritize, together, what resilience-building actions were appropriate and feasible. Often it was through new or unexpected partnerships that projects reached key community members. The South Lake Watershed Partnership, for example, was encouraged by the enthusiasm of volunteer fire departments and emergency management officials to learn more about their watershed.

Many groups found it difficult to lead the broad outreach and inclusion effort that this type of community-based work entails. Project leaders had to balance making as many connections as possible with their limited capacity. Some teams had a hard time reaching beyond familiar participants, but partnerships helped team members make this work relevant to the different communities within a watershed.

It was important that projects not be led by just one champion, but a steering committee or group of partner organizations.
The formation of the Saxtons River Collaborative brought together town representatives, landowners, teachers, and others interested in watershed resiliency. The diverse group united people with local knowledge to technical experts. Town officials used their long-standing relationships with businesses and landowners to help the Collaborative reach deep into the participating communities. Conversely, when just one organization led the work, projects had problems winning wide public support and participation.

It was also tough, however, for project leaders to fully translate the varied input of a steering committee into action. “The challenge of a group this large,” said the Saxtons River Watershed Collaborative in its final report, “is that is has been difficult at times to meet all of the needs and interests of the members while staying within the directives and goals of the grant.” Despite these difficulties, diverse partnerships made for more effective projects. A strong network of organizations or a committed steering committee helped a project maintain momentum if a partner or key staffer left.

We recognize the intensity of effort required by regular outreach. Given the feedback from all our projects, we are convinced the time taken to develop a diverse group of partners, often in the form of a steering committee, paid off. In the short term, projects with strong partnerships exerted greater influence in their communities. We believe these partnerships will be critical in making this work stick over the long term.

Projects found it helpful to clearly divide responsibilities among partners. Within the Mill Brook Watershed Group, delegation played to the strengths of each partner. The Ottauquechee Natural Resources Conservation District and American Precision Museum were responsible for community engagement and outreach. The Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission, meanwhile, took responsibility for resiliency project prioritization and implementation.

In the Upper White River watershed, the Quintown Collaborative recognized that various partners, funders, and municipal bodies each had different reasons for supporting projects—riparian habitat, geomorphic compatibility, culvert condition, or criticality to transportation. To account for these many interests, the Collaborative developed a matrix to help guide their culvert replacement project prioritization. By cross-referencing multiple data sets and ranking these many priorities on one matrix, the partners could identify which projects were most important to all partners. As a result of considering many stakeholders, the project brought in new funding sources and greater support for culvert replacement projects.  

Language matters.

“Resilience” is over-used and doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Applied in so many contexts, the word is losing relevance and power. The ways projects communicated their intentions and priorities proved critical. Projects tested different messages to figure out which were meaningful to their town leaders and community members.  

Language was most effective when it tapped into communities’ pre-existing identities.
The White River Partnership originally labeled its area of focus the “Upper White River.” This just did not resonate. The Partnership noticed a variety of buildings and services in the region with the “Quintown” label— the people in the Upper White River watershed identified as residents of the “Quintown Valley.” The Partnership renamed their project the Quintown Collaborative. Almost immediately, their work gained greater recognition and interest.

Language can help people understand what up/downstream connections mean. The Friends of the Mad River wanted to tackle stormwater issues and started with a wonky moniker: the “Watershed-Wide Water Management Program.” Soon, the partners realized that many upland landowners distant from the Mad River did not see the connection between what they do in their forests and what happens to the river. In response, Friends of the Mad River renamed the project “Ridge to River” to unite upland and river valley residents and to help them understand that everything that happens in the watershed, from the mountaintops on down, has an impact on the health and power of the river.

Specific language is more effective than jargon at engaging community members. The Quintown Collaborative found that, when it stopped talking generally about “resilience” and began to talk about replacing culverts and protecting floodplains, “potential project partners supported the project unanimously and began to get involved in more meaningful ways.” Project leaders needed to get out of their technical mindsets to communicate with a specific, accessible vocabulary that was immediately relevant to the general public. They also found success when they developed specific messages for different target audiences.

Projects needed to balance concrete outcomes with building social capital.

On-the-ground action energizes a project.  Action illustrates to a community that change is possible and demonstrates what success looks like. Action on a large scale, though, cannot happen without wide-ranging support. Projects have to invest in building social capital and community buy-in. Our projects thought a lot about how to balance the tangible and intangible work of watershed resilience. Some projects began with a set list of implementation actions, while others asked community members for help in setting priorities for action. Project leaders came to understand that investing in community engagement now will pay dividends through time.  

An advertisement for the Quintown Collaborative’s resilience tour in August 2016. Participants visited three sites along the White River, traveling together in a school bus.

An advertisement for the Quintown Collaborative’s resilience tour in August 2016. Participants visited three sites along the White River, traveling together in a school bus.

Public tours are one way to illustrate to community members what resilience-building action looks like on the ground.
The Quintown Collaborative invited town officials, technical partners, business leaders, and legislators to participate in a tour of resilience projects across the valley. The tour included stops at a flood-damaged property in Granville in the process of becoming a town park and a new bridge at the site of a failed stream-crossing culvert in Rochester. Representatives from four of the five towns in the Quintown Valley participated. Tours are an effective way of making the hard work of resilience action visible and memorable to the community. Mary Russ, Executive Director of the White River Partnership the project leader, said, “If no one knows what's been done, we've lost an opportunity to build awareness and to garner support for future projects.”  The Quintown tour engaged new partners by making on-the-ground, resilience building actions newly real and relevant to community members.  

Concrete outcomes and tools can help build community support. For the South Lake Watershed Partnership, the towns of Danby, Pawlet, and Tinmouth each developed checklists to catalog the actions their towns had (and had not) undertaken to reduce or eliminate future flood damage. One landowner described the value of the checklist: “When I was attending a forum for the Town Plan update, I kept hearing that we needed certain language in the plan and that it came from ‘the state,’ but I could never understand why we needed it. This {checklist} shows me what is causing the flood vulnerabilities and what we can do to remediate some of the effect.”

Community engagement needs to be a campaign.

A road crew roundtable in Duxbury in December 2016. Credit: Friends of the Mad River.

A road crew roundtable in Duxbury in December 2016. Credit: Friends of the Mad River.

Each watershed team tried an array of community engagement strategies to spread their messages. Rather than simply putting ads in a newspaper or sticking flyers in mailboxes, projects hosted stream table demonstrations at selectboard meetings, coordinated river corridor plantings with schools and built-off other town-wide events. The projects found that effective community engagement requires continual and creative outreach to key community members. Engagement does not happen on its own or through distributing information without personal connections.

Community engagement works best when you bring it to where people already are. It is not enough to provide a free dinner for folks who come to your event, though good food is still important and appreciated! Projects instead needed to bring their work to their communities. The Lamoille County Planning Commission developed a computer simulated river model and successfully took it out into their community. However, their free workshops on how to flood-proof buildings didn’t attract contractors and tradespeople as they had hoped. Project leaders observed, “a contractor focused workshop would be more successful as part of something that they normally would attend, like a trade show. It is just too hard for builders and other trades people to attend night presentations during the busy construction season.”

Messaging campaign strategy for the Mad River project.

Messaging campaign strategy for the Mad River project.

It does not just matter how many people show up to events, but that the right people show up. Town officials, selectboard members, and school children are all important audience members. It is important to engage road foremen, emergency managers, and first responders because they can put information to work right away. These stakeholders also carry weight outside the usual land-use planning crowd. Many projects engaged “local heroes,” community members with particular enthusiasm for a project, and whose opinions hold sway in a community, to great effect: people are more willing to listen to the opinions of someone they know and trust. It is also important to consider whose perspectives will resonate with target audiences. Having a landowner share her experience of conserving her floodplain land with other landowners is far more effective than having a conservation professional do outreach.

Outreach should be strategic and focused. Rebecca Sanborn Stone, a community engagement consultant, helped Ridge to River in the Mad River Valley develop a strategy for its communications and engagement campaign. The project surveyed residents of the valley to understand their level of familiarity with watershed issues and barriers to taking action, developed profiles of the different audiences they were trying to reach, and came up with specific messages that would resonate. Though good communications take time, and often require engaging outside experts and professionals in order to do them well, these projects demonstrated the time and cost is worth it. 

Acting as a watershed makes everyone stronger. 

One of the purposes of High Meadows’ funding was to promote watershed-level thinking and action. This ambition, to effect change across a whole watershed, compounds the challenges of outreach and engagement we have discussed. This watershed approach also presented opportunities for new, interconnected ways of thinking.

The Saxtons River Watershed Collaborative used a stream table to demonstrate river behavior at schools, town meetings, and community events. Credit: Windham Regional Commission.

The Saxtons River Watershed Collaborative used a stream table to demonstrate river behavior at schools, town meetings, and community events. Credit: Windham Regional Commission.

The Saxtons River project got started by reaching out broadly and inclusively to stakeholders. As a result, the team formed a watershed partnership where there hadn’t been one before. The Saxtons River Watershed Collaborative was the result of a long process of reflection and conversation across communities. Kim Smith of the Windham Regional Commission said, “Prior to this project, there was no Saxtons River watershed identity, and flood mitigation was being addressed piecemeal through isolated projects. Aside from construction-material sharing following Tropical Storm Irene, there was relatively little inter-town collaboration on watershed issues, despite a long history of flooding.” In 2014, the Windham Regional Commission got the watershed conversation started between towns and environmental organizations. “These initial conversations stemmed from the realization that the towns could not adequately address the very real threat of flooding as isolated entities,” Smith said. “Conversations turned into formal meetings, participation grew, and a watershed identity was formed and nurtured through the work of a committed group of town officials, non-profit organizations, and government agencies.”

The watershed approach has pushed communities to find more creative and cooperative solutions to resilience challenges. Acting as a watershed can also impact the social fabric and municipal operations of their region. Out of inter-town discussions, the South Lake Watershed Partnership produced a potential project where an upstream town would seek funds to ameliorate erosion from private culverts and driveways that causes major problems in a downstream town. With the name “Ridge to River,” the Friends of the Mad River deepened its reach to towns with identities oriented to both the Mad and Winooski Rivers. Speaking as a watershed can also be a powerful strategy for fundraising. When the Friends of the Mad River applied for state grants, the accompanying letter of support from Ridge to River showed solidarity across the five towns and reflected the thoughtful planning and preparation that had been going on in the Mad River Valley.  

Rivers and weather events do not respect municipal and regional boundaries. We are encouraged by these early broad-based and inclusive watershed efforts in our first round of projects. We will watch to see what traction these various watershed-level approaches gain over the long term, and what impact they make when Vermont faces its next storm. For more ideas on how to build a watershed identity, read our white paper, “Thinking like a Watershed.”

The work continues.

It’s important to be realistic: this work takes time, and its impact can be tough to articulate. Many of our projects went over budget, as their community engagement took more time or cost more than expected. Along the way, High Meadows had to adjust our own expectations about what outcomes can be achieved over the course of an 18-month grant. With our initial RFP, we hoped to see outcomes such as new local ordinances, joint land conservation projects, strategic removals of structures, or tapping an upstream jurisdiction to finance something downstream. We did witness some actions along these lines but on a smaller scale. At the end of this first phase of grants, we appreciate the enormous effort our projects have invested in educating their communities, nurturing support for new resilience action and building momentum for further impact. We were also pleased with the additional funding our projects had received by the end of the 18 months (over $450,000, thanks to state and Lake Champlain Basin Program support).

Though funders often seek concrete outcomes from investments, modest investments in the connective tissue of watershed groups or other ways to connect towns provide outsized outcomes because they enable communication among willing, but busy, volunteers and inspire community enthusiasm. It will take more than communication, though, to prepare Vermont watersheds for coming storms. State and local funding is critical to move this work towards concrete action and implementation. Philanthropy alone cannot realize the impact of these watershed efforts.

As these grants wrap up, we are left with more questions than answers. Many of the impacts of these collaborations may not be obvious in the short term, and we want to encourage the teams to keep nurturing the new connections they have made. We recognize that the continuation of this work won’t happen on its own, and we are providing modest grants to help some of these projects continue in a few watersheds.We want to thank the six projects who have spent the past 18 months helping their communities think and act as a watershed.

Katie Michels, Bill Roper, and Will Lathrop – December 2017

Learn more:

Watch the Video Summary of the High Meadows Fund's 2015-2017 Watershed Resilience Initiative

The High Meadows Fund is compiling resources from watershed and resilience-building efforts across Vermont. Find it here. 

Individual Project Summaries

The Quintown Collaborative
Watch the Video

Project Lead: Mary Russ, White River Partnership (mary@whiteriverpartnership.org)

Towns: Hancock, Granville, Pittsfield, Rochester, and Stockbridge

Outcomes: Created a matrix to help partners prioritize culvert replacement projects. Implemented river corridor conservation easements, riparian buffer plantings, and culvert replacement projects. Led a Resilience Tour to highlight projects.

Partners: Green Mountain National Forest, Two Rivers Ottaquechee Regional Commission, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Vermont River Conservancy, and the towns of Hancock, Rochester, and Stockbridge.

Website: http://whiteriverpartnership.org/quintown-project               

Saxtons River Watershed Collaborative
Watch the Video

Project Lead: Emily Davis, Windham Regional Commission (edavis@windhamregional.org)

Towns: Grafton, Rockingham, Westminster, and Windham

Outcomes: Hosted landowner workshops on river corridor land management; created education program with a stream table; strengthened local floodplain ordinances; and implemented riparian buffer plantings and river corridor conservation easements.

Partners: VT River Conservancy, Windham Natural Resource Conservation District, VT Agency of Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited, Composting Association of VT, CT River Conservancy, Rockingham Conservation Commission, VT Association of Conservation Commissions, Grafton Elementary School,
SE VT Watershed Alliance, and the Windham Foundation,
and the towns of Grafton, Rockingham, Westminster, and

Website: https://saxtonsriverwatershed.wordpress.com/

Ridge to River:
A Mad River Valley Coalition for Clean Water and Resilience

Watch the Video

Project Lead: Corrie Miller, Friends of the Mad River (info@friendsofthemadriver.org)

Towns: Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Warren, and Waitsfield

Outcomes: Developed a watershed wide stormwater management program. Launched a communications campaign about the importance of stormwater management.

Partners: Central VT Regional Planning Commission, Mad River Valley Planning District, VT Natural Resources Council, and the towns of Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Warren, and Waitsfield.

Website: http://ridgetoriver.org/

South Lake Watershed Partnership
Watch the Video

Project Lead: Hilary Solomon, Poultney Mettowee Natural Resource Conservation District (pmnrcd@gmail.com)

Towns: Danby, Pawlet, and Tinmouth

Outcomes: Developed a checklist of resilience actions each town can take. Engaged community members in project prioritization.

Partners: Green Mountain College, Middlebury College, Rutland Regional Planning Commission, VT Department of Environmental Conservation, VT Department of Forest, Parks, and Recreation, and the towns of Danby, Pawlet, and Tinmouth.


Lamoille Watershed

Project Lead: Seth Jensen, Lamoille County Planning Commission (seth@lcpcvt.com)

Towns: Cambridge, Jeffersonville, Johnson, and Wolcott

Outcomes: Completed a flood model for the Lamoille River; evaluated problem sites and identified actions. Led flood resilience workshops for contractors. Facilitated stormwater project and education at Cambridge Elementary School. 

Mill Brook Watershed Group
Watch the Video

Project Lead: Cindy Ingersoll, Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission (cingersoll@swcrpc.org)

Towns: Reading, West Windsor, and Windsor

Outcomes: Prioritized and implemented stream geomorphic assessment recommendations. Removed berms, small dams, and completed other river improvements. Increased public awareness
of flood resiliency with stream table presentations and teacher
training workshops. 

Partners: American Precision Museum, Ottauquechee Natural
Resources Conservation District, and the towns of Reading,
West Windsor, and Windsor.