Riparian Zone Protection in Vermont

Assessment of Current Regulations and Models for Future Action
PRS Briefs
PRS Policy Brief 0708-01
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Riparian zones play a crucial role in improving water quality by filtering pollution from surface runoff before it can enter lakes, streams, and other bodies of water. These areas are becoming increasingly degraded by human activities, such as construction and the clearing of vegetation. While many individual towns in Vermont do have regulations protecting riparian zones, the protections at the state level only apply to large-scale developments, leaving out the majority of residential and business construction. This report examines the current state of riparian zone protection in Vermont and presents several policy options that Vermont could implement to further this protection.

Riparian zones serve a variety of ecological functions, such as regulating stream flow; providing habitat for birds, fish, and other species; and encouraging ecotourism. Most important for this report, riparian zones can act as filters of diffuse sources of pollution, often referred to as non-point sources, such as agricultural runoff and lawn fertilizers, which many states consider the greatest cause of water contamination.

In Vermont, no statewide standards exist to prevent small-scale developments from damaging riparian zones. Instead, protection is left to the discretion of individual towns and is primarily found in the form of zoning. While 80 percent of towns in Vermont have zoning systems in place, only 64 out of the 237 towns have zoning bylaws to protect river corridors and lake shorelines from unplanned development.

The United States Code references riparian buffers 14 times, but there is no comprehensive federal law to protect riparian zones. The Clean Water Act of 1972 recommends the maintenance riparian zones to reduce pollution and establishes grant programs to encourage the protection of these areas, but does not require action. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency provides both recommendations and funding for riparian zone protection as part of its Comprehensive Nutrient Management plans, but states have sole responsibility for program design and implementation.

Many states, such as Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire, have enacted statewide protection of riparian zones. Other states, such as Arkansas, have state-level programs or regulations to protect riparian zones that are less extensive than uniform standards.

Vermont has a variety of possible policy options for riparian zone protection. Taking into account federal regulations and programs, the models of other states, and Vermont's history and governmental structure, this report will present three primary options: Vermont can develop uniform statewide standards, it can take a watershed approach or it can continue with the status quo.